Since emerging out of its primordial ooze in Congo Square, American music of the African diaspora has thrived to such a degree that hip-hop is arguably the world’s dominant culture. From the way we speak to the way we view fine arts, its inclusive spectrum has embraced corners of the world far removed from its South Bronx birthplace of the 1970s. Here in New Orleans, one need look no further than Master P’s No Limit and Birdman’s Cash Money heydays of the late 1990s and early aughts to see the city’s proverbial place on rap’s map. But where flowers grow, so do clouds obscure the light, and the city has yet to experience a true resurgence in the field.
Pell was cultivated by the same fertile crescent that birthed giants like Lil Wayne, but he is part of a generation creating a sound outside the parameters of what Southern rap “should” sound like. Far removed from the “bling bling” era of acts like Big Tymers, Juvenile and others, Pell’s generation is more musically diverse and introspective. Hailing from Gentilly, the rapper, singer and producer currently splits time between his hometown and Los Angeles, sowing the seeds for an eventual full-time base here. Since his 2014 debut Floating While Dreaming, 25-year-old Jared Pellerin makes what many describe as “cloud rap,” identifiable through its ethereal production and abstract lyrical tropes. 2015’s Limbo—buoyed in large part by lead single “Café du Monde,” which plays like a psychological thriller both lyrically and in its visual counterpart—continued his trajectory towards making layered, contextualized music. Frequently straddling the line between the otherworldly and the pragmatic, Pell’s music will manifest again with December’s Girasoul (a play on the Spanish word for “sunflower”).
Inspired by the concept of rebirth amidst dismal surroundings, Pell says Girasoul is his moodiest work to date. “The story is kind of inspired by Tupac [Shakur’s] ‘The Rose That Grew from Concrete’ and I paralleled it to me being from New Orleans, a sunflower that grew from flood water. I wanted to tackle any type of adversity whether it be racism, whether it be heartbreak, whether it be unemployment, even. I’ve been through a lot of these things and I want to be able to relate in a way that I haven’t before,” he explains.
This time around, Pell hopes to use his music as a tool for even more metaphysical application than his previous works. “Music is meant to expand upon someone’s imagination and make room for things that could be there,” he explains. “And that’s where I feel like the connection between my music being relatable and ethereal comes from. We all want to have this bridge to a greater concept or a greater understanding of our experiences and because of that, because of that longing, we are all one and the same. We are all connected in the spiritual mind.”
With only six songs, all in 3/4 time signature, Pell says Girasoul is borne out of a desire to explore means of production. Spending 12-hour days at a studio in Burbank, California, he approached the recording process with a specific game plan: Choose a handful of artists from whom to draw inspiration, including Stevie Wonder and Pharrell Williams in addition to “a wild card of everything that’s hot right now and that sounds current.” An early epiphany arrived when, while listening to Wonder’s Innervisions, Pell took notice of a very specific musical earmark and mentioned it to instrumentalist and producer Bill DeLelles. “There was a song that had pauses in it, and I said ‘Oh, we need to have pauses in our music. Pauses are underappreciated.’”
From there, he began embracing unexpected influence from elsewhere. “I got a call from my godbrother who had recently visited the Guggenheim [Museum in New York City],” he says, “and he was talking to me about the spiral ramp [inside] … it forces you to walk down it. You can’t just go left, right, left, right; you have to shuffle down it.” Such an intentioned approach to space and movement became Girasoul’s key signature. “The way an architect makes you walk a specific way, I want people to move in a specific way to my beats,” Pell explains of his decision to implement that notable time signature. “I want people to feel like they can only move a certain way to a Pell record and that’s how they know it’s my production, you know what I mean?” Rather than try to sound too current, his modus operandi remains reliant on his own creative freedom, and he credits Tyler, the Creator’s July 2017 album Flower Boy as a recent stimulus.
It was the work of photographer Natsumi Hayashi, whom he calls “the queen of levitation photography,” that informed much of the music he’s made over the last few years. Similar to the suspension-in-air her work conveys, Pell’s music sounds like the embodiment of lucid dreaming, where we toe the line between what’s in front of our eyes and living between our synapses.
“All of us dream, and we all have goals,” he says. The trick is getting from the ideation of a dream to its fulfillment, a journey he repeatedly explores in song. Synonymizing “dreamer” with “goal chaser,” Pell says it can feel like getting from point A to Z, from cultivation to fruition, “you’re going through the motions or essentially floating to your dreams. That’s what I felt like Floating While Dreaming was.” Having used that debut as a means of detaching himself from the things holding him back, he’s now focused on one-ness and how it affects our communication with one another.
Girasoul’s title is a vestige of Pell’s experiences on a recent trip to South America. “I went to Colombia in August and I’ve really been inspired by the whole idea that they have of family,” he explains. “I love how important family is to them. And I feel like a lot of this record is talking about, you know, isolation and how it plays to how you communicate with your family.”
