The Big Read – Tierra Whack: “I’m working hard to change the world”

Philly rapper Tierra Whack does things her own way, with a 15-minute debut album made of 15 minute-long songs, and a recent penchant for surreal, horror movie-inspired videos. It’s won her a legion of fans that includes Lauryn Hill, Andre 3000 and Tyler, the Creator, all of whom have entered her candy cane world. Ahead of her biggest UK show to date, at London’s Village Underground on June 3, she tells Dhruva Balram about her burning ambition to make a movie, work with Kanye and eat her way around the world. PHOTOS: JACK ALEXANDER, CREATIVE PRODUCTION: EMILY BARKER

“I don’t like clocks.” Tierra Whack says, burying her head in the drawings she’s making using markers and some printing paper left on an NME desk. “I never know what time it is, If you don’t know what time it is, you can just move. Time is a restraint.”

Thirty minutes later – but who’s counting? – she’s sitting on a giant pink cupcake in comically oversized clothes ready for her candy land-themed NME shoot. The 23-year-old has a red-and-white striped lollipop in one hand, and her clown-sized yellow shoes have been cast aside. But before the shutters start clicking, Tierra’s face is vacant, absent of emotion. To an outsider, she looks bored but, really, she’s just having a moment in her own world, unperturbed by the commotion around her. When the photographer puts the camera to his face and says, “Tierra!”, she suddenly comes alive, like the flicking on of a light switch.

Suddenly, we get the personality the world is enraptured by; the one portrayed on her debut album ‘Whack World’. Released a year ago almost to the day, ‘Whack World’ hops between genres at ADHD-speed. Whack is boastful on certain tracks, reflective on others; her lyrical content is biting, visceral and filled with humour. ‘Flea Market’ is about wanting more from a romantic partner; ‘Cable Guy’ examines the loss of a friendship: ‘Fruit Salad’ is a self-care anthem about eating right and taking care of your body. Tierra manages to do all of this within 15 minutes, as each of the 15 songs lasts exactly 60 seconds, the maximum length of an Instagram story. “I just see the whole album as a story,” she explains. “Everyone has a story and I’m just telling mine. I’m creating as I go.”

And with an undeniable sense of lyrical narrative woven in her quick-fire rhymes, the album’s accompanying visuals are testament to Whack’s storytelling. Each track has a video, uploaded to both Instagram – in chunks – and to Youtube as a 15-minute short film. In a world in which the primary capital is attention, Tierra found a way to twist things to her advantage, tearing up the idea of what conventionally might be called an album – a smart move from one of the brightest and most creative new minds in hip-hop.

The eldest of three siblings, Tierra Helena Whack was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in a hard neighbourhood. “I grew up in the projects, 11th and Norris,” she says. “[It was] every man for himself. I remember seeing the guys on the corner, hearing gunshots. I guess a lot of people would say it was rough.”

In her childhood, Tierra had an obsessive inclination towards poetry and performance, turning her rhymes into raps under the moniker Dizzle Dizz. In high school, she and her crew petitioned their strict principal to allow them to perform a couple of songs from Sister Act 2 at a talent show. Tierra performed the famous “Joyful, “Joyful” rap verse, naturally – and they won.

When she was 15, Tierra and her mother were out driving and spotted the underground Philly music collective We Run The Streets. Whack’s mother encouraged her daughter to get out of the car and freestyle. Showcasing fierce talent, multi-syllabic flow and whimsical punchlines like, “I stretch my bills / yes my money exercise”, it was abundantly clear that Tierra was already a gifted MC – and one with killer bars like “used to be poverty / now I’m taking all your moneys like robberies”.

The video went viral and Tierra demonstrated her precocious talents for the likes of Meek Mill and A$AP Rocky, gaining co-signs at a precociously young age. But after releasing a slew of songs and videos, she started to feel disillusioned. To nurture Tierra’s creativity, her mother uprooted the family from Philly and moved to Atlanta. “That’s like my second home,” Tierra says of the city that birthed greats like Outkast and Migos. “Atlanta represents freedom. There’s more space.”

But instead of using Atlanta as a launchpad to propel her nascent career, Tierra went the other way, choosing to remain incognito. She eventually moved back to Philadelphia and linked up with engineer Kenete, her closest creative partner and her manager. ‘Whack World’ was the result of the union.

A whirlwind tour followed the album’s launch, culminating in a Coachella performance which saw her inflatable, neon yellow dress plastered all over social media. It was a perfect in to Whack’s aesthetic: colourful and zany, bursting with personality. It comes as no surprise that Dr Seuss is one of her favourite authors, “I found one [of his books] recently that I never knew existed: Wacky Wednesday. It’s my favourite,” she quips. “Green Eggs And Ham too, only because we made them in school. They were nasty as fuck.”

Tierra, though, seems to have little to no interest in fame when so many artists fish for clout as a means to survive. Her humility is sincere as she still grapples with her newfound stardom. “Who would have ever thought I’d be in London?” she screams. “Growing up, we only saw these places in movies. Like, you know that it’s real, but it doesn’t really hit you that you can go there, you can get a passport, you can go see these places in these movies, in these TV shows, you know what I mean?”

