Interviews | Music | Radio

Know His Roots

Matt Muse on his new project, Nappy Talk

Courtesy Matt Muse

When I meet Matt Muse on a bright August morning, the South Side-raised rapper is on top of his game. The night before our interview at WHPK 88.5 FM’s broadcast station in Hyde Park, he’d doubled as featured artist and host for Young Chicago Authors’ WordPlay, the city’s longest-running open mic. Earlier in the summer, he’d performed at Taste of Chicago and Fox 32’s Good Morning Chicago, and in the days to come, he’d head out to New York City for a sold-out performance with Sofar Sounds and to celebrate his twenty-sixth birthday.

But beneath the promotional frenzy was Muse’s clearest statement to date: Nappy Talk, a freewheeling exploration of Chicago, self-love, role models, and natural hair. Across its seven tracks, Nappy Talk draws upon a variety of inspirations: there are nods to radical politics and Kanye, verses informed by experiences at Northern Illinois University and by Young Chicago Authors. The features, too, crisscross Chicago’s rap landscape—from Bronzeville duo Mother Nature to Evanston’s Femdot, plus a star turn from The Boy Illinois.    

Yet it’s the development of Muse’s own style—from the sing-song hooks to the gruff, double-time verses—that makes Nappy Talk an exciting listen. He raps plenty on Nappy Talk, but in the album’s most memorable moment, he boils it down to the only seven words you need: “Gambino for president and Muse for mayor.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full version of this interview that aired on SSW Radio, the Weekly’s radio hour and podcast:

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What’s it like for you to host an event like Young Chicago Authors?

It’s really great. See, I work at YCA, so I’m hosting the entire month of July, but I featured last night as well as hosted, and it went really well. This is my second year there, so I’ve done it a good amount of times. But it’s always a challenge, and each week is a challenge in itself. ‘Cause it’s always a new thing that’s going on, but it’s a positive challenge. You deal with new folks coming in being nervous to perform, you deal with people not being as respectful to the space as you want, but there’s this positive energy that always looms over the room and just always solves everything. So it’s always good.

Well, you’ve had a really busy week, because your new project—Nappy Talk—just dropped. Congratulations. And you were at Taste of Chicago over the weekend, how was that?

Taste was really really fun. I don’t normally say performances are fun, but [that’s] specifically the word I’ve been using, because I actually had a great time.

And that’s rare, right?

I wouldn’t even say it’s rare, just more so… performances are like, “Yeah, it went really well because I moved the crowd.” Or, “Man, I could’ve done this better”—blah blah blah. But I wasn’t really concerned with that when I got offstage. Everybody in the crowd seemed to have a smile on their face and enjoy themselves. And I enjoyed myself, so.

So it seems like your new stuff’s reaching people.

Yeah.

I know you’ve been performing for some time now. Could you talk about how you got started?

Oh man. I’m twenty-five, I started performing my stuff to the public when I was eighteen, when I first started…and then I just performed a whole lot at Northern Illinois University. It was just like, a practice grounds for me. Anybody you ask that went to the different events in the Black community at NIU would tell you that I was performing at everything. Like, I was extra [laughs]—but if I would stand up and speak at an event, I would rap first, and then do an announcement about my organization that I was in. So I’ve always been performing.

You didn’t ask me this, but something that’s changed throughout the times is like…. Now that I’ve graduated—I graduated two years ago, May 2016—and just been in Chicago working on the music, I’ve been trying to see what I need to improve on in my performances. And I know, I used to yell a whole lot. Like, I used to yell into the mic! And I still know that I yell and talk loud, but [I’m working on] being more intentional with raising [my] voice. Because a mic is supposed to project you, that’s literally what it’s for. And so that’s something I’ve been working on and practicing, just, how do I have a presence in my voice without yelling.

Speaking of collaboration: there are some really great features on Nappy Talk. Did you and Femdot meet through YCA?

Yeah, I met him maybe two years back, 2015. I thought, “Yo, this is dope,” liked his vibe, and just connected. And we had been trying to get a song together for a long time, and I kind of changed my approach to it. At first I was too busy and he was too busy. Then I was like, “You know what? Let’s just try this, I’ve got this song about this thing we both like, are you interested?”

Is that “Dragonball Z”?

Yeah. And all of these songs were inspired by my decision to not cut my hair. And they didn’t become a project until November or December.

That’s a pretty fast turnaround.

Yeah. So when I first made it, the song he’s on specifically, it was just a fun song that I was going to drop as a single. And “Negro Saiyan,” the concept was a song that I had had in my head for a year and a half before I even got a beat or anything like that. So I met this producer in Toronto over last summer, like August or September. I thought, “Yo, this is dope,” and I hit up Femdot like, “Yo, you like Dragonball Z, you want to rap about it?” He’s like, “Yeah,” and I was like: this song’s so good, I’m going to put it on the album.

Courtesy Matt Muse

Courtesy Matt Muse

Yeah, I think it speaks pretty well to Nappy Talk as a whole—in that it’s a play on words, but it’s also really serious, about making yourself heard, getting your voice out…that’s just cool. Speaking of hair, can we talk about the cover?

Yeah, absolutely. So, what I wanted the cover to feature was some form of the process that keeps my hair looking the way it does. I get twist-outs, two-strand twists very frequently, at least once a month, to put coils in it. So initially it was going to be a cover of someone actually doing that to my hair. But I don’t know, I kind of vacated from that idea, because there are a lot of album covers that feature that, and how can mine be different?

