On “Free Ride”, the first single from Mykki Blanco’s new mini-LP Broken hearts and beauty sleep, the musician builds a tabernacle from which to worship the sensation of love. The accompanying video features Blanco reshaping the tropes of family, community, and celebration for more inclusive purposes. What might seem dysfunctional – several generations living in a rickety camper van – is overhauled with gentle reverence. Blanco’s gift has always been the queering of perspective, refusing to get stuck in any particular mode. Broken hearts and beauty sleep provides this framework for notions of love and loss. The result is a deeply moving meditation on what it means to take care and to be cared for. On Zoom, Blanco says the timing of the project’s release, just as the world reappears after more than a year of lockdown, seems divine. Although it was not their goal when recording the album, Broken hearts and beauty sleep copes with the contrasting impulses associated with returning to normal. His songs are about making room for desire and making room for healing trauma; to know intimately the contours of your heartache and to devote yourself to the hope of finding true love.
“Free Ride” floats gently between floating drums and angelic piano chords. Blanco’s statement on the song’s chorus: “What I wouldn’t do for love / What I wouldn’t give for love”, is sung like a prayer to heaven. Co-produced by FaltyDL and Hudson Mohawke, the track was recorded with Mykal Kilgore, Leah King and L1ZY, who provide the backing vocals on a number of songs on the album. Like “It’s Not My Choice,” assisted by Dev Hynes, which picks up the piano melody from “Free Ride,” creating the kind of cohesive soundscape present on albums from an earlier era. “I was super inspired by that kind of Nile Rodgers vibe where you would have the same chorus of people doing every song on the album, almost like we were like a band,” says Blanco.
Blanco’s inspiration for the record was the Quiet Storm radio format which appeared in the late 1970s. A staple in the growth of contemporary black music, the radio DJs of the time spawned a subgenre distinct from R&B, characterized by mellow, jazz-inspired ballads of love and romance. It’s music that you could describe today as grown-up and sexy. “Quiet Storm was an important thing for Broken hearts and beauty sleep because it was the music that I heard a lot when I was a teenager in the car with my mother, ”explains Blanco. “For some reason I was very inspired by the music of Luther Vandross and Anita Baker. I was like ‘what would my take on that kind of sweet soul from the early 80s look like?’ “
Blanco’s decade-long career so far has been defined by a much more overt type of storm. After entering the scene through the unconventional worlds of performance art and poetry, Blanco has made a name for himself in underground circles for a raw and free mix of hip-hop, punk and noise. . Their pair of releases 2012 – Mykki Blanco and the mutant angels and Cosmic Angel: The Prince / ss Illuminati – were five years ahead of their time. The production on both bands was sonically varied, mixing industrial and experimental electronics with conscious rap. A bit like a proto-Yeezus, except instead of rapping about falling in love with a Kardashian, Blanco rapped with a devious mind about the superfluous of the genre. Yet despite the technical skill on display, inordinate attention has been paid to everything except music. Blanco’s outspokenness about their gender identity and, more recently, their HIV status, came just before a generational shift in concerns about sexuality made them mundane conversations.
“Identity politics has always been this huge thing that sort of overshadows my art,” Blanco says. “Actually, I’ll take that off. I don’t mean eclipse. Sometimes it got so much to the fore and I put myself at the center of it all. Even though I’m happy to have been a part of some of those defining moments with gender identity, it was that thing for me where I was like, ‘Oh, shit, but who am I as a musician? “”
Blanco says that after their debut in 2016, Mykki, they came to a different understanding of where they wanted to take their music. “I was really brutally honest with myself where I was like I’m not me, would I be able to say, ‘Man, this whole Mykki Blanco album is really great,’ they said. “When I realized that I hadn’t had this experience with my own music, a huge paradigm shift occurred in my head. I think what happened was the natural progression of anyone who lives their life in this industry, who loves what they do. It’s kind of that sort of thing where you start to dissect yourself and ask yourself “how can I be better?” “
Blanco says it started with a commitment to stop using samples. “From that initial core of a thought came what would really become these next two albums,” they said, referring to Broken hearts and beauty sleep and its follow-up, slated for 2022. “You’d never think that, but one of my all-time favorite bands is Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. If you listen to my music you will probably never think that, but it is true. Blanco says they sat down with executive producer FaltyDL and listened to a plethora of CSNY records finding instrumental inspiration. “It would be like okay, let’s get into this instrument and make some loops, and then maybe a flute player and a guitarist come in at the same time,” Blanco says. “So it was this completely organic and new way of working. It was magical because in a few months I was like ‘Oh shit, I’m making music that’s all mine now.’ “
The nine tracks on the LP are well served by Blanco’s new commitment to instrumentation. The sounds blossom and build, as on the opening of the album “Trust A Little Bit”, which uses a slow piano chord progression to guide Blanco’s sermon-like delivery. It’s a breakup song rapped like a church testimony. As Blanco’s bars get faster, new instruments are introduced. A tambourine. Applause. Choirs. By the time the trail ends, we’re somewhere rhapsodic. “Summer Fling”, about the agony and ecstasy of summer single life, lands like a modern day ballad. Kari Faux is a welcome collaborator, bringing the song’s bouncy cadence in a catchy line warning potential suitors to keep their emotions in check. Sonically, it ends on darker chords, paving the way for the heartbroken single “It’s Not My Choice”. The entire record is a demonstration of the type of sequencing that gives credence to the lasting appreciation of older generations for the classics. Listening to albums cover to cover is just different.
After a decade of career, Blanco’s new approach marks the start of a new era for the pioneering musician. Broken hearts and beauty sleep is their first release with the Transgressive Records label, which Mykki signed with earlier this year. And the album also serves as a breakup record. Blanco says they wrote many songs after a long-term relationship ended at the end of 2019. Now, newly settled in Los Angeles (Blanco spent the day before our call to buy mattresses), the future looks bright. hope.
“I just moved into a new apartment in Los Angeles and this is the first lease I’ve signed since we broke up,” they said. “If my life has shown me anything, it’s that with persistence and honesty with yourself as an artist, things will work out.”