Like most music lovers under 40, Tierra Whack can count the CDs she owns on one hand: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ and Missy Elliott’s Under Construction and Supa Dupa Fly. She spends most of her time on a bevy of streaming services or listening to a giant playlist of 5,000 of her favorite old-school hip-hop and R&B songs.
Still, she would like to release a CD of her own someday. “I think everyone should,” says the 23-year-old Philadelphia native. “A hard copy? It’s fire. People want vinyl and cassette tapes -- it’s just cool to be able to touch it and feel it.” When she first got Apple Music, says Whack, “I was like, ‘All right, I’m going to try to have organized playlists,’ but it just didn’t work out that way.” Her favorite streaming function is one she could find on a Walkman: hitting Replay. “Really, I only listen to like five songs,” she says, citing Musiq Soulchild’s “Mary Go Round” and Blood Orange’s “Hope” as recent favorites.
It’s Whack’s defiantly analog sensibilities that actually have kept the idiosyncratic rapper on the cutting edge as she launches her career. Since she started releasing music on SoundCloud in early 2017, her penchant for marrying thoughtful use of contemporary technology with a staunchly traditional view of herself as a capital-A artist has helped make her one of the buzziest acts in any genre.
Take her debut album, Whack World. Released in May 2018, it’s just 15 minutes long, comprising 15 one-minute songs that are each paired with a music video. One minute, as it happens, is the maximum length of an Instagram clip, so the 15 minutelong segments were uploaded both on the platform and as one short film on YouTube. To date, Whack World has 54.6 million on-demand U.S. audio streams, according to Nielsen Music.
“We weren’t necessarily thinking about streaming specifically,” says Whack’s co-manager Johnny Montina. “We were thinking about how people intake music -- how people are quick to move on. How can we give everybody all of her without them getting bored?”
The social media-friendly format spotlighted Whack’s creativity, drawing in new listeners who might not have taken a chance on a longer album. There was a quantitative benefit as well. “With the length of the songs being only one minute, every stream is probably [more likely to be] doubled,” observes Montina.
Whack’s follow-up, a project she dubbed Whack History Month, was a streaming-friendly one as well: Starting in mid-February, she released one song per week. The same month, Whack was an Apple Up Next artist, and she currently has prominent placement on several Spotify playlists (including the 2 million-follower-strong Most Necessary). Still, Whack and her team insist they don’t prioritize playlisting or gaming the system.
“It might sound like I live in a bubble, but I really don’t pay attention,” says Whack. “I just found out yesterday that my music video [for “Unemployed,” released in early April] is about to hit a million views, and it was kind of like, ‘Oh, wow!’ ” Her managers, Montina and Kenete Simms (who also produced much of Whack World), say they mainly focus on placing her at major festivals (she played Coachella and will soon appear at Lollapalooza, Primavera Sound and Made in America) and pacing releases and concerts to keep her fans engaged. That seems to be working: Her only current headlining shows, in New York and London, sold out in under an hour. “There’s a lot of people streaming in the millions, but they can barely sell out a venue,” says Montina. “We definitely believe in old-school stuff.”
To Whack, keeping a safe distance from the industry’s commercial machinery is the best way to succeed within it. “It’s just not fun when you start thinking about all that stuff -- like, nuh-uh,” she says. “I create, put it out, repeat. Like, me and my friends, we play Uno and Connect Four a lot. I’m having fun, and I don’t care about how many times I won or lost -- I just want to keep playing the game.”