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Chicago musician NNAMDI on a toy car in a park
Photograph: Maren Celest

NNAMDÏ confronts selfishness and success on his new album ‘BRAT’

The multi-talented Chicago singer, rapper and instrumentalist talks about his inspirations and dream collaborations.

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"Gimmie everything that I deserve," NNAMDÏ (a.k.a. Nnamdi Ogbonnaya) demands atop a buoyant beat and undulating bass line, just a couple tracks into his new album, BRAT. Coming on the heels of his breakout 2017 release DROOL, NNAMDÏ's latest record builds upon the adventurous tone of its predecessor, constructing an intriguing mash-up of genres that blends Auto-Tuned vocals with math-rock rhythms and complex guitar riffs. It's difficult to classify the music that NNAMDÏ brings to life, but that's kind of the point—BRAT is a record that makes (and breaks) its own rules, all while grappling with the personal challenges of creating art and the expectations that accompany success.

Ahead of the release of BRAT (which is now available to stream or purchase), we caught up with NNAMDÏ to speak about the importance of art in troubling times and why he prefers to record his music all by himself.

On how the success of DROOL changed his life.

"The main change in my life was getting coverage outside of Chicago. [Getting write-ups from] NPR and MTV were big bucket list things that I didn’t even know were possible until they happened. I didn’t have a booking agent before DROOL. I would go on tour all the time and barely ever break even. Now that I have a booking agent, I can make this my job and focus more of my energy on it."

On being pigeonholed as a "weirdo rapper" after the release of DROOL.

"It’s just silly to me. I guess it kind of makes sense if DROOL was the only thing you’ve ever heard me do, but to me it’s not weird music. If people think that’s weird, shit is about to get crazy because I feel like I write way more "out there" stuff than that. Stuff I’ve put out in the past has been way more silly or intricate musically or purposefully jarring, and DROOL was not any of those things. DROOL was me being tame and trying to get a feeling across. But it’s not 100% inaccurate to call it "weird," so that’s why I can’t be too mad. I very much believe that once you put something out into the world, you don’t have any control over it."

On the inspiration behind his new album BRAT.

"When I was working on the album, a lot of the things I was doing felt selfish. I would just be in the studio all the time by myself, I wouldn’t answer people’s calls and I would embrace my one-track mind. Many people that make art in this current climate go through waves of depression or sadness, because any empathetic person will look at the world and think I need to do more. But art is so important—it gives meaning to a lot of things, helps people understand what’s happening and gives people a new perspective."

On fantasizing about alternative careers on the track "Glass Casket."

"Sometimes it feels like being a farmer or an astronaut can make a bigger difference in the world. But big pop stars have more influence than any doctor or farmer will ever have. Name one famous farmer! I daydream of what my life would be if I wasn’t addicted to music. Even if I have one of these other jobs, I will never not make music. But yeah, maybe when I’m older, I’ll get a farm."

On confronting mental health with the track "It's OK."

"Sometimes I get really down between tours. Luckily, my brain works in a way when even at my lowest point, I can kind humor in it, which I think is a huge blessing. I kind of wanted to impart to other people that it’s ok, you don’t have to feel good all the time. I hate when I have conversations with people and they’re always happy-go-lucky. I don’t believe that there’s nothing bothering you! I like to talk about the things that are bothering people. It's all a part of life and it's interesting to hear other perspectives on sadness and how to overcome it."

On why he prefers to work alone.

"People who have witnessed my process are like Wow, he is insane, because sometimes I’ll do takes 40 times in a row and not even pick the best one. Doing things by myself frees me to be more comfortable and not have anyone judge me. The big collaboration on BRAT was between me and my roommate [Steve Marek] who mixed everything. I’ve never had anyone else mix my stuff, and I was there for every mixing session."

On his dream collaboration with a fellow Chicago artist.

"I think Smino is one of the best performers and maybe one of the best songwriters of all time, so he’s definitely on my list. I would love to do something with Makaya McCraven him at some point, too—I just saw him at Chicago Symphony Center."

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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