Tierra Whack Gamed The System
For a while, it looked like Twitter fiction was going to be a thing. As early as 2009, a writer named Matt Stewart self-published The French Revolution, a novel originally shared in 140-character installments. Five years later, David Mitchell, the great British novelist who wrote Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, spent a week serializing “The Right Sort,” a 280-tweet short story that he’d written specifically for Twitter. To date, though, the most successful piece of Twitter fiction was the one that best understood Twitter — and the one that wasn’t entirely fiction.
In 2016, the 20-year-old dancer and waitress Aziah “Zola” Wells posted an absolutely wild 148-tweet story about traveling from Detroit to Tampa to work in a strip club, joining another girl and that girl’s boyfriend, who turned out to be her pimp. Wells’ story took one implausible turn after another, and the people involved — all of them real — immediately went public with their own versions of what happened. But it appears that at least some of Wells’ story is true, and at least some of it is entirely made up. Wells’ breathless pacing, her easy facility with Twitter language, and her ability to ratchet up tension and comedy made it a riveting story, regardless of veracity. She and her story were made for Twitter, and that’s why they continued to resonate outside of the service. Since the story went viral, James Franco optioned it for a film adaptation, and that’s apparently still in the works. Just last month, Lemon and Atlanta filmmaker Janicza Bravo was announced as its director.
When Tierra Whack’s story made its way around the world, I thought of the whole Zola saga. Whack and Wells work in different media, and Whack’s neon art-kid silliness has little in common with Wells’ gloriously tawdry realism. But both of them figured out ways to exploit social-media platforms for all they’re worth, mostly because they figured out the way those platforms can work. And both of them are getting famous in the process.
We at Stereogum were embarrassingly late to Whack, so there’s a good chance you already know her story. But here it is anyway. Whack, a 22-year-old singer and rapper, started out writing poems in school and then figured out that she had a gift. She turned it into rapping, taking on the name Dizzle Dizz and ripping up the local Philadelphia freestyle-cipher circuit. Nearly seven years ago, a YouTube video announced that she’d signed to Meek Mill’s DreamChasers label, though God knows whether anything ever came of that. She rapped in furious little quick-tongue bursts, and she clearly had something. She met big rappers. She spent a couple of years in Atlanta. But nothing really came of it. Until recently.
Whack started releasing music on SoundCloud in 2015, after coming back to Philadelphia. On those songs, Whack began playing around with her artistic voice. Soon, she was singing as much as she was rapping, and she was trying on new voices or running her voice backwards. She was rapping over airy, hazy, art-damaged beats. Last year, she had a minor viral hit with her “Mumbo Jumbo” video, a colorful surreal nightmare about an appointment with a dentist from hell. The whole time, she was working as a doorwoman at a Philly apartment building. And then came Whack World.
Whack World is a 15-minute album with 15 songs, released into the world as a dizzy, bugged-out, explosively creative extended music video. Whack had written all of the songs from Whack World with their videos in mind, and she’d kept them all to one minute because Instagram videos have a one-minute limit. You can listen to Whack World as a purely auditory album; it’s on the streaming services and everything. And those songs work in their individual bite-size units. (I’m especially partial to “Pet Cemetery,” a fond and warm song about a dead dog.) But that’s not how you should listen to the album — at least, not at first.
Visually, Whack World is a hell of a thing. It’s bright and jagged and ridiculous, full of images that bounce around in your head for a while. Whack, in what appears to be a Missy Elliott mask, illustrates her own lyrics through elaborate nail art. Whack, in absolutely crazy makeup that makes half of her face look grotesquely swollen, raps deadpan into the camera as insects buzz around. Whack shaves crazy patterns into a stuffed dog and leaves it looking like a piece of art. That’s the first three songs. Elsewhere, we get a bedazzled casket, a graveyard full of ghost-dog puppets, a tiny house with a giant Tierra Whack trapped in it.
As music, I’m not entirely sold on Whack World as the feast of genius that some people seem to be hearing. If these songs were more than a minute long — if they were blown out to conventional length — they might sound thin or gimmicky. At their minute-long length though, they’re so disorienting that I can’t exactly fall into a groove while listening to them. I don’t imagine I’ll spend a lot of time listening to it a year from now. But as a way of exploiting a social-media platform’s limitations — and as a way of grabbing attention — it really is a monumental work. Whack has taken that one-minute deadline and made it work for her, showing herself as a human geyser of ideas, her brain too active to stick with any one idea for too long. She has essentially sold herself as a major talent on the rise. It’s virtually impossible to walk away from Whack World thinking anything else.
This past weekend, I saw Whack at the Pitchfork Music Festival, holding down a main-stage spot that, until the week before, was supposed to go to Earl Sweatshirt, another onetime viral phenom. I don’t know what I was expecting, exactly. Without a full-on Broadway set and stage crew, she wasn’t going to replicate anything like the visual feast of Whack World. She didn’t try. She just got out there and rapped. She was spirited, overjoyed, charismatic. She strutted. She made the audience rap super-fast back at her. She danced. She was a whole lot more fully formed than Sweatshirt was back when I saw him during a similar point of his career. I don’t think she looked like a star — not exactly, not yet — but she did look like she belonged on a stage of that size.
Is Whack’s whole thing sustainable? What can she do after Whack World? I have no idea. She already seems to have some resources behind her. Whack World couldn’t have been made without a real budget, and she’s rumored to be secretly signed to Interscope. She’s not exactly a DIY success story. And she’ll have to release something truly inspiring if she wants to keep eyes on her after releasing an opening statement as attention-grabbing as Whack World. Still, she’s already shown that she can grab that attention, and that she can make a real statement once she has it. She’s on her way. And if the road from here is uncertain, that’s just what happens whenever someone does something altogether new.
1. DJ Premier – “Wut U Said?” (Feat. Casanova)
Casanova is an ex-gangster from Brooklyn, a guy in his thirties just now breaking into rap and doing things like rapping about strippers over Scott Storch beats. He is the exact opposite of being before his time — he’s after his time, I guess — and yet he’s building a name for himself anyway. I like him a lot. (Also, I was on the same plane to LA as him and his crew last month, and he has one guy in his crew who’s taller than me, which just left my head spinning. That guy was in coach, too. I felt for him.) Anyway, Casanova now gets to engage in the time-honored New York tradition of bellowing threats over a DJ Premier instrumental, and he comports himself admirably.
2. Problem – “Unholy”
Speaking of anachronisms, this Harry Fraud beat sounds like late-’00s mixtape manna, and when those handclaps come in on the hook, my heart soars.
3. Adamn Killa – “I Dare”
This Chicago kid has figured out that Chief Keef and Yung Lean are not that different from each other and that it would sound pretty amazing if you somehow fused them. So that’s what he did.
4. Killy & WondaGurl – “Allegiance”
WondaGurl deserves to be rich for the rest of her life just for figuring out that you could use a Stranglers sample on a trap song and that it would sound cool.
5. Shy Glizzy – “Vlone”
Shy Glizzy has figured out how to do bluesy, melodic crooning in his deranged cartoon-bunny chirp of a voice, which is just absolute sorcery.