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Over the past decade, the art of rapping has evolved into an intricate form of improvisation — a puzzle-like process of punching in ad-libbed lines to achieve melodies and overlapping flows that might otherwise be impossible in a continuous take. Via the internet, audio engineering software, tutorials on how to use them, and communities of potential collaborators have never been more accessible, allowing any teenager with enough talent and free time to become a bona fide Brian Wilson from the comfort of their basement.
While young auteurs like Duwap Kaine or Sellasouls toy with vocal processing to surreal, cyborgian effect, Dayton, Ohio’s Izaya Tiji pursues transcendence with his natural, untreated voice. Working from the same falsetto-laden blueprint developed by artists like Playboi Carti and Young Thug, the 20-year-old rapper/producer constructs songs on a granular level, piecing together phrases plucked from his stream of consciousness, tweaking each one to perform chill-inducing acrobatics.
Songs like “Foot On Em” and “Seth Rogen” recall the swirling, psychedelia of dream pop bands like Slowdive or Cocteau Twins, more concerned with the lyrical qualities of the voice than the meaning of the lyrics themselves. He harmonizes with cloned versions of himself, dipping into hauntingly low registers or spitting Autotuned expressions of emotion. It’s an unconventional approach to the mic, but not so much that it feels entirely unfamiliar. Instead, it’s a stab at perfection — a venture into the uncanny valley.
Tiji isn’t quite a household name, but he enjoys cult status among scholars of Soundcloud lore, widely credited with helping shape the Slayworld collective that launched the careers of artists like Yeat, Kankan, and Autumn. It helps that his discography is arranged in the esoteric fashion that inspires obsessive study. His official drops are imposing, arriving in the form of massive and chaotically-arranged chunks. His latest tome Principles, which he describes as an EP, weighs in at 33 tracks. Hit songs can be deleted with little notice, only to be prudently reuploaded to his many Soundcloud archives curated by fans. Closely following his output only deepens the mystery: the more Tiji reveals, the more he seems determined to obfuscate.
Determined to peel back the layers of his enigmatic web presence, I spoke with Izaya over Facetime about his approach to recording, his aversion to social media, and his love of cooking.
Jude Noel: Your most recent release, Principles, weighs in at 33 tracks, but you consider it an EP. That’s pretty prolific, even by Soundcloud’s standards. What’s your current output like?
Izaya Tiji: If I’m working all day, I probably make like five or six songs. But usually like 3 a day. Every single day.
What percentage of those songs stays unreleased?
Honestly, a lot of my fans complain that I don’t drop shit, but I actually drop every song I post a snippet for. It may be, like, one or two that I don’t drop, but I try to drop pretty much all of that shit.
I saw this meme on Twitter the other day that showed an iceberg with your discography above water and the songs you’ve taken down underwater. What’s the rationale behind curating your Soundcloud like that?
I’m still an up and coming artist, right? To keep it a whole band, some of the songs are so old they’re embarrassing to me. Even though people might fuck with them, I’m constantly working on new shit. There’s some of this old stuff that I feel like makes people undermine the new stuff. I don’t want that to happen because I don’t want to be recognized for having bad mixing quality and all that. I want to be recognized for good quality and quantity at the same time.
You’ve worked closely with [producer] Wifi over the course of the career — he appears on pretty much every tape you’ve released. What is it about his beats that compliments your sound so well?
We’ve known each other for a long time. He actually taught me how to make beats. He definitely influences my sound more than anyone else.
What were some of your influences when you were first starting to post stuff on Soundcloud?
X, Carti, Lucki, for sure. I was listening to Diego Money, Famous Dex. Underground parts of the scene. Definitely was listening to no mainstream.
Do you record at home or in the studio?
At home, for the most part, but I do have multiple studios I go to sometimes.
Are you usually recording written verses or punching in freestyles?
Punching in and freestyling every time. Man, sometimes I even just freestyle it all in one take. I never write stuff out and it’s really a bad habit. My manager Eddie always has to tell me to write out the lyrics so we can throw up some lyric videos and shit.
