Duckwrth has never been afraid to be different. But his latest album, I'M UUGLY, truly sees him on his way to becoming the kind of iconoclastic visionary he's long aspired to be.
The Los Angeles-born rapper first came onto the Bay Area scene in the late Aughts, when he was an Academy of Art Student who spent his days making art, skating, and rapping in a San Francisco warehouse with his collective, Them Hellas, which also included rappers Queens D.Light and Anthony Dragons.
While he got his start making boom-bap with Nineties flavor, Duckwrth's sound quickly evolved into something more innovative and hybridized. Last year, he released a collaboration with pop producer The KickDrums called Nowhere. Its aggressive glam rock synths and zip-lining guitar riffs pushed the MC to try on more dynamic flows and singing styles.
Nowhere was a new take on hip-hop. But I'M UUGLY shows Duckwrth and his hand-picked team of producers and musicians — including ChannelTres, Alexander Spit, and Ru AREYOU — working in a genre that doesn't have a name yet.
The backbone of the album is definitely funk, but it's very unlike other hip-hop projects that weave funk and soul elements into traditional beats (such as the excellent Malibu by Anderson .Paak, whom Duckwrth recently toured with). On I'M UUGLY, the instrumentation is a cross between funk, indie pop, house, and even punk. A couple tracks have thumping 808s, but their production is more reminiscent of Yeezus-era Kanye than anything on the radio right now. And psychedelic synths, echoes, and delays lend the album's old-school musicality an avant-garde feel reminiscent of genre-bending producers such as Flying Lotus.
The different genre elements blend into a finished product that sounds effortlessly smooth, groovy, and danceable, with a two-step bounce and "Black family reunion" vibe, as Duckwrth put it in a recent interview. Vocally, there's singing, rapping, and even interludes with poetry.
But there's never a point where the combination of styles feels forced. Each element plays its part.
"We were bumping [funk] heavy, along with Bad Brains," said Duckwrth, referencing the period when he was living with ChannelTres in LA's Koreatown neighborhood while recording the album. "We were going through all our inspirations, and we both surprised each other. I play a lot of old music and it doesn't really fly when you're getting passed the aux cord in the whip."
I met up with Duckwrth in Oakland about an hour before he had to board the MegaBus back to Los Angeles. Like he suggested with the title of his last album, Nowhere, he's a bit of a nomad. When I interviewed him last year, he was bicoastal between Oakland and New York. Now, he's mostly based in L.A. — though he's in Oakland so often it's easy to forget he moved away.
With his long dreads and form-fitting outfits, Duckwrth embraces an androgynous style that evokes contemporaries like Dev Hynes and rock stars of older generations. He rattled off a few names: Jim Morrison, Prince, Mick Jagger. Each of them owned their masculinity but freely expressed their glamorous, feminine sides as well, he said. And a similar willingness to play with gender non-conformity is all over I'M UUGLY.
The album contains a palpable sense of eroticism and sensuality, but Duckwrth approaches his lyrics about sex and women as a participant rather than a voyeur. It's a sharp contrast from a lot of rap lyrics where men are doing things to women and not with them.
"In this day and age, people don't talk about making love anymore. They don't talk about intimacy. It's very misogynistic and very agro," he said. "UUGLY is always about the contrast and the 'other.' We just wanted to bring that back and talk about making love again."
Case in point, on "Rare Panther + Beach House" I'M UUGLY's most ebullient track, there are just as many lusty lyrics as there are mentions of love and relationships: Now you're lookin' like a wife to be/Shake somethin' for the panther. The track is sexy but never raunchy. It also gets emotionally vulnerable, such as when Duckwrth sings about yearning and desire over the sound of crashing waves. Your ocean got me hypnotized.
"I'm spending this time with this one girl and we're sharing this amazing moment," he explained. "I'm vulnerable, she's vulnerable."
Throughout I'M UUGLY, Duckwrth also shares his willingness to embrace the sometimes messy and unglamorous sides of life. "Lowridr," for instance, plays with listeners' assumptions about the rapper lifestyle — something that came up a lot on Nowhere, also. At a time when everyone aspires to "Uber Everywhere," Duckwrth is rapping about riding the bus and cruising around on his bike (and actually making it sound cool): Man, I hate the bus/I'd rather ride my bike/Put that ass on my handlebars/And everything's alright, he rhymes over breezy horns.
The track is partly a commentary on Duckwrth's experience in the music industry. He's spent time in studios in New York and L.A. and toured with accomplished artists like .Paak. But this level of exposure doesn't necessarily translate to making a good living in today's music industry climate.
But being frustrated and down on his luck turned into fuel for writing this album: "Between having financial issues and health issues, my shit is just ugly. Life is just ugly right now.
"So then from there it was kind of a 'ding' moment," he said, snapping his fingers. "Kind of like a transmutation: I don't wanna be sitting here sad because my shit is not on point, instead I'd rather just make something awesome of it."
I'M UUGLY shows us the beauty in this state of in-between. And it's a turning point in Duckwrth's career, when the ideas he's explored in his previous projects feel like they've truly landed. It feels like the next step in fulfilling his rock star potential.