Since ‘Whack World’ came out, Tierra’s been drained. It’s been a relentless run of press while touring across multiple continents. She now hates answering routine questions she’s been asked thousand times over. “It’s all the same questions, I did it all yesterday,” she cautions, before the interview starts.

There are other things she’d rather talk about, anyway. “WATERMELONS!” she suddenly exclaims at one point. “I just found out if you put salt and lemon on it, it tastes better.” She throws her marker down and her eyes widen with excitement. “I don’t like melons. But Watermelons… And, oh, strawberries – best fruit.” She’s still drawing abstract shapes with the markers, but puts them aside to energetically discuss food. “I hate olives,” she admits. “They’re so nasty. I hate everything about olives. Mushrooms, too.” What she loves the most, though, are chicken wings – and she discovered her favourite kind while living in Tokyo.

Moving to the city as a means to recuperate artistically and creatively, she says “[it] was the best place I’ve visited so far. I’ve wanted to visit it since I was 16 and I still want to live there.” Citing its “clean and futuristic” aesthetic, Tierra’s favourite part was “the best freaking wings – I could eat it every day.” She slumps back in her chair and yells, “They have good french fries and dumplings too. Oh my God! I want to go to Tokyo so bad. How far is it from here?” She gets up from her chair as if she’s about to tear off to the airport. “Give me that sushi. That ramen,” she whispers softly.

Tierra’s time in Tokyo came just as her name was starting to being uttered in the same breath as Philly musical greats such as The Roots, Eve, Meek Mill, Jill Scott and The Delfonics. Now, she not only has met her idols but befriended them. “It doesn’t feel real, to be honest,” she says of meeting artists like Lauryn Hill and Andre 3000. “Lauryn Hill makes you cry,” she discloses shyly. “She makes you cry at her concerts. Every time, it doesn’t feel real.”

Her contemporaries are now fans of hers: Vince Staples, Remy Ma and Tyler, the Creator have applauded her work. Tierra is equally in awe of Billie Eilish, saying simply: “When I see her perform, I want to cry.”

She’s also a huge fan of Dev Hynes, aka Blood Orange, and slyly drops in the fact that they talk almost every day. “I named all the people [inspirations] yesterday and was like, ‘Wow, I can really just call each of these people right now’. It’s changed because I remember getting the chills saying these people’s names and they were so far and now the fact that I could just touch them now is crazy. They were like fairytales. I touched Lauryn Hill. I touched Andre 3000.”

With no confirmation on a future album, audiences eager for a follow-up to ‘Whack World’ have, instead, been snacking on videos like ‘Unemployed’. In it, Tierra is a chef preparing a feast for her boss. The video takes a typically bizarre turn when Tierra’s main ingredients – potatoes – appear to be alive. Preparing a buffet of potato dishes – fried, mashed, baked – Tierra recognises that the potatoes are alive and seems to derive some form of pleasure in chopping them for her employers, who, themselves, are giant potatoes. This unusual cannibalistic video is made even more engaging by the haunting beats layered underneath her vicious bars.

Though there are abundant theories about the video – ranging from it being about the way fast-food servers are treated, to job loss, to job creation, to having a boss to shooting a warning shot to haters – the fact that any number of these theories exist showcases Tierra’s ability to consistently channel layered multiplicities within a single video.

‘Unemployed’ was the fifth weekly single for a series she called Whack History Month back in February. There’s no evidence to suggest whether the tracks are singles off an album or odds and sods to appease hungry fans. Her features on Flying Lotus’s album ‘Flamagra’, as well as recording unreleased music with Childish Gambino and Meek Mill, should appease keep fans, but it’s hard not to get excited when, asked for a hint about her next steps, she lays down cryptic clues like, “G.O.O.D. music. Kanye West,” but won’t be drawn any further. “You can’t ask direct questions,” she says. “I just gave you a hint and you just gotta do your research.”

With a staggering amount of self-confidence – “maybe it’s just because I’m a Leo,” she says wryly” – Tierra wants to reiterate that it wasn’t an easy path to get to where she is now, and that it took a whole lot of self-belief and discipline. Her rules for life? “Don’t step outside until you believe in yourself. Don’t get dressed in public. Get your shit together before you go outside.” It’s this incredible faith in herself that has also made Tierra start thinking about delving into other art forms. Inspired by Jordan Peele, in particular, and his most recent horror hit US, she wouldn’t mind making a movie: “He [Peele] is the perfect balance which I find myself to be: crazy, creepy and funny. That’s what I like. All horror movies, I laugh my ass off. I don’t think they’re scary.”

In a short time, Tierra Whack has received an incredible amount of praise from fans and critics alike. Anderson .Paak even compared her iconic artist Missy Elliot: someone Tierra thinks of as a role model. She accepts the term graciously, but concedes, “That’s a huge compliment, but I just want to be me. She’s one of my idols, but I’m just focused on being me. I appreciate all the compliments, but I’m working hard to really become a household name to change the world. I want to be Tierra Whack.”

Tierra Whack plays Primavera in Barcelona this weekend, then London’s Village Underground on June 3.