Short, Sweet, Single-minded: Tierra Whack's Dizzying Rise

Tierra Whack opens for French Montana on Thursday, November 14.
Tierra Whack opens for French Montana on Thursday, November 14.
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For the record, Tierra Whack never had a plan B.

“It was music or nothing. I’m not good at anything else,” says Whack matter-of-factly. Be that as it may, she didn’t exactly stumble into her career. There’s hustling, and then there’s Whack’s furious work ethic.

Raised by a single mother in North Philadelphia, Whack discovered the singular delight of rhyme and meter the same way the vast majority of American children do: by way of Dr. Seuss books. Her passion for poetry emerged preternaturally early — she was a shy kid, and her last name was irresistible if low-hanging fruit for schoolyard bullies — and she filled composition books with her own rhymes and poetry. By her early teens, she’d progressed from the page to rapping at the encouragement of her uncle, having adopted the name Dizzle Dizz. At sixteen, she rapped for A$AP Rocky at the studios of Philadelphia hip-hop radio station Power 99. Visibly impressed, he responded by comparing her flow to Kendrick Lamar's.

Whack’s mother relocated the family to Atlanta for her daughter's final year of high school. Shortly after graduation, Whack was hired as a car washer at a Mister Car Wash on Ponce de Leon Avenue; she needed money, mainly to buy a laptop. Much has been made of Whack’s time sweating behind the vacuum and rag in the brutal southern sun (and equally torturous humidity), partially because it so effectively illustrates the single-mindedness and work ethic that has come to define her career. She earned enough tips on top of her minimum hourly wage to buy the laptop, and used it to start recording herself.

The work ethic itself she chalks up to her mother. “She doesn’t really have to work anymore, but she has little hustles just to keep herself busy,” says Whack. “She got up early this morning, she got up early yesterday morning, she gets up and she goes and gets it. She’s never waiting for handouts or for anybody to give her anything.”

Whack returned to Philadelphia after several months at the car wash — she refers to her time in Atlanta casually as “a little vacation,” as though she hadn’t spent week after week servicing car after car on the hot concrete — and couch-surfed among friends’ places. Her musical vision began to take shape on the aforementioned laptop; she dropped three singles in 2017. News of her inking a deal with Interscope surfaced that same year.

Whack's most singular statement of self, aka her debut record, Whack World, appeared in May 2018, accompanied by a short film that acts as a music video for every single song. The album clocks in at a mere fifteen minutes — one minute per song — and the short film’s minute-long vignettes are both absurdist and Afro-surrealistic enough to have drawn comparisons to Boots Riley’s race- and class-skewering dark comedy Sorry to Bother You and Jordan Peele's neo-classic horror Get Out.

Whack’s trademark has always been short, dizzying bursts of wit and whimsy; her unwavering commitment to deeply imaginative narratives delivered with brevity is perhaps evidence of Seuss’s continued influence (along with, of course, Whack World’s simmering penultimate track, “Dr. Seuss,” in which she floats the idea of running for the highest office in the land and peers out of a tiny house like a certain Alice of literary fame).

Whack World necessarily runs the gamut: the bouncy “Hungry Hippo", the cheeky “Cable Guy” that suggests BET could also stand for “bitches eat tacos”; “Silly Sam,” with its guitar-string pluck and willingness to compare men’s mind games with tic-tac-toe and patty cake.

“I had so many ideas. I didn’t want to do thirty three-minute songs for my first big thing,” says Whack. “I’m like, I’ve got to cut this down short. Give them a lot of ideas, but short and sweet.”

When I suggest that often artists with a surplus of ideas go the complete opposite route — a full-throttle double album, for instance — she laughs. “I would have been bored with myself,” she responds. “I get bored easily. I wouldn’t have wanted to hear a thirty-song album from a new artist. I couldn’t sit through it. I couldn’t do it.”

So she did the total opposite, by way of a fifteen-minute, blink-and-you-missed-it debut instead, and it landed her with a Best New Music designation from Pitchfork, a cover feature with The Fader, and a coveted spot in XXL’s annual Freshman Class. (Best of all, every Freshman Class nominee is required to make a video pleading their case, and rather than extol her own virtues, Whack spent her allotted time crunching on potato chips in two-tone lipstick, a leopard-print coat, and a matching hat. A YouTube user correctly deemed it “the hardest flex.”)

Whack’s upcoming Denver performance will coincide with Phonetopia, a straight-to-Instagram story branded (and deliberately hashtag-friendly) experience hosted by Verizon-owned mobile phone service Visible. There’s an obstacle course where attendees dodge 3-D notifications, and an airplane mode lounge; the accompanying live performances are meant to represent music-streaming apps coming to life. (Do with that dichotomy what you will.)

“I appreciate intimate settings. It feels easier to take on the room; it’s not as intimidating,” Whack says of her decision to perform at Phonetopia. “I know I’ll be performing in arenas one day, but I’d rather perform in front of 200 people. I still have stage fright. We could record and perform in a closet. I’m cool with that.”

Tierra Whack plays with French Montana at 7 p.m. Thursday, November 14, at #Phonetopia, 2750 Blake Street. Tickets are free with RSVP. This show is currently sold out; more information can be found at phonetopia.com.

Hear Tierra Whack and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.

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