At a time when uncertainty and fear has run rampant in the world, Lyric Jones’ confidence and self-assurance is akin to a cup of hot chocolate on a chilly autumn morning. Well accustomed to a good cup of joe, The New England native, who is currently based in Los Angeles., exudes a warmth that’s particularly palpable when discussing her favorite topic: music. A veteran lyricist, who unleashed her debut project Jones St. in 2012, Jones has spent the better part of the past decade asserting herself as one of the most vicious pens on the indie circuit with a string of solo and collaborative releases. Her last drop, 2019’s Gas Money with producer Nameless, received a considerable amount of acclaim, however, Jones felt she had yet to separate herself from the pack and break through the proverbial glass ceiling of being pigeonholed as a “female rapper.” However, a chance encounter with rapper Phonte Coleman, of Little Brother and Foreign Exchange fame, earlier this year led to an artistic rejuvenation on the part of Jones, after Coleman offered to executive produce what is the rappers’ forthcoming project, Closer Than They Appear.
Released today, October 27, 2020, the album captures Jones’ hunger and grit, as well as her immense talent and versatility, the latter of which she says played into the title of the album. “I think a lot of people kind of wrote me off as kind of staying stagnant,” Jones reveals to VIBE, via phone. “Putting me in a box and just not giving me any room to break through, so I think the project kind of represents the title in and of itself. The project is an object that’s closer than they appear. I’m an object that’s closer than they appear. And Phonte and all of the other people that came together to be a part of this, whether they’re mentors, celebrities, or whatever throughout my journey were considered like objects. So it was kind of a triple entendre, in a way, of just tying [together] how everything makes sense.”
Featuring guest spots from Little Brother, Vic Mensa, Phil Beaudreau, and Sy Smith, with production by Nottz, Phil Beaudreau, Carrtoons, Focus…, H0wdy, Blaaq Gold, and Nameless, Closer Than They Appear is a culmination of the road traveled thus far for Jones and indicative that her time is now.
VIBE spoke with Lyric Jones about her new album, being challenged creatively by Phonte, working with Vic Mensa and Phil Beaudreau, her appearance on Sesame Street, and more.
VIBE: Your new album, Closer Than They Appear, is your first full length release since 2019’s Gas Money, your collaborative album with Nameless. How does it feel to get a new body of work out to the public, particularly being that it’s your first solo album in years?
Lyric Jones: It feels good. I wanted to have some type of a bookmark [to put] on 2020, it’s a lot going on this year. I think this is gonna be a year the whole world is gonna remember for the rest of our lives. And as an artist and musician, we use our words for a living…I just would be remiss to not have a body of work to put a stamp on my sentiment and energy on this year.
You recently touched on the album’s title being inspired by the trajectory of your own career and breaking through any proverbial glass ceilings as an artist. Would you say that sentiment or sense of urgency bled over into your creative process?
I don’t know if it was a sense of urgency. I don’t think urgent is the word. I just think the actual title of the album came together with just me realizing at this point and me questioning did I say all that I have to say already, is this even for me anymore? All of those questions that I was asking kind of started to come full circle when I connected with Phonte.
Earlier this year, an encounter with Phonte Coleman backstage at a Little Brother tour stop in L.A. led to him deciding to hop on board for Closer Than They Appear as an executive producer. Give us the backstory on your history with Phonte?
I’ve always been a fan of Little Brother, particularly Phonte, throughout his solo career, from the beginning. I was super young, in high school, when Little Brother came out, and then [when I was in] college was where he really came into the Foregin Exchange and his own solo stuff, so I was just very inspired. I had confidence in kind of being myself when I saw him in his career-path because he would sing and he would rap and he would curate and put all types of different people on projects that I would know about already that was bubbling. So I would just be a butterfly and be like, ‘Wow, I feel like he’s me and I’m him,’ you know. So for years, I’ve just been feeling this connection to him as an artist and how versatile he was and how people didn’t put him in a box. Whereas other artists, when they come out rapping and then they try to sing or do jazz or something, people hem and haw about it. I didn’t really see that happening with Phonte so I was like, ‘He’s the blueprint of how I want to be looked at in the industry.’ Just a savant, like someone that can do it all.
In what ways did Phonte challenge you during the creation of this album and how would you describe his role in the overall recording process?
