Fifteen minutes into Cypher, a film marketed as a documentary about the rise and life of rapper Tierra Whack, a stalker appears.
It begins as a normal fan interaction at a diner sometime in 2019. Documentarian and director Chris Moukarbel of Lady Gaga’s Five Foot Two fame is filming when Whack and her team politely invite the woman to sit at their table, though they soon notice something is off. She begins spouting theories about the Illuminati and government mind control. Eventually, Moukarbel discovers an Instagram account filled with creepy videos of someone filming Whack. When the lens finally turns on its filmer, it’s revealed to be the woman from the diner. It’s here when the sold-out theater at Cypher’s Brooklyn premiere, on Nov. 9, completely loses it.
Weeks after the screening, Whack, who was in the audience that night, laughs remembering the outsize reaction. “It seemed fake, honestly. The gasps and the laughs and the sighs and all of it,” she says. “I was like, ‘Yo, I’m living in a dream.’”
Cypher, released by Andscape on Nov. 24, puts the spotlight back on Whack for the first time in nearly four years — but it also arrived with a personal tragedy. Over Zoom, Whack calls in from her car in Philly, where she’s driving around after saying a last goodbye to her grandmother, who died at the beginning of the month. Whack took time off to grieve but by the time of our call on Nov. 28 is now back to work, knowing that’s what her grandmother would’ve wanted. “It’s tricky because I’m dealing with a loss,” she says. “I’m mourning, but I’m winning at the same time.”
Cypher arrives at an interesting moment in Whack’s career. After explosively breaking out in 2018 with her watershed debut album Whack World, a 15-track record composed completely of one-minute songs that flipped expectations of what an album could look like, Whack hasn’t released anything as substantial since. Cypher has now catapulted Whack back into the spotlight, reminding everyone why they fell in love with her art in the first place. Like her debut record, the 80-minute film is a trick for its audience to figure out: full of slippery slopes and unreliable narrators. One could say it slots in neatly alongside Whack’s own rule-breaking and often subversive vision.
Cypher builds up to the shoot of a new music video, and the real-life Whack has also been using the film’s momentum to prepare for big things coming up. Ahead of the film’s release, she dropped her latest song, “Chanel Pit,” with a quirky music video shot inside a moving car wash, and finally announced her next album, due in 2024.
Ahead, NYLON caught up with the rapper to chat about Cypher and what’s been occupying her artistic mind since: listening to Andre 3000’s new album, sketching, and why she’d make a song that’s just three seconds long.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
This has been your biggest project in a minute. How has it been to be out and about and promoting this?
Honestly, it’s a really good feeling. It was a long process. We went through the pandemic, the world being on lockdown. We had a little rough patch with filming because we weren’t allowed to really be around each other. But I think everything worked out for the best, and I’m really happy with the results.
Not to keep going back to my grandma, but she literally passed away on the third of [November], and that’s when I was just getting back in the mix and the motion, and I know she was proud of me. That’s what’s keeping me going, honestly, because I know she wanted me to be doing everything that I’m doing and, of course, more. I never had someone in my family or a friend pass, and I’m still kind of pushing through. She’s pushing me. To get all this great feedback, the love, it feels so good to feel appreciated.
Was your grandma able to see the film?
No, she wasn’t able to see the film, and that’s one of the tricky parts. She wasn’t able to see it. I know she’s proud though.
I read that the director, Chris Moukarbel, is the one who brought the script and idea of the film to you. What intrigued you about the project?
Well, my favorite kind of films are dark, thriller, [and] mystery, so I was just happy he saw me as a fit for the whole thing. I kind of was in denial, like “Wait, are we really going to do this?” I was talking to him for a while before I said yes, and I [could] tell he was passionate, and I was a fan of everything he's done in the past. I’m able to read people's spirits so from day one when I met him, I was like, “We’re like glue.”
The interesting thing about the movie is that because it’s structured as a documentary and then kind of devolves from there. What was it like to act in it? Were you acting the entire time?
I would say 50% acting, and 50% my real life. I feel like Chris, he studied me so well, and it was a reason he came to me with this script because he understood me. So it didn’t feel like acting. At first when I started, I kept looking to him like “Chris, tell me if I’m doing it right; tell me if I’m saying it right.” He would laugh, and he was like, “Tierra, just be you.” And then he just gave me the creative freedom to be myself.
Another part is the whole spin on the Illuminati and conspiracy theories. Do you believe in that stuff?
Literally, I do get emails all the time, it’s like, “Illuminati@gmail.com. Come join us.” But I don’t know. I never had a true experience. I think that’s what just keeps everything so intriguing, the question mark, the fear of the unknown. It’s like, all right, you got two options. I’m the one that’s always going to travel the less traveled path. I want to know. I want to see. I want to dig. I want to find out things that nobody knows. I think I’ve just always been that way.
