by Raghav Raj
Arts & Culture Editor
Mavi chooses his words carefully. The Charlotte-based rapper — and Bachelors of Science candidate at Howard University — is only 23, but he speaks with a piercing clarity beyond his years, at once laconic and ruthlessly incisive. He’s already been established as a generational voice in the hip-hop underground, having collaborated with the likes of Earl Sweatshirt, Pink Siifu, and The Alchemist; he’s an omnivorous talent who’s as comfortable over the fractured loops of contemporaries like MIKE and Navy Blue as he is with lush, densely ornate instrumentation. Currently, Mavi’s on tour behind his 2022 album Laughing So Hard It Hurts, one of the year’s best, a kaleidoscopic, vibrant record that’s unflinchingly honest and undeniably beautiful, even in its rawest moments. As a bookend to the first leg of that tour, Mavi arrived at Oberlin on Friday, February 5 for a show with Boston rapper Diz, bringing his sunny warmth to the ‘Sco’s stage on an otherwise cold night, wearing a smile as bright as the “Mayor” chain around his neck. Before the show, I sat down with Mavi to discuss the album, being on the road, the literature that inspires him, and more.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
To start, you’re on your first headlining tour. What has that experience been like?
Really fun. It’s required a lot out of me as a leader, because I have to drive the whole thing. It’s all me, you know? I had to pay closer attention to my body, so I’ve started running, exercising a lot more and shit. It's not my first time on tour, but it's my first time on my tour, so the relationships I've built have been a little more tight knit with each city. And I'm able to see the city in more detail, so it's been really good. It's been everything I could ask for and more.
You’re touring behind Laughing So Hard It Hurts, which feels like a really significant record for you. What led you towards something so big in scope yet deeply personal?
Those are the two good words to describe it. Those were kinda my personal requirements going in. The bigness and the vastness is because I hadn’t released anything for like three years. The personalness is because that’s ultimately all I could lean on in terms of what was gonna make it hold weight in the mind of the listener. Those were really my main goals: making it expansive in terms of it touching a lot of different sounds, to where the live performance has a lot of different dimensions, but then having it centered around what’s personal to me. Because at the end of the day, people will attach themselves to truth and meaning. We’re all very overstimulated nowadays, and it's like a marketplace that’s too fast for any of our attention spans. So y'all just need some meaning, and some truth, y’know?
It covers a lot of ground, but one of the main themes I noticed on the album is the way you’re examining your masculinity. Back in 2020, you were set to release a sophomore album titled Shango, which you ended up shelving. How has that understanding of your masculinity evolved in those two years between that and this album, and how have you processed that?
I thought I was going to be a dad last year. That was a moment of extreme vulnerability and prostration toward the progression of my life story. I had to sacrifice myself to the journey, because things slipped out of my control. And to re-define myself as a man within that ceding of control has meant that I value my own flexibility and resilience, my ability to corral the wild animal forces in my life.
I wrote Shango in the weeks after they killed George Floyd. And I was living in Washington, D.C. I was going out there protesting, all ski-masked up and shit, and it really felt like America was gonna be over. I bought a gun for the first time. It was just a very aggressive album, out of fear, and I was centering my masculinity in the part of myself that could kill something. This album is more of me centering my masculinity in the part of myself that can protect something.
I feel like that process requires a lot of sensitivity and internalizing within yourself, which is something I hear a lot of throughout the album. One of my favorite songs is “Chinese Finger Trap,” which is this devastating, brutal, really sad song about tragedy and loss.
That’s the best one! *laughs*
How has your music served as a way for you to work out that grief and that loss that’s so prevalent throughout the song and the album at large?
That's all I got. I come from a household where frank and vulnerable conversation isn’t necessarily how we run stuff. There’s like a spirit of embarrassment around saying something positive about your next family member, or saying something that makes you appear soft or affected. To be able to speak directly to my feelings is one of the main “author’s purpose” reasons why I do this, or why I would need to do this even if no part of my life — in terms of how I procure funds or how my lifestyle is — demanded that I do it. I would need to do this because it’s just my upbringing, because of how few outlets otherwise I have to say these kinds of things.
A big part of it is not just what you’re saying, but how you’re delivering it. Another favorite of mine on the album is “Opportunity Kids,” which has this really dope beat that you’re just going back and forth over with this incredible flow. How did you approach this album from a recording standpoint, as a rapper and a performer?
Two things. First, there’s this thing in music — I used to play instruments and shit — and it’s called a rhythm étude, which is a study, like a half song or proto-song. A rhythm étude is about the flows, you know what I’m saying? So there’s times and songs on this album where, basically, it’s just about that.
