Image via MAVI/Instagram
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Pranav Trewn finds peace in his vinyl record collection.
There’s nothing but runway ahead for Mavi. The Charlotte-based Howard student, born Omavi Ammu Minder, broke through in 2019 with his acclaimed debut Let The Sun Talk, a fever dream of surrealist poetry and cross-stitched samples. His searching pen and spiritual-minded soliloquies recalled a young André 3000, and with a palpable hunger reminiscent of Kendrick’s arrival, Mavi became an instant voice to watch. In just a few years, he has already worked with many of his idols, from Earl Sweatshirt to The Alchemist, and delivered scene-stealing features across songs with the next generation’s best and brightest, including Pink Siifu, Tony Seltzer, and ovrkast. It would be easy to call him a chameleon, given his ability to seamlessly own a wide range of contemporary rap styles, from drumless soul-chops (“Time Travel”) to Chance-esque gospel pop (“Mama Say”). But such a label would imply Mavi blends in, when with every single he releases, the 22-year-old rapper seems intent on positioning himself as the scene-leader within the lo-fi loops dominating the hip-hop underground.
Despite his apparent ambitions, Mavi wound up taking his time to properly follow-up on the momentum he established early on. A planned sophomore full-length Shango was touted and then seemingly abandoned (it was initially teased as coming “soon” on the cover art for last year’s END OF THE EARTH EP, but that image was then cryptically swapped out on streaming services). Mavi spoke with me last month over Zoom from Charlotte, prior to taking his brother out to the skate park, and confirmed that the finished album fell victim to industry obstacles outside of his control. As a result, he found himself with an unexpected lag time in which to continue growing before recording this past summer what became his new second LP, the wizened and weary Laughing So Hard It Hurts.
Beyond the challenges he faced navigating the music business as a young artist, Laughing So Hard It Hurts is informed by several episodes of personal loss and hardship. Every opportunity that opened up for Mavi seemed to come alongside yet another trial, such as when he and his touring DJ were abruptly injured in a car accident during his first ever tour opening for Jack Harlow. The new album is named and inspired by the folktale of High John the Conqueror, whose spirit never suffered while held in the oppressive inhumanity of slavery. High John serves as a North Star on Laughing So Hard It Hurts, with Mavi taking care to focus his reflections on his deep sense of gratitude and an unwavering faith, rapping to both honor his past and dream up new horizons for his future.
Mavi wrote the album largely acapella, and sought out a gentler palette of hues that would help emphasize the comfort and warmth he sought with his words. Working with new producers like Dylvinci (who helmed the knocking jazz of “Doves”) and Monte Booker (for lead single “Baking Soda”), he honed in on a vision of rap as lullaby, sixteen tracks that rock like bedtime stories recited to enlighten his past self of the lessons he’ll learn on the road ahead. He stretches his already-versatile talents across a wide range of missives, from the morning dew memories of “3 Left Feet” and “Hemlock” to the Saba-reminiscent vocal percussives of “Reason,” threading together discursive tangents into meaningful mosaics.
Like his tone throughout Laughing So Hard It Hurts, Mavi is a thoughtful and elegant conversationalist. He shared stories from both home and the road, detailed his influences and insecurities, and took the time to share the source material he pulled from in crafting the album’s knotty allusions and vast imagery.
Let The Sun Talk was your breakout moment. How was recording and releasing that album while still at school?
Mavi: One of the reasons I was blessed to have that happen when I was at school is because, while certain things changed in terms of people’s perception of me, it wasn’t seismic, you know? Even now I don’t have a clear idea of what the reach or impact of my music is, and honestly I hope to never.
I mixed and mastered and sequenced the whole album in my homie’s dorm. Even the videos, like “Ghost in the Shell,” that one was recorded after class at this cemetery that’s right around the corner from school. So the fingerprints of me being a student are all over the project for sure. But I don’t think the music really changed me being a student until I really started getting booked a lot of places. For example, my first winter break after the release I was in LA with Thebe [Earl Sweatshirt], and I didn’t come back to school on time. I came back like a week after break ended and I didn’t get to register for classes. That sh*t really broke my heart, not being in school but still living in an apartment right off campus. But it definitely made certain things easier too, because I felt a level of satisfaction that allowed me to commit myself more fully to my education when I went back the following semester.
How did you balance continuing to be a student while simultaneously having your career start to gain momentum?
Mavi: Sh*t was difficult. Howard is a special kind of school. It’s not so simple just matriculating there, even if you weren’t having all this sh*t going on that I have. So yeah bro, it’s definitely a challenge, like even just affording to go there, and doing all the paperwork involved with being in and out and having to get readmitted every time I go back to class and sh*t.