“I want to know. I want to see. I want to dig. I want to find out things that nobody knows. I think I’ve just always been that way.”
I feel like throughout your career, even with your first album, you’ve been walking the less-traveled path and exploring different ways to do something.
Because I don’t like being spoon-fed. Life is full of ups and downs, and it’s like a roller coaster. If life was just easy and smooth, it would be no fun in that. Nobody would buy into your story. I always try to give my fans what I would want to see or what I would want to hear. I don’t just want things to be easy.
Do you like to be tricked when you’re engaging with art or music?
I love surprises.
What’s something that recently surprised you?
OK, I’m not sure if this is true. I can probably call around and get the truth, but I kind of don’t want to know the truth. With André 3000, he just dropped his woodwind album. And he’s a really good friend of mine, so I could ask him and he would tell me, but I kind of don’t want to know. They said that supposedly he’s the one who played the flute on Future’s “Mask Off” record.
That would make sense.
That would be crazy! They’re both from Atlanta. He loves Future; Future loves him. I read an article, I think it was GQ, they said he’s on some records that we know, but he decided to go unknown, unnamed. I’m like, “That would be crazy.” That’s kind of a little twist. It just makes it fun.
Two years ago, you tweeted that you were ready to quit music. I’m curious what reeled you back in?
What reeled me back in? Well, this is the only thing I’m good at. I’m not good at anything else.
Do you really believe that?
Music, that's the core, that’s the meat and potatoes. What do you call it? It’s like a step stool. I need music to help me do everything else. Music keeps me sane. I can’t live without it. So I’m just like, “How could I make that decision? How could I do that?” I can never do it. Without music, there would be no me.
When you were feeling like you wanted to quit, were you just going through a hard time?
Yeah. Depression, suicidal, all those things. I’m human. For a while, I didn’t really love myself or appreciate myself, so I had to go to therapy and just really get my mind and my heart connected. I just had to figure it out.
I read that maybe after that, you took a break from rapping and got back into art and drawing and sketching.
I was just up until 4 in the morning last night. I was drawing on my iPad.
What kind of things have you been drawing?
Mostly people. I’m back to trying to do my own cover art now. I could just see a picture online, and I’ll just try to draw it. Trying to create my own fonts, and I’m trying to design.
I’ve been trying to design furniture. I’ve been doing bedding, bedsheets, and stuff, because I feel like all the bedding right now is boring. We need some spice. Every time I go to people’s houses, everybody has the same sheets and comforters and quilts.
“I can literally find or get inspiration from anything, anyone. I could be taking the trash out and I can see something spilled a certain way and be like, ‘Oh, I like that.’”
As someone whose career is based around art, do you feel you sometimes have to step away from making music and foster your other skills? Is that helpful to you?
Yeah. I can literally find or get inspiration from anything, anyone. I could be taking the trash out and I can see something spilled a certain way and be like, “Oh, I like that,” and I would take a picture of it and then I try to draw it. That’s why I just stay active. I stay moving, and I am just always going into every situation with an open heart, open mind, because like I said, I can pull from anywhere.
You have an album coming out next year. It’s been a long time coming. Has the pressure gotten to you at all?
I’m excited for it. No, not at all, because I’m proud of what I made, and that’s all that really matters to me. I’m proud of my creation, and it’s like my baby, so I’m just happy to be able to share it with the world eventually.
Your debut album disrupted people’s ideas of what an album can look like, and now everyone is making really short songs.
I don’t like to be that person, but yeah, I can see.
Do you feel like you started the trend?
I can say that I started the trend. Definitely.
Since you released Whack World, have you been thinking more about the format of an album and what that can look like?
No. I just create, and if I feel like I want to make a song that’s three seconds, then that’s what I’m going to do. I just might do that. I might make a song where I’m just breathing. You got to have fun, that’s all, man. You’ve got to laugh, you’ve got to live, and you’ve just got to enjoy every moment.
What’s an album that you liked this year?
I’ve been listening to André. New Blue Sun.
People were surprised to hear him put out a flute album.
I mean, not really, because if you’re paying attention, that’s what he's on. Andre, he’s playing his flute; he’s painting; he’s doing art. That’s really my dad. You can ask him. He’ll tell you. That’s my biological father. But no, I don’t know. I went to the gym yesterday and before I went to the gym, I did a really good 30-minute stretch, and I just played the album. It is all about meditation, getting your body in alignment, and your mind, your spirit. Everything has to be in balance. It was a really good vibe to just vibe out to the album.
Besides your album, what are you looking forward to in the new year? Do you have any goals?
Tierra Whack and Target 2024. [Laughs.] If I get my stuff in Target, that’s going to be so crazy. No, but also, definitely, I want more acting roles. I want to really dive into acting, but more on the comedy side though. I’m a silly goose. I want to make people laugh.