For Once, Jaboukie Young-White Is Not Trolling

Jaboukie Young-White is in the business of laughter. An established comedian, he has carved out an entire multi-faceted career from being unmistakably funny. Online, he’s known for his well-cultivated Twitter troll persona, which has resulted in a proliferation of “short king” content on the platform and in several temporary bans due to his side-splitting impersonations of CNN (“BREAKING: Joe Biden is not DEAD. He just getting some dick) and the FBI (“Just because we killed MLK doesn’t mean we can’t miss him”). Offline, his distinctly millennial sense of humor has led to a stint as a correspondent on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, coveted writers room gigs on multiple Netflix series, as well as on-screen acting work in projects like Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon and Hulu’s Emmy-winning Only Murders in the Building. Last year, he even made history as the voice of Disney Animation Studios’ first openly gay teen protagonist in Strange World.

But on this scorching Friday in early August, we’re not here to talk about any of these accomplishments. Right now, members of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA are on strike, and promoting any of his (many) projects across film and TV is strictly verboten. Instead, we’ve gathered for a leisurely lunch at the Bushwick staple Father Knows Best to discuss All Who Can’t Hear Must Feel, Young-White’s self-produced debut album — because, yes, on top of everything else, the endlessly talented Young-White makes music too.

While he may be more recognizable for tweeting and deleting, Young-White isn’t new to the art of musicianship. “I’ve been fucking around and making music since I was in college,” he informs me, taking a large bite of his spicy kale Caesar salad. Though he dropped out several months shy of graduation, Young-White did attend Chicago’s DePaul University for a time — and while taking a film scoring class, he discovered the magical powers of Logic, Apple’s music-making software.

He had always been enticed by the idea of production, especially after hearing Grimes’ breakout 2012 album Visions. “I was like, ‘Wait. She just locked herself in a room, took some Vyvanse, and made an album?’ That’s me any day of the week!’” he exclaims, now dipping a rosemary paprika french fry into a heap of creamy beetroot hummus. Electronic music, in all its iterations, had the most resonance. “It just felt so democratic in a way that was really exciting to me. It felt like something I could always be low-stakes doing in the background, and whether I did something with it or not, I enjoyed doing it, so it didn’t really matter.”

“Wait. She just locked herself in a room, took some Vyvanse, and made an album?’ That’s me any day of the week!’”

And for a long time, “low-stakes” was exactly what it was. When Young-White left DePaul in 2016 to pursue comedy in New York, he continued to tinker with Logic whenever he could. “I was like, Alright, so I’m doing comedy at night, and during the day, I’ll make beats and stuff,” he recalls.

Alas, the approximately $1000 he had saved up before moving to the city quickly dried up. “I was like, ‘Bitch, I’m rich!’ But a few months in, I was like, How am I double unemployed right now? This doesn’t make any sense. I really have to pick a struggle and just do that one right.

So he landed a day job doing telesales at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where he put on his best Sorry to Bother You-inspired “white voice” to ask rich people for donations. At night, he continued to climb through the comedy ranks. “And this was not during the ‘Queer Renaissance’ time,” he stresses, referring to the queer comedy boom of the late 2010s. “This was during a time when [the stand-up scene] was still very bro-y.” But something about his irreverent, observant comedy style resonated with a nation adjusting to life under Trump. Before long, Young-White was doing sets for Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show. Then came Trevor Noah, who recruited him for The Daily Show. Soon enough, Hollywood came knocking, and he was staffed in writers rooms for award-winning comedies like Big Mouth and American Vandal. His career was moving at warp speed. Of course music took a temporary backseat.

At least until 2020, when Young-White, like everyone else around the world, found much of his life upended by the onset of COVID-19. Stuck at home with nothing better to do, he decided to try his hand at writing and recording lyrics. (Before, he was exclusively making instrumental beats.) Those early tracks were mostly jokes, intended only for himself and, occasionally, the lucky followers of his “alt” Twitter account. Nothing about this initial output was serious. “I had a song about being in a throuple with Mitch McConnell and Madea,” he says. “Just ridiculous. Stupid.”

But something began to shift. “As the pandemic went on, shit got really tumultuous in my personal life,” Young-White says. He found that the music he was writing started to evolve in turn. “I started becoming less and less ironic as time went on just because I was like, I need to process this. I need the outlet.”

