For Detroit-based producer, rapper, and Detroit CYDI member ILLingsworth, spitting verses and making beats often feels like a requirement instead of a choice. “Making the kind of music that I make has been a calling,” he tells me. “This is pretty cliche but, when you’re in a good head space it feels like a gift, and when you’re not, it feels like a curse.”
Despite the mixed emotions that come with creating and putting your own music into the world, ILLingsworth tries his best to take ownership of the process — even if it’s painful at times. “It’s not something I ever asked for, but it’s something that I try my best to embrace and fulfill,” he says. “That embrace has brought joy and pain to myself and the people around me.”
This duality is represented in ILLingsworth’s 2016 project I Didn’t Ask For This, a collection of self-produced tracks and raps that address the internal disquiet he was experiencing during the album’s creation. “The title mostly just represents how I felt about my desire to be a professional rapper, as well different financial and emotional struggles I was going through at the time.”
“It’s not something I ever asked for, but it’s something that I try my best to embrace and fulfill. That embrace has brought joy and pain to myself and the people around me.”
Though ILLingsworth is often associated with his instrumental work, he wanted his skills as an MC to take center stage on this release. This meant making use of basic but effective instrumentals as the backing tracks for most songs. “For this project in particular, I really wanted things to be simple and I wanted the words to be the focus,” he says. “If someone tells me they enjoyed I Didn’t Ask For This, I wanted to have some level of certainty it was because of what I was saying, not because I did some crazy beats that overshadowed the words.”
ILLingsworth’s understanding of how to make the appropriate beat for each individual song comes from years of deliberate practice. “For me, this means sometimes making beats when you’re not exactly inspired to make something specific,” he explains. “You just begin and see where you end up. I’m being a little more purposeful these days, but for many years I’ve just been making several beats per day.”
On the lyrical side of things, ILLingsworth made effective use of absurdist verses and humor that help balance the heavier lyrical content throughout the album. “My mind is always a jumble of junk, so I make a lot of statements in my solo rhymes that often seem very disparate,” he says when I ask him about “IT’S A TRAP” — a song that juxtaposes the personal struggles of an artist with broader social issues. “This was just another one of those times. I was definitely influenced by the state of the mainstream as well as what has, was, and is going on with police brutality and such.”
“Living in a box that you think is safe is more painful. Speaking your truths allows you to release pain and gain catharsis through honest expression.”
Throughout I Didn’t Ask For This ILLingsworth maintains a nice balance between broader concerns like the Flint water crisis and more personal problems. On “ANXIETY RAP (WHY I DON’T ATTEND PARTIES)”, we find ILLingsworth diving into the finite elements of distress that can come with going to awkward adult gatherings. In a genre of music that relies heavily on braggadocio verses and exuding supreme confidence, ILLingworth provides a breath of fresh air by penning lyrics where he stresses Uber fares and the lack of plastic silverware at a potluck. Behind the humor, however, is a serious and honest self-assessment of the anxieties of adult life. “I purposely wanted to get more personal and reveal more of my ideology on this album,” he explains. “I really wanted to connect with anybody out there who felt similar, or was open and willing to hear where I was coming from.”
When I ask him if it was difficult to reveal his innermost feelings to his audience — knowing that family and friends would likely hear the album at some point — ILLingsworth wasn’t overly concerned about baring his soul to the world. “It’s not really super hard for me to be open in the ways that I was on that album, because it’s basically how I talk to my friends and family,” he says.
In fact, opening up and being more vulnerable as a rapper has been freeing for ILLingsworth in some ways. “I feel that on some older material, I was being a follower and putting myself into a box,” he says. “Then I had a realization. Living in a box that you think is safe is more painful. Speaking your truths allows you to release pain and gain catharsis through honest expression. So I’m working to make that truer and truer, and refining my own voice as an emcee.”
“For me, this means sometimes making beats when you’re not exactly inspired to make something specific. You just begin and see where you end up.”
The journey of becoming a more honest and complete rapper hasn’t happened in a vacuum. This process of self-discovery was aided greatly by ILLingsworth’s partner, who also designed the cover art for I Didn’t Ask For This. “I honestly get a lot of bravery from being with my wife, Brandi,” he tells me. “My relationship with her revealed a lot of things to me about myself and what really matters to me. That relationship has helped a lot in me being more comfortable being myself in my art.”
Despite undergoing this important evolution, ILLingsworth is candid when asked if having a passion for creating still feels like a curse in 2018. “I still feel like that,” he admits with a laugh.
He is, however, quick to point out that his situation as an independent musician has improved since the making of I Didn’t Ask For This. “Even when things aren’t there best, it feels much less like a curse and more like just a test, or a temporary event,” he says.
“I honestly get a lot of bravery from being with my wife, Brandi. My relationship with her revealed a lot of things to me about myself and what really matters to me.”
Now that he’s in a better creative space, ILLingsworth is eager to share the knowledge gleaned from his experiences with his closest collaborators. “It’s a little different now because I’ve created new opportunities for myself,” he explains. “I’ve been given some opportunities and I’ve got a little more purpose and focus for the type of art I want to make. I definitely want to help the people in my crew do the same thing.”
Whether ILLingsworth makes emceeing or producing his primary focus moving forward, or he continues to find a balance between the two, he appears eager and ready to make his truest and most honest work yet.
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