The adage “you must love yourself before you can love others” can be interpreted in any number of ways, and for Chicago rapper Matt Muse, exploring love in all its forms has been a strong source of inspiration for his two most recent projects.

Last year, Muse released ‘Nappy Talk’, a project he describes as being all about self-love. Muse builds himself up in layers of bravado on tracks like “Don’t Tweak”, letting off steam in the form of masterful flows over keys that seem to announce the arrival of an impending threat. But unlike some wordsmiths in his arena, Muse’s boasts come with substance, rooted in pride that goes deeper than just plain vanity. On ‘Love & Nappyness’, the follow-up to ‘Nappy Talk’, Muse lets listeners know just where that sense of pride stems from. He opens up about the role God, family, and his upbringing have all played in forming his self-perception and ultimately his voice as an artist. While coming across as softer than his previous releases, Muse proves that he’s just as, if not more, powerful with a pen when he’s at his most vulnerable.

Read my latest conversation with Matt Muse to learn more about the making of ‘Love & Nappyness’, his hip-hop influences, and his role as a mentor for organizations like Young Chicago Authors:

MDR: Coming from a musical family, was music always something you wanted to pursue as a career?

MM: Early on, music was just a thing that was always present. My parents love music. There’s never been a time when I was in the car with my mom or in the house kickin’ it with my father and there wasn’t music playing. It didn’t become something I thought of making a career out of until I started making beats in high school and I was like “I wanna be Kanye”.

When I was about to start college, I realized “damn, college is this thing I’m supposed to go to and figure out my career and I don’t wanna do none of the s**t that’s there.” I wrote a mixtape that summer and realized I could actually rap and that this could maybe be a career.

MDR: What kind of music did your parents play?

MM: My father makes house music. House music is his thing. I mention it on one of my songs, but my dad actually wrote one of the songs that Kanye sampled on “Fade”. On the credits, you’ll see my dad’s name, Harold Matthews. And my mom sang gospel in the choir–she does opera and has been in choir her whole life.

MDR: What did you listen to on your own? What was the first album you ever bought?

MM: *laughs* The first album I ever bought, when I was like 7, was ‘Survivor’ by Destiny’s Child. So I had a range of musical interests. And also it’s these three badass women on the cover so I was like “hell yeah. Black women. Turn up.” … When I was younger too, my pops put us on to Busta Rhymes, Red Man, Method Man, Lauryn Hill, and then hella gospel music. 

The first hip-hop album I ever bought was ‘Be’ by Common in 2005. Common was the first rapper I was super into. Like you couldn’t tell me shit about Common. Common, Kanye, Lil Wayne, Jay Z–right around my freshman year of high school was right around when those guys became my foundation.

The raps I was writing felt like an infusion of all four of those people. Even if it was conscious like Common, there would still be punchlines like Wayne, shit-talking like Kanye, and double entendres like Jay Z.

MDR: What about Common struck a chord with you?

MM: I was raised Christian, and religion was a part of my DNA. It was a part of me, and I didn’t have a problem with it and I still don’t. I wasn’t raised by like crazy bible beating Christians, it was just life. Like we go to church every weekend, and we believe in positivity and caring about people. Common’s music was of Chicago, but it also had the infusion of that positivity and love that I was raised on. Whereas a lot of the other rap at the time was about things that I enjoyed, but it didn’t match me. With Common, I found a rapper who was from where I was from, who was able to be mainstream but still had similar ideals to what I was raised on.

MDR: What are some of your favorite albums?

MM: My favorite of all time is ‘Late Registration’ by Kanye West. ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’. Honestly, I’d put ‘The Waters’ [by Mick Jenkins] on there too. A Jay Z album for sure. There’s so many out there; ‘The Blueprint’ was a big one for me, and everybody hates on ‘Kingdom Come’ but in the terms of my hip-hop foundation, it’s a great album. I’m also gonna say ‘Watch The Throne’, and the last one would either be ‘Be’ or ‘Section 80’.

MDR: So you rapped all throughout college, and once you got out you became a mentor and a teacher. How did that all start?

MM: My first job out of college was at the Chicago Park District, and I would go to two parks a day teaching kids how to write raps and make beats on iPads. Then Young Chicago Authors put out a call that they were hiring and I got the job. 

