A Q&A with Chicago Hip-Hop’s Newest Savant
July 2020. The backdrop is pretty nondescript. Just a freshly-painted gray wall and a window in sight. But the woman in the foreground is about to explode and elicit a slew of fire emojis, for good measure, once more.
No microphone check necessary. She’s ready.
Just hit “REC.”
I never been the type to tell you that I got the answers.
I seen what they did to Malcolm, what they did to Panthers.
These are the rhythms of Chicago indie rapper and composer Brittney Carter, 29. She’ll continue flowing like that, over a jazzy backbeat, for a minute. And that’s all she typically needs to produce her head-bobbing clips, which have now garnered more than a million views online.
Of course, it’s no surprise that she has a flair for sketching with words. But it’s her penchant for delivering punchy-and-poignant lyrics with purposeful swagger — punctuated by a chilled-out ‘90s-esque verve and contemporary swerve — that has drawn plenty of admirers, from hip-hop luminaries Chuck D and Missy Elliott to an expanding fan base across the major social media platforms.
The Evergreen Park, Ill. native and ardent bookworm is well-versed in the history that precedes and coincides with her rise. That for every Common and Chance the Rapper who placed a major spotlight on the Windy City, women — from Psalm One and Ang13 in the 2000s to Katie Got Bandz and Sasha Go Hard in the 2010s — were rocking the mic under Chi-Town’s klieg lights too.
And as Carter (no relation to Shawn, a.k.a. Jay-Z, BTW) enters the arena, she’s taking her growing acclaim in stride. That’s because it wasn’t all that long ago when she was just trying to make sense of it all — not hip-hop, mind you, but life. After dropping out of college in 2013, a time in which she contemplated following in the footsteps of her mother — who owns a daycare center in Chicago — Carter fretted over unresolved ambitions. (“I was doing all kinds of random things, like taking drawing and painting classes,” she recalls with a laugh.)
But in 2014, Carter stumbled upon a lifeline via writing workshops organized by Young Chicago Authors — the iconic incubator of emerging poets, writers and musicians. While honing her skills along the open-mic circuit, Carter appeared on the notable 2016 all-female rap cypher “Set It Off” and opened shows for artists like Jay Rock. In 2019, NPR lauded Carter as an “Artist to Watch.”
And then came 2020. Amid all of the staggering chaos, it was still a breakout year for Carter with the release of her introspective debut album, As I Am. Clocking in at a brisk 22 minutes, the work tackles prevalent social themes and coming-of-age narratives over sonic beats.
In this Q&A (edited for length and clarity), Carter talks about crafting music in a pandemic, that Missy Elliott tweet, and why being a work-in-progress has made her Ready 4 Whatever in the here and now.
Question: Your first full-length album, As I Am, came out last fall. What has this experience been like for you?
Carter: I’ve been talking about doing a project since the end of 2018. And I didn’t have a concept in mind at all. I just knew that I wanted to drop a project. The whole process was new to me. I remember talking to my manager and saying, ‘I don’t even know where to start.’ And he told me, ‘Find the instrumentals, stack ’em up and we’ll see.’ A couple weeks after that, I got a random email from [producer] Scud One — who sent me a package with all of these craaazy instrumentals. I had no idea who he was and I never met him before. But all of it just sounded so perfect. I asked him if I could use them for my project. And that’s how it kinda got started.
There’s that. And there’s also a lot of synergy between you and vocalist Oliv Blu on songs like “I Ain’t God” on the album. How did this collaboration come about?
You would think that we were working together for awhile, right? But that was all new too. I saw her perform a few years ago. And it was like, ‘Who are you?’ I just knew that I wanted to work with her right there. Then we actually ended up joining the same collective. (The Chicago-based artist management firm, Loop Theory.) So it’s crazy how it all worked out. I asked her if she’d be interested in me writing something for her. And the very first joint that we did was in 2019. (The song, titled “Fall 4 You,” can be heard here.) Once I started working on my project, I just knew that we had to create more together.
And you were already working on this album when COVID-19, and all of the related shutdowns, began to impact us. How did it affect production?
