Tierra Whack Is the Philly Surrealist Taking Rap into Another Dimension
A day in Philadelphia with the 22-year-old creator of a strange and wonderful universe she calls 'Whack World.'
It’s four minutes to 11 on the set of Philadelphia’s only entertainment talk show. Talent was expected to arrive an hour earlier for the taping of The Q on FOX, but Tierra Whack enters the studio for her first televised performance with less than five minutes to spare. Managers and a beauty team hurricane around her and if it weren’t for a glimpse of her iridescent, confetti-like two-piece ensemble, you might have missed her. Commotion aside, the mood is tense. The walk backstage is eerily quiet with the exception of the ruffling of the tinsel from Whack’s outfit. A snippet of “Flea Market” peaks from the sound system and the host announces that Whack will arrive after the commercial break.
The rapper is relatively silent until she turns to me with wide eyes and says, “I’m nervous as fuck.”
This fear, at first, strikes me as strange, since the 22-year-old is here to celebrate of 2018’s most fearless musical debuts. At the end of May, the ambitious audiovisual effort Whack World was born. Compressing 15 tracks into 15 minutes—a more head-spinning pace than even G.O.O.D. Music’s concise recent efforts—Whack offers impossibly colorful takes on trap, R&B, and even country. At this length, it also challenges the notion of traditional albums in the social media era. Instead of being available solely on streaming services, Whack World’s 60-second tracks, are also completely accessible to Instagram users—as digestible on-the-go as it is in full. The visual element is as varied and vibrant as the music is, filled with the grotesque imagery of a Muppet-filled cemetery, a face swollen shut, and a weird taxidermy dog. Whack isn't just adding color to a gray musical landscape, it feels like she's painting with entirely new pigments.
And yet, her knee is bouncing uncontrollably with the nervous energy. She still hasn’t spoken many words other than asking for the restroom. She finds her footing when she sees her audience, which more or less seems like a friendly environment. It’s intimate, with no more than 50 guests, who mostly resemble the aunt who slips you wads of cash behind your parent’s back. “I don’t feel so nervous anymore,” Whack says, looking at the unthreatening faces in the audience during the soundcheck. Her late start meant she only had the commercial break to get it right, and the gravity of it being her first TV performance seemed to hit. During the soundcheck, feedback from the mic overpowered her vocals at times, but Whack worked through its difficulties as best as she could.
“You at home, Tierra!,” The Q’s host, Quincy Harris, shouts back at her.
For Whack, who bounced around Philadelphia as a child, Philly is what she knows best, even if the city was about to witness her rebirth.
Growing up, Whack and her mother wandered through the inner city, starting with North Philly’s Norris Street Projects. “You move somewhere and it seems like a pretty good neighborhood but then it’s not,” she said. “We would be in the playground and hear gunshots, but it was so normal to us we didn’t run. We would just pause for a minute and go back to what we were doing.”
At age nine, Whack tried her hand at poetry, after developing an affinity for Dr. Seuss books. “Green Eggs and Ham is fire,” she says calmly but declarative. “I just loved the art of rhyming words. That was a way to release all the little weird, crazy, stupid shit I was so afraid to say out loud.” An uncle gave her some advice that would inadvertently change her life; he suggested she turn her poetry into raps. Once the kids at school got wind of her talent, it became her signature. “I was receiving attention I’d never received before,” she says. “That was like my homework. I always had to come with some hot bars ready because people would always ask to hear something.”
“It was that feeling of everybody else being happy for me, but I wasn’t happy for me. —Tierra Whack”
Tierra Whack is her given name, but Dizzle Dizz was the name she soon adopted from Philadelphia’s cyphers. The underground rap scene she became a part of first took shape at the turn of the millennium. The city experienced a dropout crisis which largely affected minority students, causing talented kids to seek outlets other than their failing education system. Between 1997 and 2001, a little more than half of the city’s minority students graduated from high school. Philly’s rap scene wasn’t just adjacent to its dropout rate, but it grew in tandem with the city’s mass incarceration rate, too. State Property, the city’s aptly named rap group led by Beanie Sigel, generated a following beyond Philly through their deal with Roc-a-Fella Records. The quick-witted rapper Cassidy used freestyling to matriculate through the city, which granted him a short career in the early 2000s until he was sentenced to involuntary manslaughter in 2006. Jail time seemed to eclipse the careers of Philly’s most promising acts and it would do the same for the city’s next successor.
