Nick Hakim begins the FaceTime basking in the Wednesday gloom atop his building roof in Ridgewood, Queens. I attempt to do the same in Chicago, but soon we both retreat inside for fear of rain and lack of warmth. The loneliness of this global moment is a salient cliché: the thing we’re sick of, and yet the only thing we all talk about. But the pervasive questions of American excess continue to rear their ugly guts in the choices we make, and the choices made for us. As Hakim approaches 30 while dwelling in an infectious hotspot, he relies on the typical arsenal in the war of isolation: calling all the homies, safe visits with his brother, hugging the block with caution. Or, leaving all things on read until he can focus and preserve his energy. He also knows which 24-hour delis are still open, how far away they are, and the cost-risk analysis of how a 20-minute walk for rubbing alcohol may register as the peak of a fool’s errand.
Releasing a sophomore album in a music industry system that’s never pandemic-proof, however? Nothing to fear if you’re Nick Hakim, and your WILL THIS MAKE ME GOOD album plays like a cathartic fever dream, and ends up more prescient than anyone could anticipate. Arriving three years after his well-revered proper debut Green Twins, WILL THIS doesn’t dwell in what’s easy, and often obscures itself to embody the strain of pushing past one’s violent ways. It’s a patchwork of several years of recording and production, led by feeling rather than timing. While Hakim notes how he wants to accelerate his process and refine his writing discipline, WTMMG arrived when it had to, in creation and now in release. There’s talk of the masks we carry, what we bring and leave to our time together, and the violence we wreak upon ourselves and each other with blatant disregard.
“The reason that we decided to even still go about putting this record out is because… I feel like, weirdly, the material is so in tune with how the state of the world is right now,” Hakim says. “The first track is about disrespecting our Mother Earth, and it sets the tone: This is not just about me, this is about everything. There’s a track called “Let It Out” that is literally just ‘Let it out…’ That was probably one of the first things I made with lyrics; that also set the tone for the whole record. I was dealing with a lotta shit, and it was just like… no matter how messy it gets, just fuckin’ get it outta your head.”
Hakim’s no stranger to the slow-build: the DC native’s spent the last six years on a steady incline, gaining recognition that annexed him as a member of the new guard in the canon of soulful R&B artists he looked up to. He’s not the biggest artist, but the privilege isn’t lost on him, and he understands the weight now more than ever. Hakim crafted the lyrics to WTMMG via a fistfight with his own mind, settling into the role of a pupil as he filled three months of 5 a.m. sessions engulfed in information: recording, drawing, reading, watching interviews and performances. As he sifted through memories and inspiration, he forged his vision for a cathartic break that lifted the weight off his chest. While Hakim’s reveled in working without a care for outside interference, he moves with a deeper awareness for leaving opportunities for others to bring themselves to the work.
Hakim thrived in abstractions in his previous work, opting to vacate the obvious in favor of an open-ended messiness that imitates life. But there’s a direct intention lingering beneath the 52 minutes of sprawling soul as well. The album’s namesake operates on this level, serving the greater rhetorical question of which habits and actions will offer salvation, but on the direct level with Hakim’s struggles with self-confidence, as well as his personal experiences as a youth inundated with the almighty hand of Big Pharma. The title track narrates this journey from a bird’s eye view, but Hakim, like many of his peers, spent a decade of his youth on methamphetamines himself. While he doesn’t completely shun medication, he resents the way our healthcare industries treat kids like test dummies and control variables.
“For me, I was on medication for 10 years: I had to take two pills a day, and they were strong doses,” Hakim reflects. “I was a senior in high school, and I was like ‘I’m 18… I’m not taking this shit anymore. I’ve been taking this stuff since I was eight years old, every day.’ I was in special education — which I’ve talked about before — and there was a big part of being on meds that was a way to kinda tame the mind of a person that’s not functioning to your norm. I think there’s a personal connection to that title, but it can mean so many things, and I felt like it was appropriate.”