At the same time, Young-White had been working with Interscope Films on an animated project inspired by the life of the late rapper Juice WRLD. “They were wanting to package me as a writer-director, but I’d never directed a film before,” he says. To make up for the credentials he lacked, the team suggested an alternative. “Maybe if you have music experience, that would be a stronger sell,” he recalls them telling him. “Do you happen to have any music?” Young-White sent them some of his demos, but for a while, heard nothing in response. “I was so embarrassed that I locked the Soundcloud,” he confesses. “I was like, We’re just going to pretend like that never happened. We’re never going to let anyone ever hear about that.”

Unbeknownst to Young-White, however, things had been moving behind the scenes, and eventually, his demos found their way into the ears of John Janick, the longtime CEO of Interscope Records. Impressed, Janick set up a meeting — one the musician now admits involved a ton of fangirling, at least from his end. “I was like, ‘Holy shit, some of the bands you’ve developed have been so formative to me. You’re more influential and more positive to my life than my own father,’” Young-White remembers telling him. One can assume that Janick wasn’t quite as effusive in his own assessment of Young-White’s work, but the label executive — who has helped launch artists as varied as Paramore, Tame Impala, and Billie Eilish — was moved enough to offer Young-White a record deal for his debut full-length.

<cite class="credit">Tiffany Campion</cite>
Tiffany Campion

The bulk of the tracks that appear on All Who Can’t Hear Must Feel have been plucked directly from those late-pandemic recording sessions. The artist chuckles when I refer to his album as a period piece, but after careful consideration, he can’t say that he’s in disagreement. “It wasn’t even about me reacting day to day to the pandemic,” he elaborates. “It’s the fact that the pandemic was the first time in, I don’t even know how long, that I had time to really sigh. This [album] was the exhale. It was just years of built-up shit that was coming out at once.”

The album takes its title from a familiar Jamaican proverb — one parents expressly use to threaten children in danger of getting their ass beat. (If you refuse to ‘listen’ to me, then maybe you can ‘feel’ me instead, it implies.) Young-White, who is Jamaican, heard it a lot growing up in Harvey, Illinois, a predominantly Black, poverty-stricken suburb of Chicago. “My dad was violently homophobic,” he volunteers. “He would often be like, ‘If you were gay, I would kill you’ to my face. He’d talk about how he would kill me, too. ‘I’ll cut you up. I’ll set you on fire…’ Because of that, I think death was always such a looming thing for me.”

Young-White can easily contextualize his father’s attitude; he points to the homophobia intrinsic to certain parts of Jamaican popular culture as an explanation for why “a full generation of men would think that way.” Consider “Boom Bye Bye,” Jamaican reggae artist Buju Banton’s hugely influential 1990s single about murdering a gay man. The song was a smash hit upon release. “Well, if Drake had a number-one song called ‘Kill Faggots,’ yeah, there’d be a lot of people who’d be like, ‘I think maybe we should kill some faggots,’” he says, only half-jokingly.

But as comedians are wont to do, Young-White found a way to channel that fraught history into brilliant art. One of his new songs, “26,” is a saucy clapback to Banton’s now mostly banned homophobic anthem, finding Young-White gleefully rapping bars about flossing with a hookup’s pubic hairs. He views a lot of this album as a “reclamation” of his connection to his Jamaican heritage. “It’s me asserting myself and taking up space in a space I just never felt welcome in,” he explains. “I’m kind of obsessed with doing that. That sort of antagonism excites me a bit.”

Young-White and his father don’t speak anymore. The artist cut ties long ago, and judging from his surprisingly chill demeanor while detailing this past to me, he’s evidently made peace with it. (Though he is still in contact with his mother, he no longer visits his childhood home.) “There was a realization, specifically after 25, where I was like, ‘Right. I’m alive. Nothing is going to hurt me,’” he says. “It was this feeling like, Who the fuck is going to stop me, bitch? I’m here!”

