N3ptune is rolling into Washington, D.C., cracking up at the voice of his GPS. This is the first East Coast tour for the Denver-based musician, but “I’m gonna call the tour 'international,' because that's what it is," he proclaims. "I played in Canada, so therefore that made it international!”
N3ptune is riding high; the tour is just one of many milestones he’s passed since releasing his debut full-length album, RENAISSANCE, last December. (Yes, Beyoncé, he was first!). He’s sold out Globe Hall twice since then and even performed at Red Rocks Amphitheatre — a feat many musicians only dream of — ahead of the Film on the Rocks screening of Thor: Ragnarok. And after he’s done with his tour, N3ptune will play a headlining slot at the Westword Music Showcase on September 10.
While most musicians fresh off their first big release are still finding their footing, “I've always known what I want to sound like,” he says. “I love genre-bending. … I knew I wanted the same visceral, spiritual experience of being in church. I want the same energy and precision as a Beyoncé show; I want the same power, the same dynamics, the fashion and same edginess you see at a Lady Gaga show. I wanted to [emulate] the greats — James Brown, Prince and Michael Jackson — but I also wanted this down-home feeling of Howlin' Wolf or Big Mama Thornton. For the writing, [I look to] some of the best writing that you could think of: Bob Dylan, Lana Del Rey. And then I have a full-on experience: I got a fucking rave in there.”
Throw the music of Prince, Nina Simone, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga in a pot, and N3ptune is the one stirring it. His innovative sound intricately weaves hip-hop, soul, pop, rock, R&B and club music, and he meticulously layers these influences to evoke both the experiences and emotions contained in his lyrics, whether they’re pummeled out in aggressive, poetic rap bars or soaring from a soulful, anthemic solo. N3ptune throws every piece of himself into his performance, and the audience has no choice but to absorb his enigmatic energy.
“Expect to feel free in a sense,” he says, calling his concerts “a spiritual experience without the restraints of religion.”
Those soulful sounds may be inspired by the gospel music you’d hear in a church, but the powerful delivery is all N3ptune. “I don't take well at all to authority," he admits. "I very much buck back at that shit.”
Raised in a Baptist family, with several members who are preachers, N3ptune lived in Park Hill for the first few years of his life before moving to Green Valley Ranch. “I had a very unpleasantly religious upbringing, and in time that bled into everything,” he says. “Everything that was me was controlled — down to how I dressed, how I looked, how my hair looked.”
Machismo was imposed on him through sports, unsuccessfully. “I was like, ‘Don’t ever put me back in that fucking shit,’” he says of flag football. “And that was just flag!” Nothing could stifle N3ptune’s individuality — or disdain for authority. He bounced from private school to public school to a charter school to an alternative high school before graduating in 2016. And graduating meant adulthood, which meant freedom. “The closest to summer of ’69 we’ll ever get!” he says with a laugh.
N3ptune’s unapologetic self-expression created a rift between him and his mother (they haven’t spoken in years, he says), but he found support from other family members — including the preachers — and longstanding friends. “Everybody who fucking matters, they love what I do. Everybody else is irrelevant. I don't know what they think, because I don't give a fuck what they think,” he insists, adding that it is imperative to live authentically: “I know who I am. I know where I come from. And I know what happens if I am not the way that I need to be. Because if I'm the way that people want me to be, then I'm doing myself a disservice. People might not understand that — but that's not their fucking job.”
His birth name is "dead," he says. He tried on various monikers for several years before Lady Gaga essentially baptized him through his headphones in 2013, as he listened to her song “Venus,” from ARTPOP. “I was walking back from Walgreens to family friends at the time, and the song starts, and I'm like, ‘What the fuck am I listening to? This is insane. This is insane,’” he recalls. “And it got to the bridge, and she starts calling off the planets, and the first one she calls off is Neptune. Oh, my God — I got hot all over. Have you ever had an IV, when you get hot all over and it feels like you're about to piss? Yeah. That's how I felt — the piss included. Almost got hit by a car in the middle of the street!”
N3ptune not only had his name, but a seal of approval on his eccentrically curated, androgynous fashion so akin to that of the anti-authoritarian New York Club Kids of the ’90s, who wore handcrafted creative garments and makeup that varied from whimsical to sci-fi to grotesque. After hearing of the infamous Clubbers during Gaga interviews, N3ptune became obsessed with them. “I was so inspired,” he says. “I wrote a whole song right there, and it was called ‘Limelight,’ which was a club they went to. … They dressed so abrasively and aggressively, to the point where it made other people uncomfortable. They wanted to piss people off, and I loved that so much. I wanted to incorporate that into myself, and my great-grandmother was a seamstress. Fashion is literally in my veins — I was just never allowed to dress how I wanted to, but I've always known how to pick pieces.”
