Turn on the sound!
The Philly artist is back with a new film and album
Before Tierra Whack ever wrote a poem or a rap lyric, she would put pencil to paper and draw. “I could really draw, but then I dropped it,” she recalled. “And here’s the thing, if you don’t use it, you lose it.” It had been years since she revisited that skill – life has taken her in so many directions, from viral freestyles to international tours. But something was missing.
“For years I was mad at myself. I think I fell out of love with it,” she said. “But then it’s like, me putting the pencil down, I picked up a pen and started writing raps and rhymes.”
This year on her birthday — Aug. 11, the same day as Kool Herc’s famed backyard jam that is widely acknowledged as hip-hop’s anniversary — a friend bought Tierra an iPad. After a yearslong hiatus, the rapper reintroduced the magic that drawing had brought into her life and found a joy in it that she hadn’t experienced since she was a tween.
Whether it be through sketching, poetry, or rap, the Philadelphia native is always bringing images to life — and now she can add film to that arsenal with the upcoming release of Cypher. The movie, which premieres on Hulu and in a handful of theaters on Nov. 24, is as weird and clever as Tierra Whack’s rhymes. But what else would you expect from someone who burst onto the scene as a 15-year-old battle rapper armed with a stream of non sequiturs?
With a disarming flow that would become her staple, Tierra stood out for being willing to go down the lyrical rabbit hole and discover what was at the other end, even if it was as bizarre as “my flow is on dookie booties and chocolate smoothies.” After a brief hiatus in Atlanta where she finished high school and began recording music, Tierra returned to Philadelphia ready to make the evolution from rapper to immersive artist, delivering a few singles (including the deliciously incoherent “Mumbo Jumbo”) before releasing her debut album Whack World in 2018. The project was a 15-minute audiovisual panoply of Tierra’s curiosities, interests, skills, and creative influences. The reaction brought accolades from fans, peers and legends alike — Tierra toured with longtime idol Lauryn Hill, became a mainstay at festivals, received a Grammy nomination, and appeared as a featured artist on Beyoncé’s The Lion King: The Gift. Meanwhile, she continued to put out work on the vanguard of hip-hop artistry, dropping three EPs – Rap?, Pop? and R&B? — in 2021, while continuing to put out the occasional freestyle on public platforms.
Tierra welcomed me into the wonderful world of Whack one October evening at a trendy Williamsburg hotel in Brooklyn, where we tried our best to find a respite from the chaotic hum of New York City socializing. It had been a big week for the Philly native — the trailer for Cypher dropped, and, with her mother in tow, she also served looks for her Andscape cover shoot. Under the glare of a thousand bright bulbs as well as photographers, editors and production staff, it was Tierra’s mother who had the rapper the most nervous.
“My mom’s the flyest person I know,” she said. “To get her approval is everything.”
The Grammy nominee never needed to worry – the looks were quintessentially Whack, where she harnessed just about any color in the rainbow and molded it into a kaleidoscopic universe of her imagination. That afternoon, she rapped along to a Lauryn Hill song to settle into the vibe of a shot, posed with Freddy Krueger-like nails, and harnessed the Afrofuturistic cool of rappers Missy Elliott and Andre 3000. Tierra’s mother approved, but she has been encouraging her daughter’s creative impulses for years.
“She used to tell me early on, ‘You should model or be into fashion,’ before I really even decided to do music,” Tierra said. “I was like, I don’t really know about that. It was out of fear, you know?”
Tierra doesn’t take having such a supportive parent lightly – her mom encouraged her to jump into that freestyle at 15 years old, which led to Tierra’s first viral moment. These days, she continues to seek her mother’s guidance as she works on creative undertakings – her soon-to-come sophomore album is no exception.
“She loves it. She’s like, hurry up and put it out,” Tierra said, laughing. The project is currently slated for early 2024.
The album is a chance for Tierra to reintroduce herself to her fans, especially since her breakthrough project, Whack World, was released five years ago. The lead single on the new album, “Chanel Pit,” is a cheeky, upbeat record laden with clever homophones, double entendres, and turns of phrase: “I don’t play fair/fare well, I don’t like to show you my tell/tail,” she raps on the song. But the bouncy beat almost conceals the patent Philadelphia swag in some of the bars, one of Tierra’s favorite sleights of hand.
“Naturally I’m not really, like, a bragger. I like to be chill, I don’t like a lot of attention,” she said. But “Chanel Pit” makes her feel playful, and is one of her favorite records to put her in a good mood. “My friends are like, ‘Yo, we want to hear you talk a little bit like, you know, just get on, like, show that Philly.’ So I did that for them.”