<cite class="credit">Tiffany Campion / Interscope Records</cite>
Tiffany Campion / Interscope Records

Beyond the Jamaican influences, the record is dizzyingly diverse. Though the 13-song release clocks in at under half an hour, Young-White (releasing under just “Jaboukie”) manages to squeeze in every genre under the sun, from the fuzzy Steve Lacy-esque funk of “GONER” to the giddy hyperpop sugar-rush that is “++y.” Young-White says the heterogeneity was inspired by playlists, which frequently bounce between styles, though he also credits artists like Azealia Banks, M.I.A., Jai Paul, JPEGMAFIA, Arca, and SOPHIE — “auteurs” who take “the blank slate of electronic music and fuck with it” — for expanding his personal sonic palette.

And lyrically? Well, Young-White is still a comedian, so he’s particularly proud of his countless punchlines and double entendres — touchstones of hip-hop and rap. “Writing-wise, [I look to] Nicki [Minaj] and Lil Wayne. Even Drake and Kanye [West] have some lines where it’s like, ‘I can’t believe you just said that!’” he tells me. “A lot of people have been like, ‘Is this musical comedy?’ But in terms of the genre that I’m working in, I don’t really see the need to delineate. Hip-hop is comedy.” He begins reciting a specific lyric from Minaj’s recent “Red Ruby Da Sleeze” as an example. “Like, ‘I don’t fuck with horses since Christopher Reeves?’ And then there’s that long pause and an echo? I was like, ‘You’re foolish for saying that! You’re crazy!’”

“Unconsciously, I feel more confident being confessional and incorporating my personal life when I have sole authorship.”

But most importantly, songwriting has offered Young-White an outlet where he feels completely comfortable performing as himself. The artist has been quoted in the past talking about his reluctance to play characters on screen that feel too closely aligned to himself. But through music — maybe even more than through stand-up — he’s discovered a newfound sense of freedom.

“Unconsciously, I feel more confident being confessional and incorporating my personal life when I have sole authorship,” he explains. “So many of the times that I’ve attempted to work in other mediums [where I don’t] have first and last say, I’m mostly playing in other people’s imaginations — and I’m too acutely aware of what archetypes I fall into in other people’s imaginations. The discrepancy between their perceived reality of me and what my lived reality of myself is drives me so insane sometimes that I would just rather not do that at all.” He pauses. “Because with the way media literacy is set up right now? People are going to believe that is you.”

And right now, Young-White wants the ability to keep growing. Just weeks before our lunch, the performer celebrated his 29th birthday, and today, he admits that he’s been feeling slightly unmoored by it. “The nines are always the most intense. Even when I was 9, it was intense,” he says. “When you’re on the cusp of something, there’s nothing more nerve-wracking.” Taking his story into his own hands with this new album couldn’t have possibly come at a better time.

Like any Hollywood-adjacent performer, Young-White is looking forward to the end of the strikes. (It’s a shame we can’t discuss his brilliant performance in the upcoming second season of Issa Rae’s Max series Rap Sh!t, where he plays, of all things, a rap producer.) But he feels lucky to have music to fall back on in the meantime. He credits his roots: “I think it’s really the Jamaican in me, where it’s like, ‘Bitch, I got to stay with four jobs!’ It’s things like that where I’m like, okay, you know what, maybe my parents aren’t blue hyperlinks, but I do got a work ethic on me!”

The track is raunchy, cool, and has a name designed to turn heads.

This fall, the performer will embark on a small tour in support of the album, where, per the flyer, he will treat audiences to “some stand-up [and] some music.” Like many striking writers, the comedian has been doing more stand-up recently, in general, though now, he’s been more “intentional” in his choice of venues, feeling like he “needs to perform outside [his] target demo” after wearing out the usual queer-leaning hotspots. “It’s been so many years now of: Union Hall. Bell House. Union Hall. Bell House,” he quips. “I’m like, ‘I love you all. You all hold me down. But I need to perform for blank-faced finance bros again!’ I want to humble myself a little bit.”

Though he’s found a way to commodify almost every talent he has — comedy, writing, acting, and now, music-making — Young-White thankfully finds that each one still brings him individual joy. He sees it as all part of the same ecosystem. Interconnected. “I view everything that I do in my life as cumulative. Nothing is a dead end,” he says. “Everything will make sense or enrich another part of your life at some point or another. I think that’s really the only way to look at it if you’re going to be putting things out into the world.”

All Who Can’t Hear Must Feel is out on all streaming platforms now.

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Originally Appeared on them.