On the Verge of Quitting Music, Mykki Blanco Made His Debut Album
We speak to the 30-year-old artist about the ups and downs of the last four years and premiere his new song "Loner."
All photos by Julia Burlingham
Until recently, Mykki Blanco didn’t consider himself a musician. “I wasn’t that 17-year-old kid who wanted to be a rapper,” the 30-year-old artist admits with zero shame, sipping on a Bloody Mary under a blue denim bucket hat inside Manhattan’s Roxy Hotel. “I was a weird, artsy noise freak—I kind of stumbled into being a rapper.” For an accidental rapper, Mykki Blanco has found a considerable measure of success over the last five years: 2012’s Cosmic Angel: The Illuminati Prince/ss was a genre-blurring lightning rod of a mixtape, and 2014’s Gay Dog Food found Mykki further embracing his noise and punk bona fides with contributions from legends and kindred spirits such as Kathleen Hanna and Cities Aviv.
With the cresting wave of hype surrounding Mykki, label interest followed: meetings were had with XL and Capitol, both proving ultimately fruitless. Plus, despite a regular touring regiment, money—or at least, the amount one would need to record their proper debut album—was running low. “I started to get super disheartened,” he states. “I had all this attention, and it was starting to fuck with my head. I just felt trapped.”
Time passed, and Mykki’s interests started to waver; in a statement on his HIV-positive status in June of last year, he suggested that he was done with music and was preparing to explore a career as a journalist and activist instead. Then, the venerable electronic label !K7—whose signee, trip-hop legend Tricky, had enlisted Mykki’s contributions on 2014’s Adrian Thaws—stepped in. “As I was on depression’s death bed, they said to me, 'We would like to help you create your album,'” he beams ecstatically.
The result of that partnership is Mykki, a complex and fascinating album that also represents Mykki Blanco’s boldest artistic statement to date. The jarring soundscapes and party-hardy vibe haven’t necessarily vanished, but they exist alongside a compositions that are unabashedly lush and, at times, downright orchestral—a new wrinkle to his sound facilitated by Mykki’s main collaborator, singer/songwriter and music video director Woodkid (Lana Del Rey, Katy Perry).
“When I said I was going to stop doing music, one of the only people that emailed me was Woodkid,” Mykki exclaims. “He wrote me a one-paragraph email that said, ‘I know that we don’t know each other well, but I think that you’re too talented to stop making music. If you’d like to come to Paris to record with me, let's see what happens.’ Because he's a gay musician, he can empathize with some of the feelings I had about homophobia. During our sessions, I was like, ‘You know what? I actually forgot how fun music is.’ For the first time in a while, I had the freedom to not have to look over my shoulder and just do it.”
A record that’s both challenging and sonically inviting, Mykki sounds like the work of a musician following their arrow wherever it lands, with little regard for previous expectation or reputation. And naturally, Mykki Blanco wouldn’t have it any other way. “People like Mykki Blanco because they think Mykki Blanco is this fun party persona,” he explains patiently. “But none of this is persona. People actually don’t know who the fuck I am.”
Stream the premiere of "Loner" from Mykki Blanco's upcoming debut Mykki.
Noisey: Drugs play a considerable role in the album’s lyrics.
Mykki Blanco: I was actually sober for three months while writing the album, which was kinda hardcore. I’m not sober anymore, but when you're sober, it brings all of your shit to the surface. I even had an anxiety attack one time because there was nothing to block out all the stuff that I hadn't dealt with.
When I first started touring, I had no one to safeguard us and I didn't know any better. I’d drink and party from Thursday to Sunday, and I started consuming more drugs and alcohol than I ever had in my life. Shit got really intense for a minute. The drug persona, honestly, was kind of like wearing a beard for me—I could hang with the boys and not be this faggot rapper if I do drugs with them. This is what we had in common, so I’d use drugs as a way to shield my queerness. I had to get the fuck out of LA and clean myself up. I worked out my shit.
Is there a stigma against mental illness and treatment in the black community?
In the black community, if someone's like “I'm gonna go see a therapist,” people are like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” It's not necessarily normal to talk about your problems in that way. “You just need to make more money, and that’s gonna make you feel better about yourself.” I actually wouldn’t consider myself a depressive person, though. People have called me a faggot since I was like five years old, which hardens you.
I have so many tattoos because it’s a way you learn how to defend yourself against society. I remember being 16 and being like, “I'm gonna get a shit-ton of tattoos because I don't want people to fuck with me anymore.” In my early 20s, I’d get into fistfights all the time because I was like, “Society hates gay people so I need to be ultra-militant to buck this stereotype and defend myself and others.” Then I realized that you can't go through life that way. My mom once told me, “I'm not supporting you to be average—I'm supporting you to be above average, and I expect you to be above average.” You have to surpass the things that happen to you, and you can't let them own you—if they do, then you’re owned by your past and you can't exist in the present.
Do you feel like queer culture has become commodified by the mainstream?
Definitely, but heteronormativity isn’t necessarily to blame for that. I do think that it's gross when people start to literally speak and act and use the terms of a culture—but then when Orlando happens, all these people who are making money off the pink fucking dollar, don't say anything. People want to pick and choose when they pander to their gay audience. Sometimes I feel like people always box in something I'm doing as a statement—and maybe it's a statement to you because you come from a community that doesn’t live and represent what I'm talking about. There are real people that live this shit every day.
We’re close to the same age, and the message of “High School Never Ends” definitely resonated with me.
That song’s reflective of different experiences that I had—coming from a single parent home, going to fancy private schools, dropping out of them, coming to New York City, realizing that class doesn't matter, but then that class does matter when you have all of these extremely wealthy friends that you can't keep up with. You're the kid that they want to party with, but you can't afford to go to Paris and you don't get invited to the Hamptons.
When I came to New York City, the decadent and extremely wealthy socialites still ran the city—people trying to re-live a Warholian kind of New York. I went through a period where I was HIV-positive and nobody knew, so I was sexually and personally withdrawn, so it was awkward for me to write a lot of these songs at first. I’m not used to writing about myself in a nuanced way.
When you revealed you’re HIV-positive to the public, did you receive any backlash from industry types?
There’s this really big producer whose work is super celebrity-driven—when I first started Mykki Blanco, he supported me. I saw him on an airplane in Switzerland, and he literally acted like he wanted to run the fuck away from me. He looked at me like, “What are you doing out of the country traveling?” Then it was like, “Oh, you actually look healthy.”
The people that I probably should’ve never worked with—or that I won't work with again—are gonna completely remove themselves from anything that ever had to do with me. I'll never show up on their radar again, and that's amazing, because that makes room for the people who genuinely champion me. Sometimes I've gotten so depressed because I can't change the fact that mainstream hip-hop may not ever be able to handle a rapper that's in drag. But having people in the industry support me has given me. I think this album is the best music I've ever made, and as long as I stay close to the culture and make sure my bars are fire, my music will have the potential to reach a wider audience than it ever has. We'll see.
Larry Fitzmaurice is a senior editor at VICE. Follow him on Twitter.