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WebsterX Looks Beyond the Darkness

Mar. 21, 2017
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Illustration by Melissa Lee Johnson

WebsterX looks back on his childhood with nothing but fondness. He grew up loved and supported by family, and even though he could never quite bring himself to focus in school the way his parents would have liked, he was always a happy kid. That’s why he was so blindsided when depression took hold of him in his early 20s.

WebsterX's debut full-length album, "Daymares," arrives Friday, March 24. | Album information

“It started in late 2013 and lasted pretty much all of 2014,” the Milwaukee rapper recalls. “I won’t say I was depressed every day, but I was realizing this anxiety that had built up in myself. And those two words, anxiety and depression, I never really addressed with myself growing up. My parents, they’re both Ethiopian, and I’m first generation American, so a lot of these things weren’t necessarily talked about at the house. It was never like, ‘Hey, you may go through this.’ And even if I had been told, I guess I would have forgotten, because it was something I never had to think about.”

A few years removed from that slump, he now sees the root of it as fairly ordinary growing pains. He was broke all the time (“which sucked”) and stuck in an unideal living situation, and, most of all, coming to a realization he dreaded breaking to his parents: He needed to drop out of school to dedicate himself to music.

WebsterX says he’s feeling like his old, happy self these days. The fog broke in a big way in early 2015, when he released the striking video for his breakout single, “Doomsday.” Gorgeously filmed by Cody Laplant and Damien Klaven, the video introduced audiences beyond Milwaukee to the rapper’s surrealist, hyper-expressive aesthetic as well as his distinct worldview—a blunt mixture of dread and hope. “We’re all doomed / We’re all doomed / We’re all doomed,” the chorus acknowledges, ahead of the kicker: “But it’s not Doomsday.”

WebsterX’s songwriting trick—and it’s a simple one, really—is leaning on the word “we” instead of “I,” even when he admits he’s clearly writing about himself. It’s an acknowledgement that even the thoughts that feel the most personal are usually shared by others, and it has the added benefit of making his music feel like a movement. “Doomsday” didn’t seem like it was about the experiences of one depressed artist from Milwaukee. It felt like it was speaking for an entire generation.

The sentiment resonated. “Within the first week and a half, ‘Doomsday’ had 20,000 plays on YouTube,” WebsterX recalls. “I’d never had anything climb that fast.” His inbox filled with emails. Blogs and publications around the country singled him out, and big producers reached out to him. “‘Doomsday’ opened up a lot of doors.”

WebsterX kept the momentum alive with a few more singles and videos, but it’s only this week that he’ll release his first major project since “Doomsday” landed more than two years ago—a virtual eternity in rap-blog years. Released under a new distribution label with the Chicago label Closed Sessions, and preceded by a pair of mammoth singles, “Intuition” and “Blue Streak,” Daymares cements WebsterX as one of the most individualistic rappers in the Midwest. His voice is unlike anybody else’s inside the city or outside of it—hungry but with a boyish affect that softens the edge of his sputtery, 12-thoughts-a-second flow.

The album, he says, is a second take. During his rough spell in ’14 he’d written an album’s worth of material that was also intended to be released under the title Daymares, but ultimately decided to scrap it. It felt rushed, he says, and it was too dark—uncomfortably so. If you’re an independent hip-hop fan, you’ve probably heard a few albums in this lane. At best they’re a tough pill to swallow, and at worst they turn painful experiences into bad art. Depression is one of those subjects that even the most tactful songwriters tend to stumble over.

So instead, WebsterX waited a bit and came up with an album that ruminates on those same doubts and anxieties, but looks back at them from a far brighter place. It’s an album not just about fending off demons and teetering on the brink of total collapse, but also about overcoming, or “crawling back to happiness,” as he puts it on “Until I.”

“It’s my entire journey,” he says of the record. “I think the last song I wrote for it was ‘Future Projections,’ which is like a turn-up song, and a lot of it was written in 2016, so it was all really fresh. I wasn’t expecting it, but Daymares ended up becoming a light album. It’s an album about depression, but it comes from a very positive place.”

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