For Better Or Worse, Billy Dean Thomas wants to move what’s been put on the back-burner of hip-hop to front and center again.
Their mission statement for their new EP — out today, October 30 — was clear-cut and purposeful: For Better or Worse restores the relationship between captivating aesthetic creativity and hip-hop’s original function of articulating social critique,” they explain. Because in the eyes of the Harlem-turned-Boston rapper, that equilibrium is flailing in Top 40 rap and hip-hop, and has been for a while.
“I think it [that relationship] has absolutely moved to the back-burner,” Thomas tells Vanyaland. “There are many incredible artists, who unfortunately are not as mainstream, that have strong messaging and are almost teaching about their personal lives as an extension of many world issues. When I was growing up, listening to a Biggie song was also like taking a class. I learned about U.S. history, NYC social politics and some things that were definitely inappropriate for kids. However, now I think the most popular hip-hop rarely engages with subjects beyond money, drugs, and sex. And don’t get me wrong, I definitely blast a lot of these songs, but sometimes I need more and in order to find that I have to look to albums from the past.”
For Better or Worse delivers on Thomas’ mission through all seven of its elastic tracks, but this isn’t a new endeavor for Thomas — they’ve had ample practice with establishing the balance between critical and captivating, the most recent example being their 2019 release 2 the World.
“I feel like currently, popular hip-hop looks to either hip-hop OG’s, Kendrick, or J. Cole to drop a song that speaks to hip-hop with a conscience,” Thomas elaborates. “Personally, every piece of music that I have put out is my conscience, but with this project I wanted to give people both, the euphoria of head banger singles, and content that calls us to reflect on our position within society. Which role have you been playing? Have you felt hurt in this way? Or simply, it just starts a conversation. I want people to dance and rage but also realize that by doing so you are standing for something. With everything that I do my mission is to motivate and show people that they can be agents of change.”
Roughly half of the project was created prior to 2020’s quarantine, but the other half was born in a chaotic, claustrophobic period of isolation earlier this year. Some tracks, like the S’natra-assisted tune “Trump vs. Biden,” hammer down multiple issues with a single lyrical swoop. “I’ve been on autopilot / Cuz I know we are divided / Half of the homies is rioting / We need a better environment / I don’t know, what are my chances? / Is it Trump or Biden?” they rap, a quick, slick encapsulation of the year as a whole. Boston’s Michael Christmas also appears on the EP, contributing bars to the club-ready number “Xan for Xan.”
Using their pantry as a vocal booth at home to record this year (“at the mercy of my neighbors” Thomas chides), Thomas realized the COVID-19 pandemic actually revealed a major music industry setback: A serious lack of diversity in recording spaces.
“One of the biggest challenges that the pandemic has exposed is having zero access to engineers or producers that are queer/trans people of color or women of color,” Thomas says. “Being present in a cis-male-dominated studio poses its challenges on a regular basis such as gaslighting when expressing concerns with mixing or producers just simply sharing your work without your consent. Add on not being in the studio and giving directions via email, and now you have received the wrong file 10 times or you just keep copying and pasting the first email because what you asked for, and paid for, was never done.”
But much like Thomas’ concerns about balancing critique and creativity in rap (or, rather, a current lack thereof), they simply continued by taking matters into their own adept hands. Billy Dean Thomas is building a better blueprint for hip-hop and music-making in 2020 — a blueprint that serves and informs everyone.
“Despite it all, though, I realized that I literally can’t afford to keep paying people to redo mixing and I need to stop allowing technicalities to silence my voice,” they conclude. “With that said, I am releasing it all ‘For Better Or Worse’ and letting the universe decide. I know exactly what my needs are now more than ever: A community of like minded professional engineers and producers with similar identities! Thank you, pandemic!”