Though difficult to see through the smog of his processing, WTMMG does offer glimmers of hope. But by laying bare the ways Hakim grapples with this violence that lingers through his life, he frees himself from repetition. There’s a near-whimsical quality to the way his songs unfold like playgrounds prime for ceaseless experiments and extended meditation. Shying away from convention lends WTMMG a stream-of-consciousness that finds Hakim approaching his most vulnerable moments yet. Whether mourning the life of a friend, or stumbling off his sixth drink, Hakim’s honesty awaits anyone willing to surrender themself to the funhouse will of his arrangements. This album rewards attentive ears, offering a transcendental quality that lifts the listener into the ticking pieces of an active mind, and leaving them there to carve answers out of the wreckage and newfound clarity. And the journey never happens without reaching for help.
“I’ve kinda always battled through a lot of not being good to myself: physically, mentally,” Hakim admits. “I’m really hard on myself in general, which to me has actually helped with my work ethic and why I accomplish certain personal things sometimes, but the same kind of attitude can be my destruction. It loops in with substances [like alcohol,] and violence… how that’s affected me personally, classic shit. But there’s a lotta stuff with the record that talks about a partner or a friend that can help you get outta that mindstate. There’s a lotta hope; it’s kinda tragic sometimes, but then it’s weirdly hopeful cuz I am hopeful and I do think I can become a better person. You get to a certain part of your life, and you start to either reflect on it, or it starts to control you. I just wanna keep working on being kinder to myself, but also just being honest and upfront with how I’m dealing with my own shit.”
Hakim spent the bulk of his post-college years in New York City, moving from Bed-Stuy to Ridgewood in the thick of being a working artist with hellscape rent rising at lightspeed. Through his growing presence as a scene member and showgoer, paired with maintaining a studio space, Hakim’s built ties to an endless array of NYC talents, transplant or otherwise. His deeply collaborative spirit led to a powerful list of collaborators from a rich tapestry of the city’s new wave of Black and brown breakout stars: keiyaA, Pink Siifu, Nelson Bandela, and Maasai, among many more. Hakim considers many of these folks family; their presence lends WTMMG the worldly roots to its otherworldly quirks, an external representation of how the community one builds can be one’s salvation to work through the hell of oneself, and the heat of the moment. While reaffirming the power of the collective, this album’s process granted Hakim several wise reminders of how to understand and maneuver what comes with his gifts.
“I think there’s the technique of being comfortable playing guitar or piano, but I think the strength in any of it roots back to when I first started playing piano and I didn’t really know anything,” Hakim says. “And it was more a state of not thinking and just reacting to how the shit sounds. These instruments, you can literally speak through them regardless of your skill level. It becomes an extension of you. That’s the energy that initially drew me towards making music in the first place: the intangible space you create has an effect on you. It’s like a healing power.”
Hakim wrote the bulk of WTMMG from the vantage of a cold world, before the pandemic manifested the imagery he planted once the lyrics came to him. But like any Gemini, his piercing self-awareness makes for a speaking candor that fluctuates between intense and slyly humorous. There’s rarely a laughing matter in these songs, but he views his own oeuvre with a snicker when considering how so much of his musical context’s been built from lament and personal strife. His formative years were rife with several deaths of close friends and community members, from sickness to drugs to gang violence. These were the years that built Hakim’s empathy, even as he waded through the aftermath of his own childhood spent systemically numbed on meds.
He cites his work as stemming from “that state where you lose someone or something,” but laughs at how the somber tone — genuine as it is — has come to define his efforts thus far. (True Gemini activity, another place he never runs from.) It’s a symptom of a lightened heart: he did the lifting so he could make laughter of his darkness. Perhaps there’s no strict answer for what will make any of us good — or better to one another — but Hakim intends to continue extending these cathartic opportunities for anyone gracing him with their time. For now, he’s checking in and staying in.
“Man, I’ve had so many people hit me up, or tell me at shows that this thing helps them deal with this or that… anything, man,” Hakim says. “That shit is the real reason this work is so incredible: the interaction with an audience is kinda insane, but also super-therapeutic for myself, it’s an outlet. It’s an extension of you, so it’s amazing to be able to share that. It’s a privilege. When I first started getting into music, I told someone, ‘Man, I would do this even if I was like broke! From playin’ on the street!’ And that’s kinda true, still, but it’s such an amazing journey to go through and experience all these things, man.”
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.