Like all of Tierra’s other projects, the songs on her new album take listeners through an all-encompassing emotional, topical, and contextual journey of the past few years. She was not immune to the toll the 2020s have taken on many of us. She’s navigated depression, health struggles, and loss of family.
“I’m one of God’s favorites.”
“I am being blatantly honest on this [album] – like, it’s no holding back,” she said. “I just hope somebody relates because these past couple years I’ve been through so much. It’s a blessing to be here today, because I didn’t think I would be here.”
Her team remained supportive as Tierra navigated low points. She credits her current work on Don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Four Agreements, which emphasizes a gratitude mindset, as well as finding happiness in the joy she brings to others, in helping maintain a healthy emotional space.
While the heaviness of the some of the subject matter – depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety – may buck the trend of uplifting party vibes and narratives of excess that have dominated the algorithms for hit rap records, Tierra prioritizes making honest, complete songs that remain true to her personal journey.
“I’m not gonna sugarcoat it. I’m just giving it to you,” she said. “It’s my real life. Like, this is my art, so I’m sharing it with the world. It’ll be a big weight lifted off my shoulders – and I’m just giving my truth. It’s not like I’m faking this lifestyle or these lyrics. This is just me.”
Sitting with Tierra, whose brain jumps at a mile a minute even in its most relaxed state, you get the sense that she could excel at any creative adventure. Take Cypher, her first serious foray into film. It won best U.S. narrative feature at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival, with the jury comment praising it “for its kaleidoscopic use of music, created imagery and found materials, in service of an interrogation of celebrity, conspiracy culture and the nature of narrative reality itself.” If read out of context, one could have easily mistaken the review for a discussion of Whack World.
“Whack World will always be everything to me — my first baby, my first love,” she said. “We took so much time on Whack World, like, building it. And we knew we were taking a risk. We knew it was something new and innovative — and it just lets me know that it was all worth it.”
Cypher is a dramatic interrogation of Tierra’s journey from young freestyling phenom to bona fide star, striving to understand her relationship with celebrity and creative authenticity. It plays with various narrative devices, remixing the standard music documentary format by weaving fictional elements around true events. In one moment, you are watching the genius of Tierra Whack’s brain at work as she starts to mold the melody for “Peppers & Onions” with her engineer, the next, you watch the aftermath of her viral moment of slipping and falling while performing at the Red Bull Music Festival in Chicago in 2019, a moment that few artists would embrace. Interspersed throughout are riddles – cyphers – that challenge the toll of visibility and public success: conspiracy theories, the surveillance apparatus, and loss of control and autonomy. Every scene challenges you to engage with the narrative contortions ranging from dark humor to unease at the thin line between reality and fiction.
When I bring up the Tribeca award, Tierra gets a cheeky glint in her eye. “I’m one of God’s favorites,” she said. Tierra credits director Chris Moukarbel for the vision. When the two met before taking on the project, she discovered a kindred spirit and true fan. “He was like, you know, at first glance, people will see Tierra Whack and be like, ‘Oh, look bright colors. She’s happy. She’s fine.’ But it’s always a dark undertone.”
Before Cypher, Tierra had never been in a film – but in many respects, it was tailor-made for her sensibilities, toying with what documentarians define as the “creative treatment of actuality” via narrative and tonal dissonance. Cypher forces viewers to slow down and consume the film and not just absorb superficial moments while scrolling on their phones, lest they miss the visual fun house slowly created in the film. It’s the same demand Tierra makes in her music: to only appreciate the vibes is to miss 95% of the experience, and on many occasions, miss the context of the song altogether. Fidelity to Tierra’s work requires acknowledging the labor that’s layered in the nooks and crannies.
There’s an active blurring of fact and fiction in the film that will be obvious for a true fan, but within the fantasy created, the inquiries about celebrity culture, surveillance, and autonomy seem very real. For someone like Tierra, this transition to a hypercapitalist surveillance infrastructure presents many questions. When I inquired about her feelings about celebrity culture, or the cost of celebrity, she hedged.
“I don’t know, I feel like I’m gonna always be me to the core,” she said. “I’m just going on an adventure. You know?”
It’s an understandable sentiment – not only is she having the career she used to dream of, but she mostly realizes her vision with her people on her terms. “I just remember crying, looking at the TV, like, I want to be on TV,” she recalled, chuckling at her emotion. “I felt it … it’s a dream still.”
Take the visuals for the upcoming album – Tierra took advantage of all of the resources available to her in Philadelphia’s music community, filming most of the videos locally. “I’m really proud and excited for the visuals,” she said. “I did some uncomfortable s—.” It’s almost dumbfounding to hear, considering the audiovisual accomplishments she’s made to date – from the tragicomic triumph of “Pet Cemetery” to the oral tension in “Mumbo Jumbo” – yet, Tierra stresses, she pushed herself like never before. “I cried on almost every set of videos,” she said, wincing a bit at her sentimentality. “I could feel the growing pains.”
