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VMP Rising: Topaz Jones

Photo by Matthew Stith

VMP Rising is our series where we partner with up-and-coming artists to press their music to vinyl and highlight artists we think are going to be the Next Big Thing. Today, we’re featuring Topaz Jones’ breakout sophomore album, Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma (which shares a title with its companion piece, Jones’ critically acclaimed short film).

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Topaz Jones is sitting in the corner of Greedi Vegan in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, on a sunny March afternoon thinking about oyster mushrooms. He’s not strictly vegan himself, but he suggested we meet here for variety’s sake. “The food is filling but doesn’t leave you feeling too bloated,” he says, as we get comfortable. While we get ready to order, both Jones and our server recommend different mushroom dishes — Jones swears by the oyster soul bowl but I end up going with a po’ boy instead, served with arugula and chipotle veganaise. The irony was thick because, as Jones begins explaining, his sophomore album Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma was partially inspired by a bad psychedelic mushroom trip. 

In 2018, two years after the release of his debut, Arcade, Jones was putting pressure on himself to craft a follow-up that would be all things to all people. Much of that pressure stemmed from goalposts he set for himself while studying rappers like JAY-Z, Kanye West and J. Cole, all of whom released their debut studio albums when they were 26 years old. Arcade was a naturally eclectic record — blending hip-hop, funk and electronic sounds — and was warmly received, but the dreaded age was rapidly approaching and Jones wasn’t sure how to take his music to the next level conceptually. 

“I was feeling this hopelessness: How can I do this? Why can’t I do that?” he explains. “I’m going through terrible writer’s block, all that shit. Eventually, I was like, ‘Yo, I gotta wipe the slate clean.’” Jones decided to take some mushrooms to further tease out ideas, but what was supposed to be a pleasant brainstorming session turned into a mental odyssey filled with repressed trauma and getting “depressed and crying to Frank Ocean songs all day.” 

   Photo by Matthew Stith

After he came down, Jones’ partner suggested he spend the next day jotting his thoughts at a coffee shop. “I needed to stop forcing the Great American Rap Album to pour out of me. It was too much pressure to put on myself,” he says. Ideas and anecdotes inspired by his childhood growing up across northern New Jersey — particularly in Montclair but also spread across other towns like Rahway, Linden and Elizabeth — flooded the pages of his notebook. These contributed to the overarching themes that would eventually become the core of DGTYM. The title, a lyric plucked from the beginning of the song “Baba 70s,” came to Topaz and his partner while they were driving across the country from New York to California. He wanted to address Blackness not just through his musical fusion, but through personal experiences and vignettes as inspired by movies like Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues as they were by the music of Mobb Deep and Stevie Wonder. 

“A lot of the original genesis of the album came from the times I would eavesdrop on conversations between my parents, uncles, aunts and cousins just talking and shit; to get your first taste of adult Black life from ear hustling,” he explains. “I felt like I needed to blow up more before I was able to tell my story like this — and I didn’t even tell all of it — but I thought to myself that I should write this like I was writing a movie. If I was gonna write a movie about my life and upbringing, what could that mean for people who are coming from a similar background?” 

Lead single “Herringbone” is perhaps the most explicit example of these themes. On it, Jones unpacks weekends driving between his parent’s homes after their separation and general family dysfunction; the melancholy lyrics are set to sunny reverbed guitars and shuffling drums that sound ready for a pool party. This tonal clash is deliberate, something he picked up from OutKast, one of his favorite groups: “There’s some white kid in Idaho right now listening to ‘Hey Ya’ who doesn’t realize it’s one of the saddest songs about relationships ever written. The duality of giving people something that reflects what life’s really like. Anything that’s pure saccharine happiness feels off; anything that’s pure sadness feels off to me. I’m not attracted to that. I need the bittersweet.”       

Other moments from Jones’s story play out in blips and flashes across the album: school fights stemming from insecurity (“D.I.A.L.”); days wishing for a pair of Nike’s only for them to go out of style once he had the bread for them (“Baba 70s”); afternoons spent smoking honey Dutches while watching The Powerpuff Girls (“Sourbelts”). Interludes feature testimonials and stories from family members to flesh out the history, a complicated tapestry set to the sort of expansive soul and funk that his father, Curt Jones, created as a guitarist for the bands Slave and Aurra. 

Jones is unpacking a lot within a compact space, but DGTYM isn’t confined solely to autobiography. Both “Black Tame” and “Gold” wrestle with issues of misogyny within influencer culture and the modern dating scene, respectively, complicated topics that Jones handles with honesty and well-placed humor. And then there are some tracks where he’s rapping with his chest fully puffed. He makes an act of stacking metaphors within increasingly complicated schemes that yield big payoff, like on the breathless “D.O.A.”: “My energy’s so kinetic, my enemies so pathetic / They stealin’ my whole aеsthetic / I’m keepin’ it copacetic / And that’s only the tip of thе frozen lettuce.” For all its interiority, Jones doesn’t want people to forget that he’s a rapper’s rapper.            

