Tierra Whack has a message in her new single. It's low-key. Hidden. "Mumbo Jumbo," which she released in early October, is sung entirely in gibberish, and its video has earned raves.
In the video's eerily crisp, blood-crimson-and-white medical office, we see Whack in the dentist's chair, eventually emerging to reveal a new, too-wide, creepy smile. She walks outside onto a smoky, post-apocalyptic street and finds others who have a smile just like her.
Kevin Abstract, the founding emcee of the alternative hip-hop collective Brockhampton, called it the "best music video I have seen all year." Since its October premiere, it's been viewed nearly 150,000 times.
"The day before [I recorded it], I got my tooth pulled," Whack said. "It's funny, because I called one of my friends and she couldn't understand what I was saying. Because I had the gauze in my mouth and I was like leh-leh-leh-mbleh — you know, the mumbling or whatever. It all kind of happened around the same time."
Singing in gibberish is actually a tactic among rappers and singers to plan out the flows, or rhythmic timing, to their vocals. When they've got the cadences metered out, they go back in and add actual language.
Whack started the same way, but she liked the gibberish version so much, she kept it.
But with unintelligible lyrics, fans have projected meaning onto what they hear and see. Did she say, "When I wave goodbye, they all wave hello?" Are those smiles representative of a world falling apart? Is this a larger commentary on hip-hop radio?
While she did plan out a meaning for the lyrics, she said the inspiration itself wasn't that profound. "Many people think it's so much more. That's just all that happened. Just living my life," Whack said. "It just all came together. Little by little, piece by piece, just adding stuff to the whole thing. It all made sense in the end."
Whack, 22, isn't sure that people are ready to hear her, anyway. At least that's her explanation for why she's released a string of singles, but has yet to drop an EP, mixtape or album.
So far, the North Philly native has been managing to build momentum by releasing music at a trickling pace. "Mumbo Jumbo" is her only release in 2017. And if you want to know the meaning of the gibberish, turn on the captions on YouTube.
"You have to read the subtitles backwards to understand what I'm trying to say," she said. (She's not going to spoonfeed you, and neither are we.)
At the Germantown studio where she works, Whack sat on the sofa the other day, doodling with crayons arranged for a photo shoot. Oftentimes, she explained, she'll be at the studio, have an idea, float it by her team, and they figure out how to make it happen.
Here's a woman-scorned song for Whack: a beat with a '50s barbershop feel, verses that list all that she's had to put up with, and a hook anchored around the line, "Why you leave me hanging?" Whack remembers wondering aloud in the studio, "What hangs?" Kenete Simms, her engineer and one of her producers, suggested "titties."
"Saggy Tits" became the title. That's her humor; that's her trademark.
Despite her eye-grabbing visuals and bright, fresh wardrobe, she's really not that into fashion. And although music writer Judnick Mayard pointed out, "her rap is very on trend; it fits the current lexicon," Whack doesn't follow too many current artists. She makes, draws, raps and wears what she likes.
"If I'm not at the studio, I'm at home. If I'm at home, I'm just watching a bunch of horror movies," she said. She recently built a set for a shoot out of hundreds of sanitary pads, before painting her name with fake blood. One of the pads is still attached to a laptop in the studio.
Mayard became a fan of Whack "because she's a weirdo.
"She always seems like she's rapping with a smirk," Mayard said. The first Whack track that she heard was "Toe Jam," and from the opening, the rapper's oddball taste struck her. She thinks it's apparent when artists are faking their weirdness. Not Whack. Mayard said, "You can tell that it's her."
When Whack was a young girl, her mother played a lot of Outkast, Missy Elliot, Eminem and Busta Rhymes. Those artists are still her idols. "It was weird, but I liked that," she remembered. "It was like 'Oh my God.' I got closer and closer to the TV."
There are still plenty of YouTube clips of Whack freestyling as a teenager. In that very Philly way, she spit punchline after punchline to prove herself, for radio spots and the internet. Back then she used to go by Dizzle Dizz.
When she was 16, her family moved to Atlanta where she had to finish high school. She scrapped Dizzle Dizz in favor of her real name — what's now become something of a slogan in her lyrics and marketing.
Eventually, Whack moved back to Philly on her own, supporting herself through a job as a doorman in Center City.
"I open and close the door for rich, white people," she said. "[Other] people see me all the time, too. They see my name tag; it's Tierra… And they're like, 'Oh my God, why do you work here?' And I'm like, 'I don't know. I'm trying to figure it out.'"
Music blog Pigeons and Planes wrote that "Mumbo Jumbo" "plays out like a twisted reflection of mumble rap and current hip-hop trends—even if [Whack} insists that wasn't her original intention." That's been a popular take.
Mayard finds that interpretation "demeaning to the music." Society gives more value to black art with critical, radical messages, according to Mayard, and it's if not there, some people will even look for them.
"There is a need to assign complexities to the work," she said. "You're only allowed to say something about civilization. You're not allowed to be frivolous. They see [black women] as inherently political."
Whack maintains that she's just pursuing what feels good.
"Growing up, [my idols] always pushed the envelope," she said. "I always felt more comfortable doing what I wanted to do. Because at the end of the day, I'll be happy.