Since I was younger, when I first started making music, I never really had anybody pick apart a bar and kind of go, ‘Hey, this reference is good, but it’s not landing the way I think you’re trying to land it, so rework that.’ Or, ‘I see this double entendre, I see this metaphor, but I have to ask you about it, so try that again,’ you know? That was a good challenge ’cause I got so used to everybody just saying, ‘You’re dope, you’re dope, bars only.’ But having my favorite rapper really dig into the bars [on] a couple of these songs, it’s like I expected it, but when it happened, it’s just like, ‘Oh…Damn, OK.’ So that was a good challenge. And his role was executive producer, so he A&R’ed, he arranged the songs. I brought some tracks to the table that he liked, which was good so, he would give the yay or nay on all the tracks, what order we put it in, the personnel that was on the records, So he oversaw, and that was the first time that’s ever happened for me, too. I’m usually in the driver’s seat with everything, all of my music, every aspect of my career, so that was also a challenge.
Being that the COVID-19 pandemic came in the middle of the making of the album, did that have any impact on your ability to lock into a creative zone, for better or worse, and how did you go about that in the face of uncertainty?
That’s exactly what it was for me. It was very paralyzing in the beginning, because it’s just news porn and police brutality porn, it was just hard to talk about anything else. Like, at one point, with “Show You How,” I’m like, ‘I don’t wanna write about no love or nothing like that, I’m just not in that space,’ but Phonte’s enthusiasm at one point got me going again. I was already in a funk before we started on the project so what got me wanting to do anything was this was his idea and brainchild of wanting to do this. So him being motivated and having a jolt of energy got me wanting to do it, too. So, with COVID, the beginning definitely was a standstill for a while ’cause everybody’s just trying to figure out what’s next, but then, once I did the [NPR] Tiny Desk [performance], that kind of got my gears going again.”
The first single from Closer Than They Appear, “Show You How,” includes a guest spot from Vic Mensa. How did that collaboration come about and what was it like working with Mensa?
“Show You How” was the last song that we were working on when I went to Raleigh [NC] at the start of the album, so that was when we really locked in. Unfortunately, I had to leave to come back to L.A. to go back to work, but that was one of the songs where we were really catching the vibe. I was sitting on that track for a couple of years, so that was one of the tracks I let Phonte hear and he was like, ‘Yeah, this is it.’ That went through a few phases, we laid down some background vocals and then I think I started writing the verse around the beginning of quarantine, like right before COVID kind of hit off. And once I finished, Phonte originally was supposed to be on the rap part and Phonte was just like, ‘You know, what we’re talking about and how you’re talking, I don’t know if that’s the message that we’re trying to come across. I’m the executive producer, this topic-matter, I just think we should find somebody closer to your age, a young dude that can vibe in both worlds just like you.’
And we ran through a couple of names, but I had mentioned Vic Mensa. He just crossed my mind. I remember him on Kaytranada and just a whole lot of different things where he’s a chameleon just like me, and Phonte was like, ‘I like the idea of Vic on, let me see what I can do, let me reach out.’ He did and Vic sent that back, like, asap. From then on, I’ve texted Vic a couple of times, of course I thanked him immensely, but that was a perfect example of Phonte doing the curating and being the executive producer here and players together to have the song do the right thing.
You showcase your talent as a vocalist in multiple instances on Closer Than They Appear, which has become a calling card for a number of artists in recent years. With proven lyricists making a splash off the strength of their crooning, was it important for you to place an emphasis on that side of your artistry?
Absolutely, that was like the key thing to highlight. I’ve been singing my whole career, from my debut album in 2012, I was doing a whole lot of hooks for people, like J-Live, Planet Asia. There’s a lot of stuff out there with me just singing, but somehow, a lot of people still don’t know that I sing, it baffles me ’cause I sing a lot. I sing way more than people think and people still aren’t connecting the dots, so Phonte, yeah, I don’t even think we discussed it. I just think it was understood, like, ‘Yeah, you’re definitely gonna be singing on here, we’re gonna showcase what you can do.’ But for me, it was very important that I’m singing on stuff and showing that I can play in other sandboxes. I’m not just over here, again, in this female rapper box that is over here, I can do a house song or dance song. I can sing a ballad, just a ballad [with] no bars. I can do a basa record with Phil Beaudreau, but then I can fuck with Little brother you know [laughs]? I can get on a Nottz track, like, all of that was an intentional thing for creating this.