That’s interesting, because I’ve always seen you as one of the more poetic writers in the scene. A lot of artists right now just throw around words like “pain” and “depression” flippantly, but you have a more detailed insight into the emotional side of things.
Thing is, like, you know that dude in high school, middle school, who wouldn’t really pull the bitches but like, all the goth bitches would go see to vent? I was on that type of shit. I always had literature skills. There’s way more to words than just what’s being said. Anything people say to me, I’m thinking about that on a psychological level.
What inspires you besides music?
I love paintings, like, really abstract art. Any type of art that portrays a message. Video games that are deep. Psychological thriller movies. You seen that shit Inside Job on Netflix?
I haven’t watched it but I saw the trailer the other day.
You have to. Bruh, it’s like every crazy conspiracy theory is real.
You mentioned before that you’re always trying to improve your sound and innovate. Is there anything you’re experimenting with now?
I’ve been making house music. Stepping out of genres. I’m trying to work with more female artists and find new producers. I’ve been really trying to cut down on singing and show them I can rap. I’m really trying to show off the bars.
What kind of music were you attached to growing up?
My mom is hella Christian, and she wasn’t really allowed to listen to rap or vulgar music, mostly like country and shit. I mean, when she was a teen I guess she started listening to more shit like that, but she followed in the footsteps of her parents, feel me? When I was really young, like a kid, I was really listening to Christian music and radio pop, shit like that. Eminem, Miguel, Carly Rae Jepsen, Skrillex. I really liked Young Thug, Rich Homie Quan, Chief Keef, Owl City. Pop artists, feel me?
When you were starting to blow up on Soundcloud a bit, you were connected to Slayworld. I saw that you’re no longer affiliated with them anymore, though?
Really, you could say that Slay was just a bunch of different artists that had nothing to do with Rino, Autumn, or Kan at first. It was just a bunch of people who made music and stuff. Goonie was in this group chat called D1 with Summrs and a bunch of other different people. And I initially started talking to them too, I guess. I added Kankan because he was, like, begging to join the chat because we was glowing up type shit. I’m basically the reason for all this shit, not gonna lie. Goon wasn’t the founder, but he did add a lot of the people, including me. But that was, like, back in the day. A lot of the flows and the terms you hear came from me. At the start, they were really, like, cool, you know? They always acted like that in person, but on the internet it’s a different story. I don’t wanna say too much, but they definitely treated me some type of way. I didn’t treat them bad at all. I had to distance myself and keep my head on my shoulders.
More than ever, artists are expected to cultivate a brand on Twitter and engage with their fans, but I feel like you don’t have a huge personal presence on there. How do you feel about social media?
People don’t understand if you’re not there to experience shit in real life you’ll never be able to describe it the same way. It’s kind of fucked up how we created an app to talk about shit we’re not even involved in. It’s not natural to see all that hate, all that negative energy every single day, having to check your phone just to see how much you’re progressing as an artist.
What’s something you think people who don’t know you in real life might misunderstand about you?
People are always trying to say stuff like, I hate my fans or they can’t talk to me just because I’m gonna say some bullshit. I really can’t take social media so seriously. I’m the type of person who’s grown up my whole life showing tough love. My family jokes in a way where it sounds like we’re mad at each other or whatever. At the end of the day, I’m just a chill person. All I do is smoke — it’s really all I do. And I’m nice as hell. If you come to the crib I’ll cook for you. I’m really not racist or homophobic at all, I respect women, all that. Just because I don’t really put out a lot of stuff on the internet people have their own assumptions about me.
What do you envision for the future, musically or otherwise?
I want to open a restaurant.
What kind of stuff do you cook?
I grew up in an African household. My stepdad, he’s from the Congo. Like smack dab in the middle of Africa. So I learned how to make all different types of curry and, like, there’s this thing called foo foo. Oxtail. I cook everything for real for real.
Do you have any drops planned for the near future?
I’m gonna start dropping videos.
What can we expect from them?
I’m gonna say something so weird, but you’re gonna know what I mean. I’m an alien, bruh. That’s all I can say. Shit’s top secret.