In Tierra Whack’s world, MTV stands for “men touch vaginas,” ABC means “all boys cry,” and BET stands for “bitches eat tacos.” That’s according to “Cable Guy,” one of the most accessible points of entry on her shapeshifting, impressive debut, Whack World, a swirling realm all her own where songs vanish just as unsystematically as they materialize. Welcome to an entirely new dimension.
Of course, “accessible” seems like the wrong word to describe Whack’s ephemeral wonder. It’s surely immediate, but that actually undersells how easy the adventurous Whack World — which is comprised of 15 songs, all precisely one minute long — is to get lost inside of. Without much warning, bouncy beats suddenly lift and yield to toy keyboards or looping carnival melodies, the last phrase Whack sings still hanging in that half second of empty space.
Barely four minutes in and somehow already a quarter of the way into the experience, she deadpans, “I’m not perfect but I improvise.” A few tracks later, on a song called “Fuck Off,” Whack grabs hold of a cartoonish country twang to spew hexes involving ass rashes. It’s hilarious. It’ll also give you whiplash if you’re not careful.
Whack grew up in Philadelphia and battle-rapped in her teens under the name Dizzle Dizz. But she wanted more. She idolized Lauryn Hill and André 3000 for their innovation and creative command. “I’m like, I want to be like them. I want to be an artist,” Whack told MTV News in an interview at the top of 2018.
Eventually, after completing school in Atlanta, she cut the wild “Mumbo Jumbo” after a trip to the dentist left her mouth swollen. The track is nearly post-vocal, with Whack’s garbled delivery becoming more important than anything she could be communicating clearly. It came out under her given name in late 2017, but it was just a primer for what she’d soon prove to be capable of.
Whack World splits that kind of bold pioneering into 15 shards of shrapnel; Whack adopts new musical personas as she sees fit and discards them in seconds. For music obsessives, this kind of brevity evokes a key, if potentially obsolete, question: Is Whack World an album or an EP? If 2018 really is the year of the EP, long defined as a music collection of less than 30 minutes, and if albums are basically already dead anyway, then Whack’s contribution snugly works as an EP. Right?
Or maybe albums are just shorter now. This year, Kanye West oversaw an entire fleet of new albums clocking in at barely over 20 minutes. Rappers like Valee, Earl Sweatshirt, and Chris Crack crammed more songs onto releases by keeping them lean, yet brimming with unique flavor. Or maybe it doesn’t matter at all. Whack World, naturally, is unconcerned by these semantic squabbles. The artist has world-building to do.
Whack focused on crafting something complete and holistic, including a full-album visual that also doubles as a short film. She partnered with directors Thibaut Duverneix and Mathieu Léger for a series of interconnected, moody vignettes that allow Whack to inhabit precisely who she wants to be for each track — say, a bloated insect victim on “Bugs Life” and a childlike songbird in “Pet Cemetery”‘s Sesame Street-esque puppet sequence. On release day, Whack also unveiled each clip (and therefore, each song) individually on Instagram in the ultimate act of meeting music fans where they already live. After you’ve experienced the songs via the visual, it’s hard to hear them without conjuring those striking images. And maybe that’s the point.
Last week, at Billboard‘s Women in Music event, Whack presented the Trailblazer award to another pioneer in the field of (e)motion pictures, Janelle Monáe. But then Monáe flipped the script. In a series of escalating praises that left Whack shaking her head in gracious disbelief, Monáe delivered a knockout compliment. “I just want to thank you for sacrificing your time to present this award to me,” she said, looking directly at Whack.
There’s truth there. From the time Whack walked out onstage until when she walked into the back together with Monáe, the whole encounter lasted about six minutes. That’s six Tierra Whack songs right there.