It’s a safe bet that the vast majority of Americans, asked to name someone from Delaware off the top of their heads, could only come up with that of Joe Biden, the former vice president currently dragging out a will-he-or-won’t-he-run guessing game regarding the 2020 presidential race. But that doesn’t mean the nation’s “First State”—our second smallest in area—hasn’t produced other accomplished individuals, including, in the hip-hop world, one of the more quietly promising young talents to emerge in recent years: melodic genre-buster Lil West. The southern Delaware town of Bridgeville—population, 2000 and change—isn’t what you’d call a hip-hop mecca, but then 20-year-old West is hardly a conventional singer and rapper.
The first thing I notice as West and I sit down in a booth at the midtown location of Manhattan favorite Blue Ribbon Sushi—is that his famously wild hair has been brought under control. If the artist has one signature visual trait that’s helped stand him out from the pack during his come-up, it’s a leonine mane that serves as a nice visual signifier of his free spirit. The hair has been on full display in videos like last year’s “No More” and the recent “Somedays” – but this afternoon, it’s braided and barely visible, under a cap. “Sometimes it’s like, I don’t like having it out, so I’ll braid it up, take care of it, just make sure it’s healthy,” he explains. “That’s really the only reason I do braids. But a lot of people like me because of the hair. And it gives me a different image than everybody else.”
Neither of us are first-choice sushi fans, but I am happy with vegetarian rolls, while Blue Ribbon’s fried chicken more than meets with West’s approval. But what he’s even more enthusiastic about is the impending arrival of Vex Part 1—released March 17th—an EP that marks both a stylistic honing and a step up in profile for the performer. With a string of affecting singles that preceded it, “Not Sure”, No L’s” and “Somedays”—at the moment, there are more eyes than ever on the First Stater. “It feels real different now, cause it’s just like everybody is really liking everything I’m doing,” he asserts. “Also, now I’m making more different music, I’m touching different styles, so it’s like, hitting different crowds. And it seems like everybody’s just like fucking with it.”
Among those fucking with it is Republic Records. A sharp eye on streaming platforms will notice that the industry giant, in an arrangement with West’s indie home Nomad Music Group, has released Vex Part 1. While neither label nor artist will comment on the extent or the permanency of the relationship—West only demurring to say he’d “rather people just like me for me”—he does appear in the artist roster on the Republic site, and every indication is he’s got some heavy hitters in his corner, which just may account for the fact that it’s not only his hair that seems to have been recently tamed.
From his debut EP, three and a half years ago—2015’s Vertigo—through its sequel the following year, a string of 2016/2017 Soundcloud singles and collaborations with envelope-pushers like Dylan Brady, Osno1, Hovenchy, Distance Decay, Night Lovell and nothing,nowhere, West became known for wild swings in style, with a healthy appetite for sonic experimentation. Never were those impulses more evident than on his first full-length, the independently released LW17, which showcased an exhilarating, eclectic collection of flavors—punk, EDM, pop and more. “I wanted to connect with people, and that’s why on LW17 I made songs in so many different styles,” he explains. “Like I might have a trap song and then…something really different.” There were the gurgling electronics of “No Prob”, the laid-back trap of “Lmk”, the dark “R&R”, a thrilling, all-over-the-place “Bit My Tongue Now My Mouth Bleeding”, and the record’s weirdo tour de force, “Gum In My Hair”, which alternated auto-tuned plaints with cartoonish, pitch-shifted PC Music-styled breaks. It was bananas – a fuzzy, noisy blast.
He was likened to a young Lil Uzi Vert or Travis Scott, and he cited such no-rules alt provocateurs as MIA and Gorillaz as inspirations. But his anything-goes crazy quilt of sounds was not the stuff that might be considered commercial hip-hop circa 2010’s. And with the arrival of 2018, West seemed to be reining in his experimental tendencies in favor of a more sentimental trap side. The aggressive edge of “WYM”, a 2016 collab with 21 Savage that the artist once said was “meant to be vulgar” and or the explicitness of early single “Fellatio” gave way to a more heart-on-the-sleeve West. “That’s because I have a crowd that kind of likes me for the more sentimental, melodic stuff,” he explains. “So I try not to do too much of the more aggressive stuff, I just try to add it in sometimes, you know?”
These days, romantic conflicts abound in his music. In last year’s “No More”, West bemoaned being away from his girl for long stretches; only a few months later, the dreamy “Give It All Up” considered walking away from that relationship altogether, as the professional and personal clashed: “I’ll feel better when I reach all my goals/ Things aren’t looking too good for me and you.” Sure enough, the real-life situation that inspired those lyrics has since ended—a four-year relationship dating back to high school. “Yeah, we was going out for a while, but things just didn’t work out,” he recalls. “It’s hard when you’re young. It was a flip-flop type of relationship, some days we would want each other so much and then some days we would hate each other. And it’s hard to keep that balance once you’ve been doing it for so long and to just keep doing like that. And I was just, ‘let it go, let it go.’”
