Writer’s Note: This essay began as a profile of Josiah Wise, but our hour-long phone conversation was lost to a glitch in my recording hardware. I hope these words make due.
I first encountered the music of Josiah Wise, known as serpentwithfeet, through a performance at the Palace Theatre in Minneapolis in December 2017. He opened for Grizzly Bear on a tour in support of their Painted Ruins album; a one-man band, with a minimalist setup and a backing track echoing out into the alt-kid decorated, freshly redone concert hall. But a minimal presence did not make for minimal impact: this dazzling Black man, of Baltimore roots and New York dreams, enchanted us in a fashion gone oft attempted, yet rather unseen in the realm of performative art. The serpent’s spirit engulfed the room, big enough to bear whatever weight we brought with us, only to constrict as he invited us further into his world of desire and pain and all the beautiful things in our ugliest selves. The idea of “personal as political” stood not only as painfully obvious, but a gross understatement for the magic conjured in that vast hall on an odd night in December. The ability to heighten the tightest details onto a stage so grand surely comes from a life wandering through this mess, clawing for whatever space he could when the world assured him he made no sense.
serpentwithfeet now possesses the tools to make sense of it all: He’ll release his debut LP soil this June, almost a month to the day of his 30th birthday. Let him tell it, this piece is the perfect farewell to his 20-somethings and a prime welcome into what his 30s may bring. It’s the next step from 2016’s blisters, a brief and engrossing collection of songs navigating trauma and romance featuring his breakout single “four ethers”: an epic ode to a man with the world on his back, the serpent inviting him to the love he deserves and imploring him to tell the truth no matter what darkness he’s known. If the men of blisters had impossible names, soil contains fragments of men Wise gas come to know far too well. Within, Wise extends the canon to reckon with every facet of love in every fashionable manner; ironic, given his penchant for upending clichés when he can, that he can dissect and elevate the intricacies of love — the ultimate cliche — with such grace and poise. He runs from nothing, setting the expectations: We are to be ourselves, we are to own our experiences, and our imperfections service us far more than we allow. soil is rather easy to approach on the surface, but it dares to unearth and comfort the things one silences, giving one permission to be and making neither concession nor apology.
Sonically, Wise trades the grandiose samples of his earlier work for a programmed electronica that radicalizes and remixes the source code of the Black gospel traditions he grew up in. Calling on the likes of Katie Gately, Clams Casino and Paul Epworth, the production on soil grounds itself in traces of the familiar, paving the way for bigger hooks and grander moments. The claps and stomps invoke the spiritual, Wise’s vocal runs spin and curve in freeform on a dime, the words stack upon themselves and amplify the serpent as loud as he must be. These psalms are of Brandy, of Beyoncé Knowles, of Bjork. In a moment, it sounds like the after-hours spot and the Sunday Service by grandma’s house. There’s no rhythm too odd to tackle, and the serpent thrives in the unpredictable.
Returning to the idea of love, soil thematically transports the listener to an undeniably Black, queer universe that was unfounded in Wise’s youth. He’s frequently recalled those years as marred with confusion on how to articulate and sustain his desires. Now, he’s built a world with the hope to inspire new love to bloom; there’s pain and joy, rejection and mourning, but no fear lives here. There’s heavy emphasis on using he/him pronouns when describing a lover, and Wise’s penchant for distilling the dramatic elevates this love in ways one couldn’t imagine to be true, yet feels palpably so. Take the imagery of “cherubim,” Wise’s layered vocals conjuring a choir singing gleefully about devotion to a man in protection of peace. In “fragrant,” he details galvanizing a cult of exes to see if a lost love’s kiss left anyone else as touched as he was. There’s a chemical physicality permeating the euphoria the serpent describes as well: When asked about the chorus of “waft” — “He knows love can’t exist where there is cologne” — Wise detailed how he can assess his compatibility with a lover by his body odor, and how cologne masks the essence of a being, thus interrupting the process.
Considering the potential for a Blacker, queerer future, serpentwithfeet’s come to exist in a pantheon all his own through an imaginative vision with enough room and safety for all willing to do the rest. Approaching 30, Wise has enabled himself to speak his truth to power, but to arrive here is to confront and cherish the ugly things: soil exemplifies this process through a loose relationship narrative, ranging from quiet first encounters to the resolve of a peaceful goodbye. On the album closer “bless ur heart,” the serpent ponders the fallout of these experiences as pieces of something larger: “How could I keep these love documents to myself? / How could I restrict what’s given me life?” In a single line, the resolution of accepting oneself as a catalyst for opening oneself to the world. The findings in soil ebb and flow as we do: sometimes sloppily, hushed, electrified, indignant, and all these things at once. And it can be, as it should be; the serpentwithfeet slithers into the distance, preparing to enchant us again as we ready ourselves for our blessings.
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.