On the set of “Chanel Pit,” she opted to physically go through a car wash – motor vehicle excluded – for a shot. Tierra’s first job was at a car wash, but it is still a significant level of commitment for a metaphor.
“I had to go through like a bunch of tests a bunch of times, and then do it a few times to actually film it.” It was about eight times in total, between rehearsals and the final take. “I was leaving [the set] and this old man walks up and he’s like, ‘Yo, young sista! My 50 years studying in hip-hop, and I’ve never seen an MC go through a car wash. That’s some bad a– s—,’” she said, laughing, recalling the man approached her while she was still shivering. “You know what? He’s right.”
Tierra hopes to continue to reinforce the Philadelphia artistic ecosystem, rather than default to New York or Los Angeles as creative hubs. “Everybody wants you to leave and never come back and leave and never look back,” she said. “I want people to come to me, right? I want to build my brand up so powerful, so strong that it’s like you want to do anything with Whack you got to come see her in Philly.” That includes eventually laying the groundwork for a music festival of her own, similar to close friend Tyler, the Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival. “I got my own twist to things. I mean, I’ve done almost every festival,” she joked.
For a girl from the North Philly projects, Tierra has checked off boxes that she never even knew existed. “I did my first show in London. It was sold out [with a] crazy line wrapped around the building. They know every word,” she recalled. “This is insane. It just didn’t feel real.”
When I ask her to fantasize about her dream life, creativity is ever present but celebrity doesn’t seem to be a consideration. She sees a big house with a gym and basketball court, an art space to draw and paint, a dog, space to do axe throwing, bowling, a go-kart, watching movies (there is an inside joke among her friends that she has watched so many films she has completed Netflix), and of course, her mom living next door.
In Cypher, there’s a line where her makeup artist Camille Lawrence says, “Even if they had a mold of who [Tierra] is, she would outgrow that and change the vibe of the whole film.” That is how Tierra navigates creative worlds. Despite her self-professed shyness, she commands the room. She maximizes emotions, contorts sensibilities, challenges expectations — and leaves you wanting more. Her willingness to play with moments of public spectacle for her art leaves each moment more ambitious than the last, with the door open for others to draw inspiration from her efforts. It may make her hard to define, but it also makes her impossible to ignore.
BEHIND THE COVER
As they say, “Teamwork makes the dream work,” and we couldn’t have produced Andscape’s first digital cover without a team of talented people. Learn more about them below.
Raina Kelley, Vice President and Editor-in-Chief.
Andscape social & video team: Mary Almonte, Cornell Jones, Cayla Sweazie.
ESPN Creative Studio: Leon Belt, Rob Booth, Jessi Dodge, Heather Donahue, Nick Galac, Beth Stokjov.
Developed by 10up. Production by Lucy Fox and Lizzy Oppenheimer of Petty Cash. Illustrations by Yay Abe. Only Agency. See Management.
Orange Fit: Hoodie, jacket & shorts by Clémentine. Boots by Asics from Artifact. Socks by iRi Nyc. Earrings by Celeste Starr. Bracelet by Louise Olsen. Rings by Chrishabana and Larucci. Makeup by Danessa Myricks Beauty. Complexion: Vision Cream Cover, Evolution Powder. Brows: Colorfix in Primary Red. Lips: Colorfix Glaze in Kaleidoscope. Eyes: Colorfix in Beaches. Lashes: Kiss IEnvy REMY 3D.
Red & Black Fit: Top & pants by Yu Gong. Boots by AVAVAV. Claws by Mio Design Studio. Puffer vest & scarf by Prototype: AM. Earrings by Chrishabana & Shihara. Headphones by David Casavant Archive. Makeup by Danessa Myricks Beauty. Complexion: Vision Cream Cover, Evolution Powder, Lightwork I Palette. Brows: Colorfix in Primary Red. Eyes: Linework Liquid Eyeliner, Colorfix in Blackout, Black Swarovski Crystals. Lashes: Kiss IEnvy REMY 3D.
Red, White & Blue Fit: Top & pants by Desiree Scarborough. Sneakers by Grounds. Earrings by Larucci. Makeup by Danessa Myricks Beauty. Complexion: Vision Cream Cover, Evolution Powder. Brows: Colorfix in Primary Red. Eyes: Colorfix in Platinum & Blackout, Makeup Forever AquaResist in Deep Sea. Lashes: Kiss IEnvy REMY 3D.