It’s those sentiments exactly that are channeled on Vex Part 1, on “Somedays”, a standout that may be Lil West’s most immediate melody to date, and on “Not Sure,” a track full of relationship doubts: “I take too long / To keep myself together for what? / I don’t see the point,” he sings. On the guitar-driven “Barn”, in full singer-songwriter mode, West vents, “You make me hate myself / You make me eat my words / You make it so hard to be myself when I’m with you” while “Help” gets right to the point”: “Now I’m the one that needs help / I need some help.” Even if that high school relationship didn’t last, musically it’s been the gift that keeps on giving.
The EP was produced entirely by the New York duo Take A Daytrip, maybe best known for their work on Sheck Wes’ monster “Mo Bamba”—the first time West has worked with the same producer on a full project. In a two-week period last year, they came up with some 30 songs, seven of which made it onto Vex Part 1, and all of which deliver the feels. Where the record strays from romantic woes, West reflects on navigating life and a young career. Opener “2pennies”, with a sultry feature from Tommy Genesis, addresses what West calls, “basically people who are always trying to add a comment, you know, putting their two cents into everything.” “Can’t Be You” was inspired by the locals back in Delaware, and their reaction to his burgeoning renown. “I’m kind of explaining how it goes on there,” he says. “How even when you’re doing something good, they’re still gonna try and bash you and put the negative out.”
And on “No L’s”—on which West confidently declares, “I don’t take no L’s, I never lose”—there’s an appearance from southern peer Yung Bans. “That song just felt like an anthem,” West explains. “So I was like, ‘Damn, we need somebody like Bans.’ Cuz he just knows he’s the man. I love his whole swag and shit, so I had to have him on there.” Bans’ verse references, of all people, Michael Jackson and his pop classic “Smooth Criminal”—eerily timely considering the renewed controversy around the late music icon, in the wake of the sexual abuse allegations contained in the documentary Leaving Neverland. While West has no comment on the veracity of those claims, he’s uncomfortable with the judge-and-jury “cancel culture” of the internet. “I just don’t like how everyone is trying to bash everyone,” he explains. “It’s crazy. They’re really trying to do him dirty, and I think you’ve got to separate the music from that.”
For all of the swagger of its hook line, in “No L’s” West also admits that there’s “times I wish I didn’t drop out of school.” It’s a feeling, he says, that was especially prevalent last year, when things weren’t popping, career-wise, as quickly as he’d hoped. “I was feeling like ‘Fuck!’ Like after I dropped Lil West 17 I was like, ‘I wish shit would just go faster!’ And everybody kept telling me, ‘Just be patient, your time’s coming, it’s coming.’” But patience can he hard to come by when you’re only 20 and left school in your junior year to pursue music full-time. “When I first dropped out, I was kind of embarrassed to tell people,” he admits. “I was just nervous. And then last year I was thinking a lot about like, “What if this rap shit don’t work out?” It was a frustrating time, one that’s evident in Vex’s title and in its cover art—West’s face covered in plastic. “Because that’s how I was feeling, around last year,” he explains. “You feel me? Like a lot of stuff was making me frustrated, it felt so stagnant, so bottled up. That’s why when you look at the cover, it’s just like me in plastic, because I just feel like so restricted, so frustrated and closed in.”
Still, in the long run, slow and steady sometimes really does win the race. And with Vex Part 1, Lil West has renewed traction once again, the ear of a bigger audience than ever, and the counsel of major label players. “At the end of the day, they know a lot more than me about what’s hot and what works,” he concedes. “I just try to be—I just want to make everything perfect, so that everybody fucks with it, you feel me?” You just hope that too much advice doesn’t stifle the no-rules spirit that makes West special, and that the kid who made the wacky “Gum In My Hair” a couple of years ago still has some weirdness in him, even in his current, more audience-friendly musically emotional mode. “I think I could,” he replies. “It would just have to make sense. I just couldn’t go wild with it. It would have to just really make sense, because it’s all about balance. I’ve been trying to connect with people even more, so I’ve just been trying to find that balance, with everybody.”
The music and the culture needs outsider minds like West—the sort of creative who, when asked who he’d most like to collaborate with, without hesitation cites a left-field choice: the Swedish cult crew Sad Boys, and their entrepreneurial emo star. “I just really like Yung Lean,” he offers. Which makes a weird kind of sense, as West’s art and aesthetic skews European, multi-cultural, even futuristic—although he’s yet to venture across the pond, he says he’s already got “a lot” of European fans, and hopes to make it there soon.
In the meantime, a US tour is tentatively being planned for the fall, in support of both Vex projects, and the first EP has another video on the way, for “Not Sure.” But however things take off, it’s unlikely he will succumb to the siren call of the big cities. West, who won’t turn 21 until May, is quite happy staying in his small Delaware town. “I’m really cool just going to New York or LA for two weeks and coming back home. I’m fine with that,” he says. “Every time I come here and I be here for a while, I’m like, ‘I can’t live here.’ In Delaware I know exactly where to go, and just how to maneuver. It’s easier. I feel more relaxed.”
Lil West’s Vex Part 1 is out now