But it’s been a worthy challenge. I feel like it’s important because so often we expect young black men, primarily rappers, to sacrifice living a full life that includes family, education, and the things that really mean self-actualization in exchange for glory and money in the industry. And that wouldn’t leave me feeling as fulfilled as doing everything is gonna make me feel, you know?
It enhances your character to be pursuing multiple interests at once.
Mavi: F*ck my character though. It enhances my quality of life to have an education in a way that being a rap n*gga could never do. It just can’t. The same way all children are legally required to go to school. There’s a reason why that’s a thing. Once we become adults or once I became a rapper, that don’t negate the potential of education to increase the value of somebody life. I wanna promote that specifically amongst rappers and artists.
Your degree is in biology?
Mavi: Yeah, with a psych minor.
What led you to that field specifically?
Mavi: I really like animals, and I’m really curious about humans, and I’m curious about the mind as a physical space and a cognitive space and what the middle of the venn diagram for that exists as. Consciousness is like your computer running, right? Your visual card is working, your graphics card is working, your memory card is working, your f*cking sound card is working. The whole motherboard is interconnected. But I’m curious about like, what is the RAM? What are the physical units of consciousness? What is the core? So that’s why I was into psych and bio. I took a lot of cognitive and neuro and developmental psych and sh*t like that.
Where did you pick up your recording skills and learn how to rap?
Mavi: In my house mostly. My dad ran a studio from about 2007 to 2011 where a lot of important people in Charlotte actually physically came to my house. As I continued to get more notoriety around the city, I ran into a lot of people who knew my parents, which was weird [laughs].
So that, and there was also this program that I entered when I was in 10th through 12th grade called Studio 345, where they bus all the kids to this building downtown called Spirit Square and break us out into different self-teaching courses. The one I was in was music production. They also had film production, mixed media, screenprint, painting, and photography for free. I met a lot of my best friends that are rappers in the city there too, like Ahmir.
That’s really where, in terms of the process of being in the booth recording, stuff like that became familiar to me. When I was 15 and stopped going to that program so frequently, I was able to take that same process and that same confidence with me toward hearing myself on the microphone in a way more DIY space.
Were there folks you were trying to emulate or artists you looked towards when you were developing your style?
Mavi: I don’t think I was ever trying to emulate nobody. I think I was trying to sound very different from people. I was trying to be someone who was known to be a really good rapper, like technically, but also someone who was counterintuitive, you know? I didn’t wanna be good in the way that everybody was measuring goodness at the time when I started rapping, in 2014-2015. I wanted to be a whole different type of good, but a good that is still undeniable under the conventional expectation.
I love how you said that – being good by a different set of metrics than most people think about when they first listen to rap music. I think that’s something that gives your music a very distinct quality. When you first hear it, it’s difficult to pick up what exactly is clicking. You feel it first before you can start breaking down what individual elements are most resonant.
Mavi: Right. I wanted it to be natural, autobiographical, and vulnerable.
Prior to announcing Laughing So Hard It Hurts, you had initially announced a sophomore album entitled Shango. I remember even the original End of the Earth EP artwork had a little “Shango soon!” sign. What happened to that album?
Mavi: I don’t wanna talk about what happened to Shango, but what I will say is that the album was about me becoming a man. In the spiritual tradition of Ifá, Shango is a very strongly masculine figure. He’s athletic. He’s an energetic, electric figure. And he’s a righteously violent figure, quick to anger. A lot of the reason why I zoned in on him as the subject, or like the subtext for the album, was self-evident in what I went through when I was creating it. In a way that was very deeply spiritual. A lot of stuff about my own anger, my own volatility, my own electricity, my own despair. His representative symbol is a two headed axe. As much as he is very masculine, he had long braids like a woman, and was a ladies man at the same time. So there’s things about him that are very dual, and a lot of that duality really resonated with me at the time.
I will say by comparison though, where Shango was a very manly, muscular album, this is a much softer, feminine album. I think the reason why this album is more of that is just because of the experiences that drove me to write it. There were experiences within family and my conception of manhood not being defined by what metals it could crush, like a diamond, you know? But defined by how womanhood and babyhood around me is able to be formed and exist.
When did you start recording Laughing So Hard It Hurts?
Mavi: So I recorded Shango in like July of 2020. I recorded this album in July 2022. The subject matter is all absolutely new. I wrote almost all the songs in January, and I added two more like literally weeks before the album was turned in. So it is definitely a mercurial piece, and it is designed to capture, or commemorate, a moment in time in my life that I don’t wanna forget.