Then it was like, okay, what if we just show a part of the process, you don’t know exactly what the person’s doing, but you know that they’re doing something to my hair, and they have the spray bottle. Which is actually olive oil in her hand. So initially it was just going to be a close-up pic where you could just see her hand. But something happened: the photographer was taking a whole bunch of shots at one time, and he accidentally took a picture of the full view where you can see her. So she’s only standing on that stool because she’s short, and she couldn’t reach my head the proper way for the picture. But when we’re going through the pictures, we like the ones up close, but there’s something about that framing that was like—yo, this is the one.

So about two weeks into me finishing up the album cover, I switched it from one of the close-up shots, to the one of her. And in the close-up shots, I had on a jacket, whereas in this other shot I have on the Colin Kaepernick shirt. And I don’t think a lot of people noticed that I’m wearing a shirt with Colin Kaepernick on it.

Yeah. I noticed throughout the album and the single artwork, the photos are in black and white, except certain colors pop. Could you tell me more about that?

It was something we did on accident that looked really cool. I won’t say on accident—I didn’t ask for it to be done. The photographer, Jhaylen Cherry, who’s an amazing photographer—we were doing a photoshoot that was unrelated to anything, just a winter photoshoot. And we went outside, I had this yellow jacket on that I brought for the shoot, and there was this yellow wire going across the top of where we were at, and there was this yellow Volkswagen Jetta. And he was like, let’s take your picture in front of that Jetta, and let me do this cool thing real quick. And he did it, and I loved it, and I was like: this looks so cool, I’m going to [use this effect on] the album cover. So it was a beautiful mistake.

The Kaepernick shirt has me thinking about all the references to Black heroes on the opening track. It’s a really powerful way to kick off the album. What were you thinking about when you made that, what did you want to get across with that?

Yeah, I think, like, it’s two things. It fits right into the title of the song, which is “Nappy N****a Winnin’.” When you think about Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Dennis Rodman, and Kobe, they all were champions. Well, number one, they’re all Black men. Number two, champions. Number three, they all had some form of hair at some time during their career. I think Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson had short hair, but because of the time that they came up in, I feel like any kind of hair made them, and just being Black…it was looked down upon. And specifically Kobe, when [his jersey] was No. 8, the afro was the thing. So it was [about] embodying all three characteristics. And the names rhyme too.

“Shea Butter Baby” is one of my favorite tracks. Who was the feature on that? And the production is incredible.

So, I wrote the whole song. But what’s amazing is when I sat down to write it, the person singing the hook, her voice literally played in my head. The hook hit me in the middle of the night, it was like two-thirty, three o’clock in the morning, and I just started singing it in her voice. So I was like, she has to be on this song. Her name is Shawnee Dez, and if you’re not familiar with her music, you should definitely check her out. She’s just an amazing solo singer that I met at a Sofar Sounds show last Spring—she went before me and I was like, oh, she’s really good. Beautiful spirit, nice personality, and I just always loved her voice.

Just talking more about your work as a whole: The SiKK Tape was really conceptual, and I’m just now realizing how focused Nappy Talk is. What’s next for you? How do you see this as part of your growth as an artist?

Man, I’m glad everyone’s pulling things from it and finding all the little intricacies in it, because I was like: yo, this is finna be my most laid-back—like, unintentional, in air-quotes—project. But I think that when I sit down to write songs, it’s always intentional, it’s hard for me not to put those little things in there. So I’m gonna just keep doing what I want to do. Like, I think with The SiKK Tape I was putting it on myself to make a certain type of sound, this grandiose album I wanted to be so amazing…whereas with Nappy Talk, I want you to enjoy it. I want you to play it and have fun and vibe out.

On “Getting to It,” you rap that you have “seven words for a naysayer.” What are they?

People ask me that! You just have to listen to the next seven words and count to seven. It’s “Gambino for president and Muse for mayor.”

Can we talk about the Kanye references on the album?

First of all, the Kanye references exist because I love Kanye. Kanye has been a huge influence, point blank. Specifically, in “Don’t Tweak,” I rapped “since Ye had pink polos and a backpack, my head’s been lost and I can’t Google Maps back.” Kanye was such a huge inspiration, you know, growing up with his music. When he dropped Late Registration, which is my favorite album of all time, and then Graduation, they were motivators for me. I was a high school kid who was nervous about everything, I was shy. And they—and some of Common’s albums—were the first self-confidence, in who I was and where I’m from, that I found in my music.  I think the “head been lost” lyric is like: “Yo, you’re crazy to be doing this music.” But nah…it’s gone and it’s not coming back. And the “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” reference at the end of the second verse, “Wait til I get my money right”—that’s what the whole song is about. We broke, so let’s get this money. I love that song.

As far as what he been on, he’s being the form of himself that he is. And I think the only thing I take specific issue with is the Donald Trump–related things. I think that he just has to be a little more calculated before he takes certain alliances.

But he’s an artist, and man, anything related to that…. At the end of the day, we gotta stop trying to make people be what we want them to be, and realize them for what they are and who they are—and either choose to accept or, you know, do what we do. The references were in direct relation to that, [and] in direct relation to the impact he had on me as an artist.

But yeah, Common is the reason I rap. Be was the first album I bought.

You know they rap battled here at WHPK, right?  

That’s freaking amazing, that’s dope.                 

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Christopher Good is the Weekly’s music editor, and can be found with his headphones on. He most recently coordinated the Washington Park and Woodlawn neighborhoods for the 2018 Best of the South Side issue.

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