Also at that time, Donda’s House did these open auditions at the time to get people to perform at AAHH! Fest. There was like 100-something people that auditioned and I won. We performed at AAHH! Fest, and it was huge. Actually, if you look on my banner on Twitter, Cole Bennett took that picture during that performance. It was crazy because J. Cole performed there, The Roots performed there, and I was just meeting all these people. It was a big deal, and the first big thing I did once I finished college. 

MDR: I feel like the culture of mentorship and passing on knowledge is especially strong in Chicago. 

MM: ‘Cause we need each other. That’s just the reality. Chicago’s a unique market ‘cause there’s no labels here. Naturally, when you’re grinding and trying to move up, we just gotta try and throw each other alley-oops. That’s how it works.

MDR: Getting into the new project, the title is ‘Love & Nappyness’ and next to every song is a word that represents a different form of love. Could you unpack that concept a bit more?

MM: The words are Greek words for love, and it is inspired by this thing we had in church called the Agape festival. It was this huge feast in the basement where we could commune under God’s love because that’s what Agape is–God’s unconditional love.

I always planned for this project to be a super vulnerable version of me, whereas ‘Nappy Talk’ was just me rapping and making harder songs. I thought this would be a cool way to show off that vulnerability. Instead of just making songs about bad relationships, how can I make songs that talk about all the ways I experience love? ‘Nappy Talk’ is about self-love and talking my shit, and ‘Love & Nappyness’ is about all the other ways I experience love.

MDR: One form of love you talk about a lot is familial love. What does family mean to you?

MM: I didn’t have a lot of friends outside of family growing up, and my friends were the people I met at church. So it’s like I have my family who is always around, and my bigger family is my church family. It’s just naturally what I know. I know my mom, my dad, my sisters and my brothers really well.

My grandmother who was the matriarch of our family died in 2007. The song “Family, Still” is an update to her about how the family has been since she passed. It’s also me addressing this oddness that’s fallen over my family since my parents’ separation a few years ago and addressing the beauty in our family even though we’ve been a little rocky. 

MDR: Do you find it difficult to open up about things like that?

MM: No, I’m a very open person. If someone close to me asks me anything, I’ll tell them because I don’t have a lot to hide. The difficult part for me was making sure that I wasn’t trying to be a rapper on this project and that I was just being myself. When I’m trying to rap, the braggadocio and the flexing gets in the way of vulnerability. On this project, I stopped worrying about lines and metaphors, and just wrote what I felt hoping that some bars would come out of that. 

One of my favorite bars on the album is on “Family, Still” where I do a punchline about my little brother’s name. Those lines are few and far between, but they’re still there ‘cause I just let it happen instead of forcing it.

MDR: The only features on the project are Joseph Chilliams and Mon’Aerie. Did you intentionally not want to bring too many other artists onto the project?

MM: The features were intentionally limited because it’s about me. I wrote all the words Mon’Aerie sings, but I had her on there because I love her singing. With Joe, initially I didn’t have him in it but then I thought it’d be cool if he was on the song. Joe is a representation of self-love to me. Listening to his music is what gave me the comfort to be a little more vulnerable. He’s someone who could make a verse that’s funny as f**k, match the vibe of the song, and still show self-love. I love his verse. 

MDR: You direct your own music videos, including the one for your song “Ain’t No”. What was the concept behind that?

MM: I was trying to say ‘Love & Nappyness’ through visuals, and it’s one of my favorite songs on the whole project. The cover art for “Ain’t No” was my braids, and people loved it, so I knew I had to put my hairstylist in the video ‘cause she’s phenomenal. So I was like let’s just have a party where we’re communing together and also doing hair.

MDR: Could you explain more why that’s one of your favorite songs on the project?

MM: So I had the idea for the album since November, and the first song I started was “Love Wrong”. All I had was a single melody and a few words, but I couldn’t come up with s**t for about three months. Internally, I was pressed. I hit up Ace Da Vinci who promised me beats for years, so he sends me a pack of five beats and I didn’t like any of them. So he sends me this second pack with two beats in it, and ‘Ain’t No” was the first one. As soon as I heard it, words just started coming to me.

Before that, and this might sound dramatic, I worried I was never gonna rap again. I was trying to make something that had a different vibe but was still lyrical, and literally, that beat made it happen. Getting that song out led me to write every other song on the project. I joke with Ace like “bro you saved my rap career.”

Listen to Matt Muse’s ‘Love & Nappyness’ and more of his music via Soundcloud.