Meek Mill was known as the tenacious teen from the grainy videos of rap battles that not only circulated across Philly but seemed to excite virtually any rap nerd with internet access. His rise was swift, and he was quickly a cause celebrated among the city’s scene—the first potential star from this generation of gifted kids. By the time he was dubbed a XXL Freshman in 2011, Whack was on the rise locally too, a 16-year-old with a poetic flow, filling the void as the next energetic teenager in cyphers on street corners. Her first freestyle was even written to Meek Mill’s “In My Bag.” “Me and Meek go way back,” she says. “He was one of the first people to hit me up like, ‘Yo, you’re crazy.’” When he was sentenced to prison time this past November for a parole violation, Meek ended up incarcerated with a few of Whack’s family members. Meek and Whack came from similar circumstances, and his career served a template, albeit a cautionary one, one Whack would modify to fit her needs because she was never one to do the same thing as everyone else anyway.
The feeling of meeting the expectations of her mentors would become a burden to Whack’s new persona. “I felt like I was losing myself,” she says. “It was that feeling of everybody else being happy for me, but I wasn’t happy for me.” Her family moved to Atlanta a year after Dizzle Dizz took off and Whack took it as an opportunity to start fresh, without influences. Whack told The New York Times she worked at an Atlanta carwash where she cleaned the rides of 2 Chainz and T.I. until she was able to save up for her own laptop and mic. For the first time, she could experiment with her music without any restrictions.
Her time in Atlanta was brief, and in less than two years, she was back in Philly, this time on her own. "There was a time in school where I was trying to figure out which lunch table I belonged to,” she says. “Eventually, I started my own table and formed my own crew.”
Today, her crew is about eight people deep, the majority of whom are Philly natives themselves. On the way to lunch after The Q, they all want to talk about her performance, since this theoretically a celebratory moment. She does not. From where I was standing, after the early nerves, it seemed to go off mostly without a hitch. She utilized the stage and she engaged with the audience throughout her three-song set, but once she got off stage she slouched into a stool and returned to her nervous fidgeting. In the passenger seat, Tierra is jittery and seems slightly agitated, firing off rapid-fire jokes at pedestrians dashing into the street. Humor seems to be her choice of deflection. Someone says, “Don’t beat yourself up,” at the rear of the car. She doesn’t respond, but commands control of the aux cord, washing out any voices by blasting ye as loud as she can stand.
At lunch, she’s ready to talk. “I was like ‘Wow this crowd is weird,’” she says. “If it was 1,000 people I could’ve killed it.” Two weeks ago, she was performing at Philly’s Roots Picnic, a festival that she’d snuck into a year before. “When you do Roots Picnic, it’s like you’ve almost made it.”
Her photographer Nick tries to capture photos before the food arrives. “Can you stop?” she asks in her permanently sarcastic tone. He responds: “They’ll be people who don’t know you doing this soon. What are you going to do then?”
“I’ll just throw food at them and yell FOOD FIGHT!”
She takes a moment to survey the photos. “I look so mean,” she says. “If I weren’t so vocal people would probably think I’m mean as fuck.” Whack’s brand of sarcasm isn’t for the faint-hearted. “A lot of people don’t get it,” she continues. “They just think we’re being assholes. We just like to have fun and hurt each other’s feelings to prepare us for the real world.”
Whack’s off-the-wall humor is part of what’s set her apart from her contemporaries. During SXSW this year she took over Noisey’s Instagram in the lead up to her performance at a showcase. Perhaps anticipating the poop emoji on her nail in Whack World’s “Black Nails,” she opted out of offering formal introduction on the takeover, instead superzooming on piece of shit in a toilet. Literal shit, which caused a mild-to-moderate panic among some of the VICE’s social media team. Who had we turned the keys to our accounts over to?