And how to find strength in music. “I had always been writing songs. I was the kid at recess who would be writing songs, business plans, and just start drawing clothing designs while everybody was playing, like holding business meetings,” he remembers. “So by the time I learned how to form sentences, I started writing songs. I did my first talent show in first grade, and I learned how to produce. I started producing in tenth grade.”
But being a Black, queer, androgynous male in a Baptist setting came with challenges. He was viciously bullied through tenth grade, he says, and his family consistently pushing him to conform battered his mental health. It was during those turbulent teen years that N3ptune began to experiment with drugs. He had been prescribed Prozac, and says he would stockpile pills for a week and take them all at once to get high. In between those weeks, he’d smoke “a ton” of weed, and he admits to taking a liking to Oxycontin.
He also began drinking — a lot. “It was fun as fuck, but it got dark,” he says of his partying days. “And with what I wanted to do, it just didn't make sense anymore. It got to a point when I was nineteen where if I wasn't high, I was drunk; if I wasn’t drunk, I was high. I was in a constant daze all the time, and I wasn't able to think — I had no ideas floating around in my head whatsoever.”
A particularly poignant moment became his wake-up call. “I was doing cocaine in my apartment and looked up at this mirror that had a picture on it of me as a baby,” he recalls. “I was only able to think, ‘Fuck. You're doing this to that kid. You're doing this.’ That was a gut-wrenching feeling. Even talking about it, it’s gut-wrenching, because I see the picture clear as day in my head. ‘That kid is doing this’ — that’s all I was able to think of. I still talk about drugs in my music; I still talk about cocaine. I don't do it anymore, but I draw from those experiences. Because I haven't forgotten what I've overcome.”
Pursuing the pure freedom of self, N3ptune couldn't be broken — not by drugs, not by efforts to control. His drive to become a full-time musician provided incentive to get clean. Producing and writing singles, he found himself rubbing shoulders with Denver’s hip-hop community, but he quickly discovered that many in that community had a work ethic that wasn't up to his standard and were “caught up in homophobia and misogyny,” he says.
“There's no reason why there should be a studio session and there's a bunch of men in there getting drunk and inviting strippers in the fucking studio and not doing, you know, work,” he elaborates. “I cut my teeth in an environment where I was not supposed to succeed.”
He directed his ire at that group in the song “BLACK HORSE,” a captivating, in-your-face declaration of independence. “I've taken it upon myself to have my motherfuckin’ beef with the hip-hop scene very publicly and unapologetically,” he says. “Because I. Don’t. Care.”
He does admit to admiring a handful of artists in the scene, however, including Jay Triiiple and M.T.G., who are leaving Denver to join Stargate’s famous Los Angeles Academy for Artists and Music Production program this year. “It's inspiring,” he says. “We need to see people thrive, because why can't we watch people thrive? At the same time, it makes you want to thrive even more.”
His own self-expression is embodied as much in his style as in his music, and Denver Fashion Week took note of that last year, assigning him to be the event’s exclusive MC. “That was my foot in the door to where I can be not only taken seriously in music, [but also] in fashion,” N3ptune says. “The opportunities I have now are just endless; I have my own designer.”
He soon had his own album, as well. N3ptune had only worked on his own before he began collaborating in summer 2021 with Rusty Steve, a Denver-based producer he'd become friends with at the University of Colorado Denver’s Lynx Music Camp in 2015. Even so, it was a difficult decision to commit to a collaboration. “I don’t like creative differences," N3ptune says. "When you're collaborating, you really have to set yourself aside. And I learned that pretty quickly; we both learned so much.”
They started out by recording two singles. The bluesy and funky “WHITE PONY" leaned into rock sounds far more than any of his previous work, with a ripping guitar solo and gospel-infused, humming background vocals supplementing N3ptune’s soulful voice; it debuted on 102.3 FM last June. They also recorded “THANK HEAVENS,” more of an R&B-infused, Lauryn Hill-esque tune.
Steve thought they had the makings of an album, even though N3ptune said the songs were too disparate. But Steve “was insistent and persistent,” he recalls. “He would always say, ‘Sounds like we're making an album,’ and I was like, ‘No, we're not; these songs don't go together.’”
But N3ptune caved as he discovered that collaboration was just another way to push himself out of his comfort zone, and they recorded RENAISSANCE in a matter of months.
N3ptune released his debut album, RENAISSANCE, less than a year ago.
The album kicks off with “WEDLOCK,” which begins with gospel melodies about religion and N3ptune’s upbringing before abruptly shifting halfway through the song into a breathless, assailing rap displaying a cathartic release of emotion that also flows through the closing track, “MILITIA.” As on those earlier singles, N3ptune balanced his dark, poetic lyrics with anthemic and gnarly club beats, and “MISERY LOVES COMPANY,” in particular, showcases his Gaga influence. The entire album is powerful, and N3ptune says that performing at Red Rocks this summer showed him just how much its big sound was meant to be blasted in big venues, even if the lyrics show vulnerability.
