"I wanted this [project] to be uncomfortable for people to watch."
When Todrick Hall picks up his phone the day before the release of his new album, he has been awake all night. The 32-year-old Los Angeles-based artist spent his evening looking through rough cuts of his music and visual album, making sure each aspect of the new project is perfectly in place.
“I'm just doing whatever I have to do to make sure that this happens and is a complete concept from beginning to end,” he says.
The product of his sleepless nights is Forbidden, Hall’s most ambitious creative project to date. The concept album consists of 30 songs and a two-hour visual album, with multiple featured artists and a story of persecution unfolding over the course of the music.
It’s understandable why the project has consumed so much of Hall’s time — the singer had two months between playing in Chicago on Broadway and his 46-city American tour starting on March 29 to record, choreograph, film, produce and release his behemoth record.
Many of those tasks Hall handled himself — the triple-threat says that while he would love to have been able to hire more people to help him execute a project, his time constraints and creative vision wouldn’t allow for it. “Plus, when I do bring in other people, I typically spend a lot of money for something that I don't like as much as just doing it myself,” he adds.
But Forbidden almost didn’t come to pass. Hall says that after delaying the release of the project numerous times, he had “crazy breakdowns” where he was unsure if his endeavor was too industrious to finish. So, as anyone would, he turned to his good friend Taylor Swift. “I would go over to her house, and over cinnamon sticks from Domino's, she would just listen to me crying and thinking that this wasn’t possible,” he says. "Every time I was dealing with major problems I'd call her, and I'm just so grateful that she'd take the time to sit down and listen to me vent.”
Swift, who Hall refers to fondly as a "mentor," told Todrick that the album was going to be a success, and that regardless of when he released it, his fans were going to love it. Lucky for Hall, she was right — on the day of its release (March 27), Forbidden reached No. 2 on the iTunes overall albums chart, while claiming the No. 1 spot on the website’s pop charts.
When Hall started thinking about writing a new album while on vacation in Hawaii, he says that he began imagining a scenario that later became the crux of Forbidden’s story — what if we lived in an American society where everything was reversed, both literally and metaphorically? Thus the society of Nacirema was born, Hall’s fictional universe where being black and gay is considered the norm, while white and straight people are persecuted even to the point of death for failing to adhere to the status quo.
Hall spared no detail in the album — from the characters’ palindromic names to the direction in which a cross on a church wall hangs, every part of his new America was inverted to reflect his point of view. “This story could be flipped and it would be the exact same thing, we'd just be looking at it differently,” he says. “I want to show that the shoe could easily be put on the other foot, and to maybe have people question that for a moment.”
One of the most poignant moments of commentary on the album comes during the song “Ordinary Day.” Simply listening to the song, listeners may be deceived into thinking that it’s an upbeat musical number establishing a cheerful neighborhood. But the accompanying video establishes the song’s real purpose — it depicts a black police officer shooting an unarmed white child, while the rest of the neighborhood dance about their day while his body remains in the street.
Eagle-eyed viewers noticed that a street sign in the video reads “Novyart,” or Trayvon spelled backwards. Hall says that the death of Trayvon Martin back in 2012 is a tragedy that he hasn’t been able to stop thinking about. “It just seemed like his life didn't matter,” the artist says. “Like he was some squirrel that someone had accidentally run over in some cul-de-sac and people were just waiting for someone to come clean it up.”
Forbidden’s visual album is meant to shock and unsettle his viewers, because these kinds of events in the real world should shock and unsettle people. “We don't usually get to see this specific kind of imagery,” Hall says. “I wanted this to be uncomfortable for people to watch. You have to deal with the fact that they're doing this big production number, and his body is just laying right there.”
Joining Hall on the album are stars like Brandy, RuPaul, Tamar Braxton, Keala Settle, Tiffany Haddish and many more. Hall’s aim in bringing together these artists was to showcase black excellence. “A lot of times, I make my projects super diverse because I have a very diverse and eclectic audience,” he says. “This time, I really wanted to make something that strongly featured a very talented African-American cast.”
It’s no coincidence that this is the case — after the release of films like Black Panther and Moonlight, Hall felt as though it was his responsibility to tell the story he always wanted to see. “It was like someone gave all of us the green light to be able to go ahead and tell our stories,” he says. “Regardless of whether or not it was something that the vast majority of people on the planet could specifically identify with.”
His main goal with Forbidden and projects like it is to create a space where young underrepresented people can feel seen.
“Entertainment so strongly shapes our culture,” he adds. “It gives people the confidence to know that their existence is not accidental … I want to create art that speaks to our underserved market.”