Do you expect we’ll ever hear anything from Shango, or is it locked away for good?
Mavi: Lord willing. But it won’t be through no traditional channels. I think there’s a lot of value there, and it wasn’t a throw away album by any means. If I had my way, people would’ve heard it when it was meant to be heard. The initial drop date for it was November 16th, 2020.
One of the reasons why I’m not so keen on releasing it through traditional channels was it was supposed to be an immediate follow up to Let The Sun Talk. Whereas Let The Sun Talk is like this sunny, partly cloudy day, Shango was like a storm. You know what I’m saying? He’s the Orisha of lightning and thunderclouds.
Given the time that’s passed since both Let The Sun Talk and when you recorded Shango, how do you see your music or writing having evolved? What new elements do you think you’ve brought into Laughing So Hard It Hurts?
Mavi: I gave myself more authority and license to bring this album outta my own life and my own pain. I was making Shango in the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of George Floyd. I was speaking for my own anger, but also I was speaking to anger as its essence. Instability and volatility at its core. Same with End of the Earth, not so much in the anger sense but I was speaking to uncertainty of the future. Period. Uncertainty of my future and uncertainty of the future of the world. Even on Let The Sun Talk, it was this exploration of coming of age where the sun is this male figure in the nation of God’s Earth. And it represents the birth of a young man. And what statements I want early Mavi to say from a Mavi of today or a Mavi of 10 years from now to be able to look back on and be proud that I said it, and proud that I built myself in that image.
This album is instead about who I actually am to the people who are closest to me, and that’s pretty complicated, you know?
Some of the events that partially informed the album were a car accident that took place during your tour with Jack Harlow, and your uncle passing away around that time. I’m really sorry to hear about those hardships. In what way do you feel like this music might have helped you process or bounce back from any of that?
Mavi: It’s always been this way for me. I’m a young man, even still, and having been that while still experiencing a good measure of loss, especially in recent years, music has been a way for me to speak to the older people in my family, whether they’re around now or not. And to reconcile the ways that chasing this dream makes me feel small. Sometimes I’ll admit how difficult a life the people above me in terms of my own family had to live in order for me to chase this dream, one that feels kind of frivolous and self-centered at times, you know? So it is just embracing the embarrassment that comes with dreaming, especially when you are raised by people who’s greatest dream was you.
You’re a very technical rapper when you want to be, but your music usually comes from a very soulful place, and I think the sound of the record reflects how unique your approach is. You have beats from people like Monte Booker, where I feel like if I heard someone like Smino on that same song, it would sound completely different. You write to the beat in a more circuitous way, where you almost are half singing, playing around with the meter. What do you think has informed that approach to rap?
Mavi: I deal with a lot of insecurity about how good I am, and how heady I’m being. A lot of homies have said things that I probably shouldn’t have internalized about what people want or need from me. And I just try as little as possible to respond to those competing voices, saying like “dumb this down” or “say this like this” or “rap like this.” And respond instead more to my reflexes and what the beat demands. And also sometimes being so singular can make me feel like I’m not measuring up to like such and such kind of standard. But when I start feeling like that, I just know I gotta be a jazz man, you know? However good people think it is, is up to them.
There’s a lot of multitudes on this project. I think since you released Let The Sun Talk, you’ve worked for such a wide spectrum of producers. You have songs with the Alchemist, Monte Booker, Tony Seltzer, Jay Versace, in addition to all the other folks you’ve worked with. How do you approach beat curation for a project like Laughing So Hard It Hurts? What types of beats appeal to you?
Mavi: With this one I know I wanted hella drums, drums that would force me to rap around them in different ways. But the majority of the songs I actually wrote without any drums, at least 10 of them. So with that process it was just marrying my voice to melody and drum combinations that would amplify what I’m trying to say.
What made you choose “Baking Soda” as the first single and earliest representation of the album?
Mavi: It wasn’t gonna be on the album at first, but it was still gonna be the first song that people heard from me in a minute. I just really liked it. I was playing it more than a lot of the album cuts, and was like “I’m dumb if I don’t put this on the album.” It feels homey and warm and familiar, like an old friend coming back, you know?
Speaking of friends, you’ve collaborated with plenty of your peers in your corner of the rap underground, folks like MIKE and Earl and ovrkast. The final version of this album is predominantly a solo showcase, but at any point did you consider featuring any other folks on the album?
