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It’s a Whack, ‘Whack World’: Get to Know Tierra Whack

The exciting new rapper from Philly offers a dizzying look inside her brain on her multimedia debut

YouTube/Ringer illustration

One thing you could do, instead of convincing yourself to like or ignore the new 23-minute Kanye West album, is get familiar with Philadelphia newcomer Tierra Whack. You won’t regret it, and it’ll take even less of your time. Her debut album—a “visual auditory project” called Whack World—is 15 tracks, and just 15 minutes long.

It would sound way cooler and much more sensational to say that Tierra Whack was forged in the fires of Philadelphia’s battle rap scene, and that she’d known it all along, but that wouldn’t be quite accurate. Think of her decision to make music like you would someone joining in a game of double dutch. Whack—and that is her legal, given name—began penning spoken word poetry in composition notebooks, and was spurred on by both of her parents to stop merely keeping time with the rope and hop on in. It was her dad who first convinced her to put her words to production, which later led to her freestyling over Meek Mill’s “In My Bag”; it was her mom that encouraged her not to hide her talents. “It was like a cypher thing,” said Whack, who originally went by the name Dizzle Dizz, during a recent interview with The New York Times. “I’d see a camera, a big group of guys and my mom would tell me to show them that I could rap.”

And she can rap—her ass off, in fact; A$AP Rocky said she has “that Kendrick flow”—although she chose not to on her wonderfully strange breakout non-single “Mumbo Jumbo.” I say “non-single” because there may be two fully understandable words in it and, paired with the striking video filled with zombified people moping along to nowhere, “Mumbo Jumbo” seems a not-so-subtle jab at depressive mumble rap. It didn’t start out that way—straight after a trip to the dentist’s office, Whack loopily hummed out a reference track, chose not to add words, and a phenomenon is just what it happened to become.

She’s eager to follow a tangent wherever it leads, and that oddball quality is probably why Solange thinks we—the royal we—don’t deserve Whack. (According to a March Billboard interview, Whack sent her a “Tierra Whack is my mom” T-shirt and Solange wears it proudly.) She grasps at something simple and tumbles headlong into profundity, much like Alice and her infamous rabbit hole. Except instead of a tea party for an unbirthday, on Whack World—whose trippy visuals were directed by Thibaut Duverneix and Mathieu Leger and diced into minute-long vignettes perfect for Instagram—the rapper finds herself at a nail salon. And then a taxidermist’s office, and then a chicken joint, and then a trailer home, and eventually a cemetery, where she dances.

“I like creepy shit,” Tierra Whack said in October. “Shit that’s gonna make you ask why and look at what everyone is doing, asking why?” Why is certainly a question you’ll be asking a lot when exploring Whack World. The visual component boasts a lot of moving parts fitting together in wholly unexpected ways, in the tradition of Missy Elliott, or Busta Rhymes. “Cable Guy” of course stars a literal cable guy, but it could also be a breakup record, or a song about the lonely feeling when your phone goes dry. There is Whack, rocking back and forth in her chair wearing a wrap cap and a listless glaze, without even the TV to escape into. There’s also this joke, which is funny in that it’s not the sort of thought you’d usually encounter outside of your own head:

It goes like ABC (all boys cry)
MTV (men touch vaginas)
BET (bitches eat tacos)

This is tossed off, much like the thought that she would have blown up overnight “if she was white” is on “Bugs Life.” She giggles, but her swollen face says it’s not really a joke, especially when you take into consideration the Queen from that Pixar movie, lamenting the locusts that come and eat all the ants’ food year after year: “That’s our lot in life, it’s not a lot, but it’s our life.” There’s more weaponized nostalgia here: The Hasbro Hungry Hungry Hippos game is used to take aim at posers who would bite her style (“Hungry Hippos”) and the aforementioned Alice in Wonderland gets a nod on “Dr. Seuss,” where Whack sits in a shrunken house and riffs on image obsession and the pitfalls of vanity.

In addition to playing with visual concepts and her voice, Whack also experiments with genre—there is an actual country song on this album. I mean, there are also elements of bedroom R&B, bossa nova, pop, and melodic hip-hop, but “Fuck Off” is by far the biggest jolt here. It’s a “hi haters” record essentially, but with a charming, peculiar tint; over what sounds like a merry-go-round at the state fair, Whack sincerely hopes “your ass breaks out in a rash.”

Each song on Whack World is a complete sketch, but leaves you wondering where the other three minutes are. It’s a dizzying first offering; an invitation to Tierra Whack’s mind that leaves you desperately wanting more. Doesn’t that sound like more fun than trying to parse whether or not Kanye is too big to fail?