I’ve been waiting to ask this all day: What’s the deal with shit? “I honestly just like to shit,” she says, super casually. “I usually shit nervously before my shows, so that’s how that happened. You guys didn’t think that was funny, huh?” She pauses for a moment and tells me about a time when “Dookie” was a childhood nickname. “Shit happens.” This is how her brain works. She takes personal experience and delivers it as straightforward as possible. If any of it seems strange, well, that’s on you.
Her everyday conversation is interspersed with random asides. Her filter is nonexistent and she takes the temperature of the conversation, acting as the comedic relief during awkward pauses. At one point, after hours of the tinsel from her outfit lightly poking her through the fabric, she blurts, “I think my arms are bleeding, but I’m OK with that.” Her sarcasm is piercing, so I double check a few times to make sure I’m not misinterpreting her meaning. “I lie a lot,” she says with a slightly serious stare. “I’m lying right now,” as a smirk spreads across her face. She punctuates otherwise unremarkable exchanges with a Fran Drescher-style “thanks,” more times than you can possibly count. Once she's gotten out of her head about the morning's performance, she keeps things light—conversation tends to move free associatively.
“They’ll be times where I’m seriously crying and I’ll walk in the bathroom to go get some tissue and I’ll start cracking the fuck up. —Tierra Whack”
Plates of shrimp BLTs and decadent burgers float past Whack’s face, but she settles for wings. Eating all but one because “it looked weird” transports her mind to “MUMBO JUMBO,” her video debut about a hellish visit to the dentist that’s sung mostly in gibberish. “I cracked my tooth eating wings once,” she says. “I didn’t have health insurance for a minute, which is why I was suffering so long. I finally got enough money to get it pulled and when I called my friend, she couldn’t understand a word I was saying.” It proved to be her breakthrough single, both because of the Tarantino-esque absurdity of the video and the self-conscious blurriness of the track itself. Good luck making out majority of the lyrics, if there are any at all. It’s the idea of mumble rap pushed to its cartoonish endpoints, which is sort’ve how Whack tends to approach all the sounds she toys with.
Later, her managers make a sneaker run on South Street, but she’d rather stay in the car. She can’t seem to shake how unprepared she felt for her performance earlier that day. I ask if she has anxiety, and she feels seen. “I’ve never admitted that to anyone out loud before,” she says. “Sometimes I just need to go in a corner and tell everyone to shut the fuck up.” She’s visibly upset, her knee returning to the nervous bounce from this morning. She searches her name on Twitter, engaging with her fans and a few celebrities anyway (Timbaland casually replied to her Instagram story, no big deal.). Her phone is covered with a “Whack Lives Matter” sticker, a gift from her DJ, Zach. Zach sports a “WHACK” tattoo in her handwriting on his throat, an ode to the autographs Whack gave at her early shows. The tattoo is permanent proof that the people of Philly really believe in her.
If nothing else, Whack World is evidence that that faith isn’t misplaced. The record is powerfully concise, but it didn’t start that way. Whack recorded around 60 songs, just to whittle it down to 15. After experimenting with different sounds, she’d have days where she’d scrap her ideas completely, resetting the clock. “To be honest, I’m selfish as an artist,” she says. “I’m doing what I want to do and what I want to hear.”
The record is both surreal and literal, which puts her in the lineage of eccentric rappers of the 90s, while asserting a distinctive style of her own. “Hungry Hippos” sports lush lyrics about her inimitable style. “He needed swag and I provide it / Bite it, open up, and bite it,” she sings. In the video, she is quite literally reenacting the Hasbro game, eating pearls off a human body. Her visuals feel like the love child of Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes, with Ludacris as her fairy godfather. “I just needed a way to express so many feelings at once,” she says, explaining why she decided on 60-second tracks. “As Dizzle Dizz, people told me you have to stick to one sound. Now I’m just doing whatever the fuck I want.”