Another artist that isn’t listed as a feature, but appears on the album is Rah Digga, who you’ve toured with over the past few years and has become a mentor of yours. Describe the chemistry between the two of you, musically or otherwise, and the influence she’s had on your artistry and career?
Digga is on track seven, it’s called “Wanna Say,” and she’s doing adlibs on there. And initially, we were really thinking about how we could include Digga on the project, whether it’s a verse or whatever and Phonte was like, ‘Yo, her doing adlibs is such a subtle enhancement and it represents how she’s been behind you for so many years.’ Like the symbolism of her just doing adlibs, granted that we’ve done two or three songs already, I loved that idea. So Digga just hopped on that real quickly adlibs on her phone and the way it came together, I really love it. But yes, to answer your question about our relationship, Digga is like my sister, for real. People say that in this industry and it’s just, like, cap [laughs]. Digga’s mom calls me daughter, her little daughter is like my niece. She’s been at my crib, slept over here multiple times, she’s really like my sister. We talk all of the time, we bicker, we challenge each other. And I love that Digga doesn’t make me feel small. she talks to me like I’m her equal, like I’m her peer. Now, she’ll gather me if I’m wyling [laughs]. She’ll get me together, but she lets me be myself, even if it’s to a fault, but she’ll correct me later. I feel comfortable being who I am with Digga and that’s true family, true love and unconditionally, so I’m immensely grateful. And it really just started with me being a big fan and running up on her, and she always tells how it wasn’t the music that attracted me to her, it was my work ethic and how positive and assertive I was. She sees a lot of me in her so that’s how everything started in the beginning.”
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Are there any particular songs on the album that you’re excited for fans to hear or hold extra weight to you from a personal standpoint? If so, why?
“Face To Face,” I think, was the real honesty. I think out of all the songs, people kind of get a gist of who I am. The good thing about me through my career is you literally learn something about me on every song. I don’t just rap in fluff [laughs]. I have a couple of those, but everything is insightful unto who I am, but I think “Face To Face,” how it kicks off, I really think it’s eye-opening and real and relatable. And “Angelina,” I think [that track] really shows my ear. That was a track that Phonte was surprised that I liked. He kind of was playing it and was skipping to the next one and the next one and I was like, ‘Hold on, go back to this, go back to this.’ He was like, ‘You like this one? Ok.’ And the way we came up with the metaphor and collaborating with Phil, I hope the musician heads really love that one. Like, that one is for the people with an ear, for sure.
On another note, you recently did voice over work on an episode of Sesame Street, which cast you as a rapping hamburger battling against a hiking boot, voiced by Phonte. Being that Sesame Street is such a legendary program that transcends hip-hop, what was that experience like?
It was so different because me being in L.A., I’ve been wanting to do voice-over stuff for so long. I just think it’s a fun thing to do and kind of step out of the realm of being an artist, like, being Lyric Jones. I’ve been waiting for those opportunities. Again, that was something like March, I wanna say right when COVID was starting to get real. Phonte, he was like, ‘All right, I need you to do this voice-over thing real quick. I need it, like, tonight, so’…[laughs]’. I was like, ‘Ok,’ and I just, like, hopped up, opened up Logic and it was just so fun doing a little trappy animated voice ’cause that’s not something I would normally do for me on my project. So the thought of all these little kids that may know me as a rapping hamburger and not Lyric Jones is kinda cool to think about.
What message or feeling do you hope listeners walk away with after giving this album a spin and what would you say someone who wasn’t privy to your music beforehand can expect?
This project is for the people, it’s not for me. I’m more concerned about how everybody else feels, like, I really feel this album is for everybody else and that’s a unique perspective. I just want people to grasp the range. This project was really supposed to highlight the versatility and the range of Lyric Jones as a writer, as an emcee, but also as a musician. I want people to grasp my ear and grasp my style, holistically. But I really think this project kind of shows the range of all that I can do and all of the worlds that I can play in and that’s what I want people to get. I don’t want to be labeled ‘female rapper,’ that’s like the biggest thing I’m trying to run away from with this project. It’s like, ‘Nah, we’re not doing boxes here.'”