Mykki Blanco is evolving. Having spent the first 10 years of their career carving a trailblazing path through the world of hip hop – a decade that saw them release genre-busting projects like Gay Dog Food, Mykki Blanco & the Mutant Angels and their critically acclaimed 2016 debut album Mykki – the 35-year-old is stepping into the next phase of their career with music that represents an artist who now understands their limitless potential.
This journey began back in 2018. After completing a gruelling, years-long touring schedule, Mykki found themselves living in Lisbon, Portugal, slowly readying themselves to record new music. At first it was about figuring out what it was they wanted to play with sonically; but also, what was it they wanted to say? “I was thinking about what wholly original Mykki Blanco music would sound like,” Mykki says. “What if I didn’t sample but instead started working with sessions musicians to created my own?”
Of course, you can hardly call Mykki’s previous material unoriginal – they blurred genres, pulling rave, trap, grunge and punk influences into a swirling pool of experimental hip hop that celebrated queer and trans experiences. Yet, they admit that “at that point in my career, I didn't know what my own music sounded like without any kind of direct, outside reference. That's not a bad thing; that's how the majority of music is made.”
Ultimately Mykki concluded they wanted to create their own sonic universe from scratch. To facilitate this, they collaborated with producer and multi-instrumentalist FaltyDL, who allowed them to envision new soundscapes built from lush, live instrumentation. “It just transported me,” they say. “It enabled me to dream in a way that I had never dreamed with my own songwriting. All of a sudden, I felt like I had this template where I could make that sound my own.”
Work began on this new music that same year. The songs spun together through numerous jam sessions, with writing taking place in Lisbon, Paris, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. By 2019, Mykki realised that they were working on two different records concurrently. The first became 2021’s Broken Hearts & Beauty Sleep,the mini- album that Pitchfork described as “exuberant and sweltering” and marked “the chaotic yet deliberate evolution of a no-holds-barred performer who’s only now reaching their apex.”
The second was Stay Close To Music, a record that is unlike anything Mykki Blanco has released before. Adventurous and expansive, it shatters any previously held assumptions about Mykki’s artistry, leaving them free to define their sound for themselves. “All those years of going into the studio and working with producers and their programs was great; it aided me for a long time,” they say. “But I wanted to see what it would be like to go back and be a musician from another time where you had to start every ingredient raw from scratch. That process, ideology and that way of making has not only changed me as a musician, it has creatively changed me as a person.”
This metamorphosis stems from the organic textures on the record: album opener “Pink Diamond Bezel” is alive with flutes and distorted guitars; “Steps” features the swell of an orchestra and the calming presence of watery pianos; “You Will Find It,” featuring Devendra Barnhart, sees soul-soothing woodwind coalesce with funky synth bass and trap beats; “Your Feminism Is Not My Feminism,” built around the warm warble of a Rhodes piano, hits back against the weaponization of trans identities; and “Your Life Was A Gift,” a collaboration with Diana Gordon and Buck, is hazy with new wave guitars and cavernous trip-hop beats.
“Even though I've always brought a very strong conceptual framework to my music, having a collaborator like FaltyDL who can play real instruments and who I’ve been able to form this bond where he's able to take my ideas, understand them and then, sonically, help my create these new organic compositions has helped me define a new era for myself,” Mykki says.
Stay Close To Music also marks the first time that Mykki says they felt comfortable as a spiritual being in their practice as a musician. They grew up in a very New Age home – their father was a psychic and their mom trained to be a minister before they were born – and as a Black Jew, they were raised going to Temple. “I have grown up in extremely close proximity to spirituality being this very natural, normal thing. It’s just not something that I openly talk about so much,” they say. “I have no qualms talking about God, and that can sometimes make people uncomfortable because a lot of people are forced into religion in a very dogmatic way. But I am so fortunate in my life that I was never raised in a religiously dogmatic home. I was always raised in a home where having a relationship with God, and talking about God, was very normal.”
This spirituality manifests itself not only lyrically, most notably on “Your Love Was A Gift”, but musically, too. “I think that even in a song as ruckus and vulgar as 'Ketamine', sonically, when that song opens, it makes me think of God taking a breath,” Mykki says. The same could be said for “Steps”, where light-dappled strings, Mykki’s sermonic rap and MNEK’s harmonies feel reverent for a greater power, or “Carry On” – a hymnal collaboration with Jonsi from Sigor Rós filled with stacked vocals, choirs and dynamic electronics that feel like the synapses firing in the brain – that unfurls as Mykki admonishes homophobia and transphobia and exalts Black queer joy.
The song that truly demonstrates the extent of Mykki’s artistic transition, however, is “Family Ties”, a haunting amalgam of pop songwriting, gothic rock, ‘70s late-night R&B, and subaqueous electronica. A duet with the legendary Michael Stipe from R.E.M., it signifies a moment of affirmation for Mykki. “Working in this industry, you have to develop such a thick skin to believe in yourself and persevere,” they say. “But if you're doing things right, along with the lows and worry that people might be forgetting about, you also have moments that are affirming that mean that you’re doing something right. When Michael Stipe agreed to be on 'Family Ties', that was one of those affirming moments; I was being given a very loud message that I was good enough to collaborate with an icon.”
It’s also the first time that they have completely sung on a track, something spilled over into other tracks from the record, like the Lou Reed-indebted “French Lessons”, which features ANOHNI and Kelsey Lu, and “Your Love Was A Gift”. “Coming from rapping and also just being around a lot of singers who can sing in all these different styles, there's a level of insecurity that you have to get over,” they say. “But the more comfortable I get with singing, the more I think about the people in history who weren't these Sam Smith-level singers but who were able to make great music with their voice, people like Lou Reed, Tom Petty and Jonathan Richmond from the Modern Lovers. I have found my pocket as a singer and I just want to do way more of it.”
With Stay Close To Music, Mykki Blanco is levelling up. By stepping into unchartered territory untethered and free, they have fulfilled their ambitions and created a rich, complex and accomplished sound that belongs entirely to them and which only solidifies their status as one of the world’s most innovative musical pioneers. “Stay Close To Music is just the beginning of me feeling like I’m making the most exciting music of my career,” they say – and so Mykki Blanco’s evolution continues.
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