Alex Wiley is the Rap Game’s Thom Yorke
Alex Wiley pulls a stool up to a raised table at a chicken-nugget-only eatery in NYC’s Gramercy district. He analyzes the tray in front of him. Cautiously choosing his nugget/dipping sauce pairing (cheese-crusted chicken bits and herbed ranch dressing), with his free hand, he slides the hood from his puffy orange parka off of his five panel hat, exposing the curls that frame his rounded face. The scraggy mustache that loiters over his bowed lips and his shaded under-eyes contribute to an overall impassive demeanor. He gobbles down the nugget in its entirety. With a mouth full of deep fried bliss, and a trace of ranch on his chin, he thanks the Based God on behalf of his enlightened taste buds.
The Chicago rapper just gifted the world a five-song release, the *one singular flame emoji ep*, a jokey title named after an iPhone app, which comes from Wiley's wisecrackin' attitude (for example, dropping lines like, "I was chillin' in the sweater your mama just crocheted").
Though he presents something more sonically sophisticated. The introductory track, "Squadliness," filled with layered synths and Wiley's angelic crooning, offers a romantic anthem for his loyal following.
“From a writing standpoint, I try not to overthink it," he says, reaching for a buffalo chicken niblet. "But I’m like a music snob, so there are moments on [this project] when you can tell it was taken very seriously,” he tells me.
"It’s not meant to be this bold, artistic statement. I'm making music for my fans, and this project was made to be enjoyed, which is the most important thing.”
He's riding a wave of acclaim from the release, evident both on Twitter and major music blogs like XXL and Pigeons & Planes. But Wiley says that *one singular flame emoji ep* is basically just to buy him time for an upcoming, more exhaustive project, a full-length album. That “bold, artistic statement” this time.
“It’s gonna be really experimental and progressive, and really something you’ve never heard from me or from rap in general," he says. "It’s really time-consuming to get it to connect on all the levels I want it to.” He's talking sublime, metaphysical levels.
"I wanna be the Radiohead of rap, musically.”
Wiley says the last thing "that really wowed me—the last music to take over" his life was Radiohead, in particular Kid A, which he discovered last year. Thom Yorke's sweet vocals, mixture of dreamlike states and heightened consciousness, overwhelmed Wiley's musical senses, and you can see the influence on "Squadliness."
“I’m trying to make visceral music. I’m trying to be this artist that has moments of like, transcendent, ambient music that has all the intangibles, like something that’s just hit you. It’s not really something that can be calculated."
After tiring out nearly every possible chicken nugget and dipping sauce combination, Wiley accepts defeat. He leans his head against the wall beside him and rests his eyelids, clearly feeling the effects from an abbreviated night's sleep. Less than 15 hours ago, the young rapper was on the stage of SOBs, playing his first-ever New York headlining show.
In front of his audience, Wiley carries a leisurely poise. He doesn’t let himself get overly energetic or aggressive, which works in his favor, as he’s able to pronounce each lyric as it’s intended to be heard. Instead, he takes his role as leader. With a simple, “Up!”, he signals his crowd members to lift their arms and bump to the beat. Hundreds of hands now point to the ceiling.
Wiley tells me that last night was a landmark in his career. While he’s been the subject of positive crowd responses in Chicago, he was thrilled to see this type of affirmative acknowledgement in an environment so far from home.
“The first time I had a career-defining show outside my city, I was performing at a frat house in New Orleans. It was a house show, and as I was performing I would look to my left and there would be people all up and down the stairs singing along. When I did ‘Vibration’ there… that was one of the coolest moments of my life. The house was shaking. It was epic.” There's a glimmer in his eye as he reminisces on his rockstar moment.
We leave the nugget joint and make our way into what's become an invasive blizzard. Wiley winces and laughs at his loafer-style moccasins, no socks. “I’m not really sure what was going through my head when I put these on this morning,” he chuckles. He doesn't realize his own sense of contrast. While he presents himself as a commonplace 21-year-old with a lighthearted sense of humor, he's also a world-touring success with a vision of making groundbreaking music.
“I want to make something that’s meaningful, something that will help someone get through their day," he says, "Because I’ve had that.”
"I’d like to drop one album a year that’s just genre-defining, time-period-defining music. I want to be known for pushing boundaries and nailing it. I want to be me fully, while creating music that people can enjoy.”