“If a song didn't scare me to write about it, it wasn't a good song. There's just these years of unhealed traumas and unresolved things that, like that one, is crazy,” he says. “One thing that [people have told me] was that the music is dark. And I was like, ‘Yeah, Black man in America who’s androgynous — you can imagine it comes with some shit.’ Pulling from those experiences has led to some of the best work I've ever done, some of the best music and some of the best things I've ever made, and my most proud moments.”
The languishing lyrics and reverb-heavy, echoing beats of “ABSENT (BODY)” illustrate his experiences with dissociation, a symptom of depression and PTSD from which N3ptune frequently suffers. He describes it as “being a stranger in your own body.” In the single, voices drift in and out as a moving representation of intrusive thoughts, layered over recorded samplings from his set at the 2021 Underground Music Showcase.
It was during UMS that N3ptune caught the attention of his current manager, Kori Hazel. “I had known about N3ptune for a while, and even got to shoot him for 303 back in February 2021. He was obviously an amazing subject, as he looks like he was made to be in front of a camera. However, it wasn't until UMS that I finally got to see him live,” Hazel recalls. “I missed his main set that year, but he ended up getting added last minute to the Salt Lick Day Party at the hi-dive. It was super early, and people were hung over and tired, and the crowd was pretty small — not only that, but it was just him solo. As he was playing his set, there was honestly something about how fully he gave himself to the performance and how dedicated to his art he was, coupled with the gravitas of his voice and his charisma, that made him feel like a superstar to me in that small room. From that moment forward, I knew what I needed to do — it felt like a calling.”
Hazel met with N3ptune at a Starbucks not long after and told him he wanted to be his manager. “In the same breath, I told him while success isn't something you can promise someone, I could promise him that I would always try for him to the best of my abilities, and that even if he didn't want a manager, I wanted to help him succeed," Hazel says. "Fortunately, he gave me a chance and trusted in my vision for him."
N3ptune credits Hazel with persuading him to release his latest single, “Mannequin.” In keeping with his earlier work, it draws from past wounds — though he didn’t realize it at first. “It's about sexual assault, specifically about my experiences,” N3ptune says. “But more specifically, it's about the one instance I had that I completely forgot had happened because I compartmentalized it, and forgot that it even happened until almost a year later. I locked myself in my room for three days, maybe left twice.”
The song, which N3ptune calls a “dark lullaby,” sat unused until Hazel encouraged him to re-record it with Steve. “It was months after I wrote it, and I was like, ‘Holy shit — I didn't realize what I was writing about,’” N3ptune remembers. “Even just leading up to the release, I was like, ‘Hold on — this shit is about to come out. No.’ I was really uncomfortable being so open, so public, but it was one of those things where I'm not gonna back out simply because I don't want people knowing things about me. It's a taboo conversation, especially for Black men. And so luckily having Kori, that was one of the things he was saying — that it's necessary and it’s important that a song like this comes out. And I agreed 110 percent. … It's easy to pull from those experiences. The challenge is not staying in those experiences.”
Releasing the song hasn’t completely removed the trauma, however. N3ptune is still reluctant to sing "Mannequin" live. “I keep my healthy distance with the song,” he says. “I don't perform it all the time since it's been out. With it being out, it just feels different, right? … At least for a song like this, I don't want to just randomly or just in conversation start talking about what ‘Mannequin’ is about. Some people don’t understand those boundaries. I know people need to hear this, and I’m a firm believer in getting out of my own way, but let the music do its thing. It feels weird. I don't have all of it figured out, and I'm still living through that shit every single day. ”
But N3ptune has plenty of songs to choose from, and the vulnerability he exposes in each one only makes his fans embrace him more.
“I hope you can see yourself, hear yourself, in my music,” he says. “The one thing everybody always says to me at the end of every show is, ‘I wish I was that confident.’ But at the same time, they always say, ‘I felt something when I was watching.’ … That's confidence you felt, that's trying to come at you. I hope that people can take that feeling, start living for themselves more, and be aggressively themselves.”
N3ptune, Westword Music Showcase, Native Roots Stage, Saturday, September 10, 8:40 p.m. Tickets are $55.
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Emily Ferguson is Westword's Culture Editor, covering Denver's flourishing arts and music scene. Before landing this position, she worked as an editor at local and national political publications and held some odd jobs suited to her odd personality, including selling grilled cheese sandwiches at music festivals and performing with fire. Emily also writes on the arts for the Wall Street Journal and is an oil painter in her free time.