The album’s production often matches the expansive and knotty aspects of Jones’s lyrics. He had been hashing out ideas with Jack Hallenbeck — who, alongside funk bassist Alissia Benveniste, produced the lion’s share of DGTYM — sat with Jones early to hash out ideas stemming from the music of D’Angelo, OutKast, Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West. Jones was inspired by the live instruments used on Kanye’s debut The College Dropout — particularly the “cinematic” quality of the violins — and had fallen back in love with funk after hearing Pharrell Williams’ 2014 album G I R L. “I was pushing it away because that was my dad’s shit,” he admits. “But then 2014 comes around and Pharrell puts out his funk album; then Kendrick comes and puts out a funk and jazz album. I wasn’t as ahead of the curve as I thought I was; I was kinda the curve, if you think about it.” 

Once Jones, Hallenbeck and engineer Joshua Pleeter had the vision, they reached out to a handful of musicians, including Benveniste, to come together. Jones sent everyone involved a self-written manifesto, a playlist of music and a list of movies that fit the vibe he was looking for. Many of the album’s beats came together within a few day’s worth of jam sessions at a cabin owned by Pleeter’s aunt. Every day began with a whiteboard of themes and songs to tackle, which resulted in hours of music. The sessions crackled with energy, but the session that yielded the first half of the beat for closing song “Buggin’” is one Jones remembers most fondly. 

“Jeff Andy — incredible guitar player — had to leave a day early, so [Pleeter] had this one homie who was a guitar player; he drove up just to be there that last day and play,” Jones remembers. “[After I left,] my engineer had sent me the raw files of the few hours they were jamming and one of them was the first half of ‘Buggin’.’ I remember sitting back and listening to that and the energy of the first few days had carried over so much that that happened without me even having been in the room. That was exactly what I needed.”

“Buggin’” is the loosest song on the album in more than one sense. Driven by snappy percussion, the groove of Benveniste’s bass and additional flourishes from Chicago producer Thelonious Martin, the song is an extended dream sequence using bugs as analogues for people in society. It’s peculiar and fascinating how a song only tangentially connected to the themes of the album was chosen to close it out, but that’s part of the charm: life — especially as a Black person in America — is all about finding the rhythm before you end up under someone’s shoe. 

Along the way, Jones took his initial movie idea to its logical extreme by creating a short film companion with the same title. Co-directed by the filmmaking duo rubberband — who Jones had known since his days at NYU — the film also utilizes vignettes. They were inspired by the Black ABC flashcards created by Chicago school teachers in the 1970s, and each of the film’s 26 sections is named after a corresponding letter (C is for Code Switching, N is for Nappy, etc.). Jones and rubberband wanted the short film — which won the non-fiction Short Film Jury Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival — to address more of the Black experience than the album could by itself while also amplifying the aspects of his own story that stood out in the music. 

“It was like I was racing to commemorate this era of my life and my family and of Montclair that was rapidly dissolving. I feel really good about the album and the short film as well because it’s like a monument. If they tear down Lackawanna Plaza, it’s there on film now,” he says. 
“The album means so much more now that there’s this film aspect as well to connect it to real communities and different people with different backgrounds and experiences.”    

When the album was completed, Jones played it for a handful of family members: his aunt — who he calls his “second mother” — his younger cousin and his grandmother. All three enjoyed what they heard, but Jones’ grandmother’s reaction was the one that stuck with him the most: “My grandmother is 96, so not big on hip-hop; not a hater, but it doesn’t make it to her ears often. She doesn’t even have a cell phone. For her to find things she liked about it and to see her hear her voice and not recognize it as her voice at first; to hear other members of our family’s voices; to see how I paid tribute to the history of her sisters and so many other members of the family, was everything.”

DGTYM is an album entangled in the bittersweet existence of Black American life on a micro and macro scale. Initially delayed due to the rise of COVID in early 2020 (“I felt like the world was playing a joke on me”), its blend of music and experiences has spread from family and friends to fans to top tastemakers like Issa Rae. Jones feels that DGTYM is the purest distillation of himself as an artist, his interests and insecurities laid bare for people to groove to. 

“I feel the industry eyes on me. It feels like a breakout moment in that way, but it also feels like I circled back to set a better foundation. It removes the power from the things I made in the past where I didn’t feel like I was in control of my gifts. I wanted my power and success to be a result of me speaking truth and not me wanting to win the game. Before, I was thinking how I could score a hit and do the things I need to do in order to have solid ground and sustainability,” Jones says. “Now it’s just about me being as honest and authentic as possible and believing that it’ll magnetize the people it’s meant to reach.”               

Profile Picture of Dylan “CineMasai” Green
Dylan “CineMasai” Green

Dylan “CineMasai” Green is a rap and film journalist, a contributing editor at Pitchfork and the host of the Reel Notes podcast. His work has appeared in Okayplayer, Red Bull, DJBooth, Audiomack, The Face, Complex, The FADER and the dusty tombs of Facebook Notes. He's probably in a Wawa mumbling a BabyTron verse to himself.

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