“To be honest, I’m selfish as an artist. I’m doing what I want to do and what I want to hear. —Tierra Whack”
Whack has a knack for turning everyday objects into a song with layers and a plot, all in in a minute or less. She does it on “Bug’s Life,” centering a loose narrative on a can of Off spray and again on “Silly Sam,” naming as many party games as she can as metaphors for a person playing games in your life. Drawing from the details of everyday life is how she works though, with a Bop-It console and 70s art books in her studio sessions for inspiration. “4 Wings,” an introspective standout on the project, bares a hook that’s just her order: “Salt, pepper, ketchup, and hot sauce / Fried hard ‘cause I do not like soft.” At times, Whack World can draw on elements of fantasy, but Whack’s messaging is more often extremely deliberate. “That was my Philly anthem because we all know that’s a struggle meal, but it’s still good,” she said of “4 Wings.” “I just wanted people to know regardless of the weird shit, I still know where I come from.”
Her favorite isn’t a rap song at all, but an R&B cut that could have been produced decades ago. “Hookers” tells the story of a close friend who couldn’t afford to leave a toxic relationship. “I knew she was stuck in this situation where it would be different if she were the breadwinner,” she says. “It’s like get on your fucking grind and get out. It still sticks with me.” On “Dr. Seuss,” inspired by the book It’s Not Easy Being Big, Whack distorts the hell out of her voice until it hits an unregistrable low and the lyrics get just as dark as she sounds. “You ever laugh just to keep from crying / Think less about living and more about dying.”
“I have really dark, sick humor,” she says. “There will be times where I’m seriously crying and I’ll walk in the bathroom to go get some tissue and I’ll start cracking the fuck up.” Whack contains multitudes, which is part of the appeal. If she can conjure a whole complex world in 15 minutes, what universes could she bring forth in the future?
On our way to a photoshoot, the city’s preeminent rap station Power 99 is fixed on the radio dial. Six years ago, looking for her big break, she used to hang around the station with her old manager, who happened to know some of the people that worked there. They’d meet celebrities and famous rappers passing through and she’d do her best to endear herself to them. “I’d tell them I was a big fan and that I want to spit something for them and then I would,” she remembers. Over time, she rapped to the likes of Nas, Jeezy, and A$AP Rocky. The Harlem rapper even said said she had a “Kendrick flow.” Video from that session still lives online, showing Rocky listening intently as she raps in double time, and shaking his head at the punchlines she lands. “You’re only 16?” he asked. “You’re talented.”
Even as that talent continues to flourish, she’s still sheepish about those compliments. “I’ll never be on the level of my idols,” she says. “They’re like fairies to me, I can’t wait until you go on YouTube and have to search ‘Tierra Whack type beat.’”
Still, that time feels closer than Whack is willing to admit. A billboard for Whack World on the side of I-676 provides a lift to everyone’s mood. Zach managed to get the occasion on camera, but Whack just responded with her signature “thanks.” Her sarcasm is a defense mechanism for her modesty. She still works a regular job, as a doorwoman to be exact. I ask if she’s got an exit plan, and the answer is simple: “when they fire me.” She started the day on TV, and she’s in the midst of a whirlwind of praise for her debut record—a profile in the New York Times, and Pitchfork’s coveted Best New Music title. Now there are literal signs around us in support of her transformation into Tierra Whack.
Once we arrive at the photoshoot, Whack is trying to get in the zone. The studio is filled with strange props, like a single silicone boob, which feels like it aligns with the bizarre backdrop of Whack World. “Can we change the song? I don’t want to listen to me,” she says, opting for Syd’s “Moving Mountains.” But in some senses, there’s no escaping herself. The photographer interrupts the shoot at one point to let everyone know that a friend of hers just texted her that she too just past Tierra’s billboard. Whack responds with another reluctant grimace, likely the first of many more to come.
Rachel Stern is a photographer based in Philadelphia. Follow her on Instagram.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.