Another thing: two of my favorite rappers are Future and Young Thug. There’s this one thing that Future always says when they ask him about his flow. He was in an interview about his new album, and he said that “you know, it’s about the vibe, it’s about the moment.” And that really used to just sound like a vague, airhead rapper kinda answer to me, but then I realized that the thing that makes me go back to a Future song might be a half-second, the way he said like two words. For someone to really extract and distill and concentrate those moments across an album is what attaches our memory to the beauty of that album. And I wanted to give the listeners as many of those kinds of moments as possible, with what I can control through my voice.
I think that sort of presence plays a big part in what makes the album so interesting, but there’s also a lot of depth in your lyricism. The album begins with the song “High John,” and as a whole is based on High John the Conqueror and that story.
Folk hero man. Slavery freedom man. Strong laughter man. His laughter guides the slaves to freedom.
In another interview, you mentioned reading Zora Neale Hurston’s retelling of that folktale. What is the role that literature, and specifically Black literature, has played in your writing process?
I need like four or five new books to start a new album. I saw this on Twitter the other night, someone said that writing without reading is like working out without eating. I’ve been talking to all the homies, like “tell me what I need to read.” The homies, especially the homies that are a little more critical of me, know what I need to read. They know I don’t understand what they understand. Reading is like loading up my gun, you know? You gotta do it.
Do you have any reading recommendations?
Big one! I got a book on me now, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain. There’s this bookstore where I’m home, called Archive, and they basically sell old magazines, Ebony, Jet, stuff like that. I recommend that everybody collect, and especially collect things from the time before manufacturing changed, before media changed, and hold onto that stuff. Curate your own collection of physical artifacts and memory bank stuff. Just having containers of memory, because as kids who were raised on the Internet, it’s important for us to renew the value of physical media.
Where are you at when it comes to physical books over eBooks? For me, eBooks are hard to focus on, because there’s nothing stopping me from pausing the book and just scrolling through Twitter or playing Retro Bowl.
I love Retro Bowl, that’s such a good game. We need more side-scrolling arcade games.
Who’s your team?
Carolina Panthers, man. I’m on season 22. My team is OP. I play it just to play it at this point, like I’m not gonna lose, ever. Sometimes I just leave my organization every once in a while and go rebuild another team.
This might be a rivalry thing, but I went to the Falcons for a year, won them a Super Bowl, and went back to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Man fuck the Atlanta Falcons! *laughs*
But back to the eBooks: the imaginative fuel, the magic stuff of our imagination that we have designated for our phone, is more readily and instantly rewarded by stuff other than reading. You can be anybody on the internet, and I don’t just mean you can post and pretend to be anybody. You can get on TikTok and literally get in someone else’s shoes, into their life, for a day. That’s why you read a book, but a book doesn't have flashing colors and your favorite song in the background. It’s a high ask, discipline wise, to have this part of your brain work on this, but it’s really rewarding.
In a way, that stuff about the instant reward and discipline makes me think of one of the hardest hitting lines on the entire album: “finally sober, and it’s just another layer of lonely.” I’ve seen you post a lot about your sobriety on Twitter — what sort of change in perspective has that given you?
People are so fucking annoying. *laughs*
And that’s not me being petulant either, it’s just like I had a mechanical block on annoyance that is no longer there, so my patience is true patience. I don’t just get to be Shaggy anymore. But grace is always rewarded. Nothing good comes easy, so to continue the pursuit of grace is the goal.
I don’t know, people be telling me all types of stuff about how “ever since you sober you this,” or “ever since you sober you that,” but I don’t really like hearing that shit. Because, okay, let’s say that you have crippling Generalized Anxiety Disorder after a traumatic experience, and you take such-and-such amount of anti-anxiety medication. And by some stroke of god, you don’t have your medicine, and someone’s like “wow, you seem so alert today!” That’s brutal. I wasn’t taking that stuff for fun, and I didn’t stop taking it to be more consumable for people.
But mostly, me and sober Mavi have been getting along great. There are often many times where being sober feels better than being high, and being able to live for those moments has been really rewarding. My body for sure works better. I used to smoke an amount of weed that was inappropriate for anyone. All my friends still smoke weed, and ever since I stopped I realized that I’d smoke way more weed than any of them. That was crazy, because I thought we were all smoking weed together! *laughs*
You also talk a lot about sobriety on “Last Laugh,” which is maybe my favorite song of yours, point blank. It’s this really great bookend, and I remember tearing up when I first listened to it. What were you thinking of as you tried to sum up this big, meaningful album? What was that like?
It was scary. Every album I try to have a progress report, something like “Previously on Mavi…” just as a way to gather where I’m at. The two verses of that song started as separate songs, but most of my shit starts all piecemeal. That vocal at the end of the song is my girlfriend, and she wrote a poem to our baby. I was like yeah, this needs to be the last thing on the album. What I like is that if you listen to the album on a loop, the last thing you hear is literally the most devastating thing on the album, and then the first song is “High John.” Laughing so hard, it hurts. It hurts, but then you’re laughing so hard.