When her stunning 15-minute visual album Whack World was released earlier this year, the world took notice of Tierra Whack. The Philly-born 20 something effortlessly blends traditional songwriting chops with Eminem’s syllable-bending technical prowess and Missy Elliot’s bizarre surrealist aesthetic. Despite what some may think, Tierra did not appear out of nowhere. Since 2012, she had been making a name and building her skills in Philly’s underground rap scene. We’ve compiled a beginner’s guide to one of the music world’s brightest creative lights.
Posted up North Philly (around 18th & Oxford?), the crew from Philly’s We Run The Streets DVD series were out on the street filming MCs freestyling when a 15-year old Tierra (then known as Dizzle Dizz) hopped out of her Mom’s car, ready to rhyme. Packing a fierce, multi-syllabic style and slick punchlines, it was abundantly clear that Tierra was a fully formed, gifted MC at a very young age.
A little over a year after the We Run The Streets Freestyle, Tierra came back with “I Got A Story to Tell,” her rendition of Biggie’s rap-noir classic. Running down the tale of how she linked with We Run The Streets, Tierra flexes her storytelling skills illustrating how a trip to her Grandma’s house led to a chance meeting that would her first major platform in Philly’s underground Rap scene.
Impressively, she enfolds the relatively simple narrative inside of a three-dimensional world of detail and emotion. After a long day at school, Tierra is pressed by her Mom to accompany her and her little sister to visit her Grandma. Reluctantly, Tierra agrees, delivering the devastating line “I was too tired and I ain’t care to hear it, but my Grandma’s getting older and her death, I really fear it…”. Riding through North Philly, Tierra’s Mom spots We Run The Streets filming rappers and urges her young daughter to approach them and share her gift.
Probably the most “traditional” Hip Hop song in Tierra’s catalog so far, “Nervoustown” originally appeared on a little-known DJ Do It All / We Run The Streets Mixtape that is still available on Datpiff.com. A melancholy boom-bap track built around swinging drums and dense, jazzy piano chords, Tierra flexes more bars that balance shit-talking with intense mindfulness and introspection. “The morning breeze goes up my sleeve, when I die, no mourning, please and I don’t plan on planting seeds…” promising that she’ll “interrupt my enemies with empathy.
On December 14, 2017, when Roots frontman MC Black Thought dropped his epic 10-minute freestyle, the world inside and outside of hip-hop took notice. In many eyes, the freestyle elevated Black Thought to the ranks of the greatest rappers in history. The praise was justified as Black Thought’s performance represented an impressive feat of super-human stamina, skill, and intellect, but many in Philly knew that this type of rhyming was not without precedent.
For nearly two decades, Cosmic Kev’s Come Up Show on Power 99 has stood as an institution showcasing local MCs that display this same kind of endless endurance, sometimes rhyming for 10 or 15 minutes straight. Staying true to this tradition, Tierra came through to the Power 99 studios and unleashed an 11-minute cyclone of rhymes powerful enough to peel the paint off the walls. At the age of 16, her timing and creativity had already drastically improved since her debut. Touching on everything from her rising star power to her childhood memories of being teased for having dark skin, the spirit of the entire affair can be summed up in the devastating line she delivers around the two-minute mark “I used to feel invisible now I feel invincible”.
Over a chopped up soul sample, Tierra spits tales of harmless youthful antics and breaking the rules. It’s interesting to hear off-kilter rhymes and penchant for gross-out humor squeezed into this light-hearted pop-rap confection. The hook makes for a simple and fun mission statement “Immature, young, wild, crazy or maybe, it’s just ADHD?” The song’s video, filmed in at the Clothespin at 15th and JFK and various points in downtown Philly, features Tierra and a mob of young black kids bouncing around and being free. “Dizzy Rascals” is a lovely homage to a specific subset of Philly youngins that hang out in Rittenhouse Square, smoke pot and try to figure it all out.
An uptempo, bass-heavy concoction of bizarre, “Dog Backwards” exercise for the young microphone god. The song is three-minute workout of mindblowing verbiage strung together in a seemingly endless line of metaphors, double-entendres and rhymed couplets. “It’s pretty simple, other rappers are inconsequential. / I’m about to get you and start popping like ya’ Grandpoppa’s pistols / I’m hood, with an iced tea and a bag of skittles….” The video, predicting the bizarre, technicolor aesthetic she’d later explore on Whack World, finds Tierra running around town dressed as an old lady, rapping, dancing and twerking with a giant muppet.
A slick, transitional song which finds Tierra fully embracing contemporary trap beats, and flows to create this vibey banger. Over a floating, cosmic instrumental, Tierra spits lyrics about speeding down a highway on a rainy night. Seemingly hinting at a deeper metaphor, she wins a hard-fought struggle for control only to intentionally drive herself off the road. Once again displaying her profound gift for presenting simple ideas and everyday occurrences with multilayered meaning and significance.
“What is a girl supposed to do, when her hormones keep on yelling at you?”
“Child Please” is a gorgeously melodic ode to teenage curiosity, heartbreak, and sexuality. By this time, Tierra had dropped the Dizzle Dizz moniker, opting to record and perform under her given name. Gliding atop a smooth, halftime R&B groove that recalls the best Timbaland and Aaliyah collaborations Tierra strips down much of the rapid-fire lyricism of her earlier work. The rhyme flow here melds deeper into the pocket of the music. Tierra also reveals a confident singing tone that is bright and inviting. She spins her account of teenage emotion and longing into a delightfully rich song that stands out in her catalog as a precursor of her artistic future.
The immediate chronological and artistic forerunner to Whack World, the single “Mumbo Jumbo” served as Tierra’s introduction to those who weren’t familiar with Philly underground Rap scene. Anchored by Tierra’s nonsensical mumbling and a terrifying video reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick.
Thought by many to be a critique of mumble rap, the video for “Mumbo Jumbo” depicts Tierra delivering the song while propped up in a sadistic dentist’s chair. The tone of the song, when paired with some of the imagery of the video, is grotesque and anxiety-inducing. In an interview with Pigeons and Planes, Tierra explains that the song came about as a result of her experimental approach to music making. “When I’m recording, I usually just mumble and hum a melody and then fill the words in as I go. This time I just decided not to.”
Quite possibly the album of the year and certainly the crowning achievement in Tierra’s developing career, Whack World is a dizzying trip through the nuances of one of hip-hop’s most gifted young talents. 15 songs packed into 15 minutes, the album feels like a complete, fully realized work that stretches the confines of contemporary pop and hip-hop. So many of the songs here are standouts, from the sleepy moonlit R&B of “Flea Market” to the charming 80’s electro-pop gem “Hookers.” The album’s corresponding film is a surrealist trip through Tierra’s supernova of an imagination, evoking dark and disturbing emotions juxtaposed with bright, vibrant visual stimuli.
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