I just had a couple of songs left to record. The rest of the process wasn’t too bad because I don’t like a lot of people in the studio with me anyway [Laughs]. So it was usually just me and the engineer. We also did some videos during COVID, which did take some adjustment to put together. (A video for the single “Prove ’Em Wrong” can be seen here.) But what’s really been tough to deal with is not being around my friends or other creatives.
Growing up, what were you listening to?
Oh, man. When I wasn’t reading, I was listening to music and sharing it with my siblings. My mom played a lot of Anita [Baker], a lot of Mary J. Blige, a lot of Luther Vandross, and a lot of gospel. She’s not big on hip-hop at all. But my dad got me into Jay-Z, Nas and André 3000. Two very different sides of the coin. And I was listening to a lot of pop, like NSYNC and Britney Spears. If it sounded good, I definitely got into it.
After joining Young Chicago Authors in 2014, you ventured into the open-mic world. But amazingly, you didn’t take to performing at first. Why?
A lot of people probably don’t know, but I’m a huge introvert. It was very difficult for me. I would have to psyche myself to get up on stage most times for performances. It was like, ‘Man — I got all these people here staring at me. And they want me to be good.’ [Chuckles] I would go through this thing all the time. It was irritating, even for myself. But after awhile it just felt good, seeing people diggin’ what I had to say. And that’s when I slowly started to get into the lane of creating music.
Like the songs of the 1950s and ’60s, you pack a lot in under three minutes. In terms of writing, how challenging is this approach or is it just so natural? That you get to the point quickly while also maintaining your flow.
Yeah, my creation process is very unorthodox. And maybe I haven’t talked to too many artists about it. But I don’t always approach songs with something specific to focus on. That’s been something I’ve been trying to establish more as I grow as an artist. And so when I’m listening to instrumentals, it’s more ‘OK, what is this instrumental saying?’ I definitely understand when people say that building a relationship with a producer is very important because they’re going through something when they create. There’s a feeling there. And so, most of the time I’m just trying to capture whatever I’m hearing while connecting it to my own experiences.
Your freestyle videos are viral sensations. What led you to start producing them?
I got inspired by a few artists who I saw doing it. Honestly, it wasn’t something that I was trying to gain notoriety for. The first few that I did barely got any views — even though I thought they were really good [Laughs]. I wasn’t even doing it for views anyway. But if felt so good to try it out creatively. And my boyfriend said, ‘Why don’t you let me film?’ because I was doing it myself at the time. We just picked different locations. So we did the first one in my apartment. That was the first one to go viral. After that, I said ‘OK — you might be onto something.’
Famously, Missy Elliott gave your freestyle a shout-out on Twitter last year. What was your reaction upon seeing that?
It was just so crazy. So crazy. I was at my mom’s house, leaving out the door. And I don’t know why, but I just opened up my phone. And that was literally the first thing that I saw on Twitter. I was like, ‘Nooooo! This is not real.’ I exited the app and then I went back in because I just couldn’t believe it. So yeah, I definitely had a moment. And when I got home, I just danced to Missy Elliott songs for, I swear, two hours straight.
Even with all that has been happening, it’s still quite a time for Chicago’s hip-hop scene. What do you make of it?
It’s just all love. I think that we’re building our own platform here that’s being respected. There’s so much talent here in the city, whether people are getting notoriety for it or not. And there’s just so many different frequencies. Look at Chief Keef. His music is completely different, but it works for him. Then there’s Noname, who’s huge and in her own lane. And then you also have Saba. Everyone has their own distinct sound and can still flourish while getting the music out. It’s just pretty cool to be a part of it all.
When you think about your future ambitions — short-term and long-term — what do you see?
I definitely want to try new things creatively. There’s different moods, different experiences and different feelings that I want to get out. I can write in this hip-hop lane or I can write R&B joints for other singers. Right now, I’m working with a producer, so I’m super excited to see what we come up with. Music is everything to me — it’s just really powerful. But I also want to explore. After I get a few projects done, I could see myself dropping a book of poems. Or I can look into writing scripts. If it has anything to do with writing, I’ll be involved in it.