Mavi: When it was “trying to get people time,” I was trying to get Noname, I was trying to get Earl, and I was trying to get Saul Williams. And I couldn’t get none. So I was like, it’s meant for me to do the marathon.
I just spoke with Rhys Langston, and he also mentioned Saul Williams. I feel like he’s becoming more and more of a touchstone for this new generation.
Mavi: Yeah, my daddy put me on Saul Williams. As a little boy I was definitely a Saul Williams kid.
He’s an artist who has his hands in so many different styles, and you never really know what to expect with whatever he’s doing next.
Mavi: It’s a blessing. I think he wrote like a movie or some sh*t recently? He forays into everything. I love that about him. I wanna get that confidence.
Do you see yourself expanding into any other mediums?
Mavi: Yeah, if I can get over the embarrassment.
Are there things you want to try that you are currently hesitant to at this point in time?
Mavi: I feel insecure about the amount of time I can dedicate to a new thing while maintaining my time commitment to becoming a better rapper. But I got ways in my back pocket to ameliorate those concerns if I really wanted to.
With End of the Earth, you had the opportunity to tour with Jack Harlow. How was the experience playing for those crowds? What did you learn from being on what I imagine was your biggest tour?
Mavi: It was the only tour I’ve ever been on. I just learned what it means to be a good champion, to represent where you’re from strongly, and how to bring everybody along. And not in a cliche sense, but like giving everybody a meaningful role that makes them feel like their most effective self. And then where they all are able to share in the fruits of our labor.
I also see Jack’s commitment to his body. He’ll rehearse his full hour and do his full hour every single night. His commitment to the work. His commitment to his own mind in ways that really inspired me. He showed me another level in this line of work is achievable through the same elevated measures of any other line of work, which is like focus, discipline, attention to detail.
It’s interesting this being your first tour, with an artist who is fairly large at this point. Because it’s hard as a new artist to understand how touring works, the stress it puts on your body…
Mavi: It was the best first tour for me to go on! Because certain tours I can just tell are like a game. His tour was not no f*cking game. It was actually something real serious. Like real, extremely serious. Sharp, military style. And that’s not to say that nobody didn’t have no fun, or that we wasn’t having a lot of fun every single night, but we were coming through like the f*cking greatest show on earth. It instilled in me a pride to be a part of the show beyond just being excited to be on tour. Like I’m proud to be on this show where we gonna show up, show out, leave a good impression on everybody – in front of the stage and backstage, you know? Like being on a sports team, like being on the Spurs.
Having seen that type of rap career success, what are your own goal posts following this album? What are the things that you think are next on the horizon?
Mavi: I don’t know bro. I just really want people to like this sh*t. Like I want people to think it’s good. I want people to want another album from me. They want to see what I gotta say next time.
Are you focused right now then, on promoting the album? Or are you always writing on the side?
Mavi: I’m definitely worried about making my next album right now, but also I’m worried about promoting this album to its fullest potential. Like this album is my child in every sense of the word. It ain’t nothing that’s gonna happen with this album that’s not strongly intentioned. There’s not a lot I didn’t sacrifice to be able to do things specifically for this album. So I’m definitely gonna see this through as far as the line on this kite allows us to run, you know?
Are you gonna try and tour this album?
Mavi: I’ll try and tour anything. I’ll try to tour with no album. I toured on Jack with no music. I don’t need no album to tour, but I definitely would love to…I dunno, I just put a lot of this sh*t in the hands of God. ‘Cause the part that’s my choosing is my aggressiveness and capitalizing on what God gave me and what the love and the support of anybody who’s ever heard me out fully has given me. And just making good on that potential, and making good on that promise. That’s my main concern.
Where did you draw the album title from?
Mavi: There is this black folk hero named High John de Conqueror, namesake of the first track, who is this personification of black laughter on the slave plantation. He was basically this image of a guy who would make people laugh so hard that their work would complete itself. They would fly away to freedom. It’s basically about how laughter shortens the course of rough travel, through enslavement and through oppression. Laughter is liberation within the black body.
That’s a really powerful folk tale.
Mavi: Hell yeah. I read Zora Neale Hurston’s retelling of it during a really transformative time of loss in my life that changed what kind of man I am in an instant.
What do you hope, if anything, listeners pay attention to on this album?
Mavi: That I had to cry so much to be able to smile at all now. I had to become someone else to be able to make this album and to be able to see this album through. I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to the person that I was before, you know? Regardless of if I will or will not, this album is just about me being able to document that change in myself, and document my fears and anxieties and pride throughout that change.