Pell’s October 28 performance on the Voodoo Fest stage is, by far, his biggest hometown look to date. He spent much of his childhood not far from City Park, frequenting the Lakeview baseball field beginning at age six. He says the sport, which he played until his teens, taught him about community and interpersonal bonding, an important skill for a young kid traversing various sectors of social life. “A lot of the kids [I played with] weren’t like me. I went to a private school where I was lucky to have my parents who could afford to get me there, but other kids had mansions and stuff. We’re middle class,” he recalls. “My parents were spending all of their money to make sure that I got a good education, but because of that I was in a different environment than what I experienced back home [in Gentilly].” He remembers the stark difference between visiting a friend’s mansion before returning to a two-bedroom house, but his memories of that remain positive. “I feel like I had an appreciation for how Lakeview just inspired camaraderie around the communication between friends,” he says before remarking on another strong New Orleans childhood memory.
“There used to be sock hops at the Jewish Community Center on Saint Charles Avenue, right in front of De La Salle [High School],” he says with a smile on his face. “You’d wear your freshest stuff, try on your dad’s cologne. It was a teen club type of thing. This was before everybody had cellphones, so sometimes you would have to get a girl to write her number on your arm. So you would come with a Sharpie and you were just prepared, already ready [laughs]. I had a whole sleeve. I was tatted up one night and I was proud of myself. And I remember that was the first time I gained confidence when it came to dealing with girls. That was definitely a moment for me.”
Saint Roch Avenue is the physical locale he credits with shaping many of his thoughts about his blackness. There, he says, “I was able to be around a lot of successful young black people and I didn’t realize how important that was until I grew up. Especially my parents; they’re divorced now, but, I always felt like they showed me love and that allowed me to be the best that I can be. You need that information as a child—that you can take it this far or that far, you know what I mean? That there are no limits. The neighborhood that I grew up in was really one of the most important things in my life.”
Now that he’s a twentysomething adult with considerable acclaim, tens of thousands of followers and streaming numbers well into the millions, Pell is able to view his hometown through a more nuanced lens, particularly as it pertains to the music industry. Though New Orleans has a huge radio market and carries vast cultural wealth, it today suffers from a fractured local rap scene lacking in a framework for emergent talent. When asked about local infrastructure a young hip-hop artist can rely on for career help, Pell says “there is none.” Indeed, in a city where rocking with a supreme live band is commonplace, it can be exceedingly difficult for local MCs to pack a house. Whereas other cities in the regional market like Houston and Miami have a seemingly endless collection of mainstream success stories who collaborate with one another, New Orleans rap is often far more fragmented.
“It’s so ironic because rap loves to speak about the community which it influences, but rarely do rappers take the time to build with other people within the community,” says Pell. “That goes from artists, visual artists, rappers and singers in a real way outside of ‘Help me on this project, and I’ll help you on this project.’ I think we need to be able to see each other for who we are as people before we shut off the idea of working with them musically.” Outside of Curren$y’s Jet Life Recordings, there are few New Orleans rappers who have not only attained great success but who have also used the success to put others on. As Pell puts it, “I love Curren$y’s music. I grew up on that shit, but I mean, like, we’re two completely different people. But that doesn’t stop me from being a fan and listening to his music and actually liking his personality and all that stuff. I think that that’s been one of my influences even though we come from these two different places. But, a lot of times, a Pell and a Curren$y won’t link up and make music. I think we have to, as a city, show support to everybody that exists within it so that we can all uplift one another. Because, without that information, we’re just a bunch of crabs in a bucket. I always felt like the artists I look up to the most are those who can reinvent themselves. I am just trying to continue the trend. That starts with doing something that’s inventive, whether it be lyrically, whether it be musically, whether it be, you know, rhythmically, and I feel like that’s where I’m trying to fit in. Or trying to break out.”
Pell says all of this while acknowledging the realization that, in some ways, it was the very act of leaving New Orleans that allowed him to garner the buzz he has today. But it’s important to him to collect all of his experience and use it to foster similar opportunity for artists here. “I’m in Los Angeles a lot because there’s infrastructure out there, but I want to be here. I’m not coming from the point of a conceited asshole. I still have a lot more to do. But I think that what’s important as a community of artists, is for that information to be shared and for these networks to be shared so that we can have a resurgence moment like an Atlanta, a Chicago, or a New York and like all these other cities have. I think that we could have it. We just need to work together. And I know that’s cliché, but it comes from understanding that you’re different but being okay with that. Like, I’m not going to say I’m hood or be fake gangster just so that I can get on a track with somebody else.
We need an institution. New Orleans really needs a hip-hop institution that will showcase all different sides of the spectrum when it comes to genres of rap or hip-hop and make that something that can be accessible to the world. And that way you’re showcasing the best talent, and you’re also getting it out there in the right way, and in the right light. And at the same time when it blows up, whoever blows up from that movement, they have something to fall back on. That’s what we all want at the end of the day; we want that community to support us when we come back to the city, if we go to L.A., if we go to New York.”
It’s easier said than done, of course. Pell argues there is a solution, but it will require a centralization of effort. “It’s hard to get people to focus because there are so many different avenues.” Whereas Cash Money and No Limit relied on traditional modes of marketing and self-promotion like television, artists today are armed with a tool equal parts beneficial and problematic. “You have the internet, which is the greatest common denominator,” says Pell. “There are so many different avenues of success or of listening power or reach that you can have as an artist that to blow up outside or inside of New Orleans would really take a commitment to work. And that’s one that I’m not sure every artist or recording artist here is willing to make in a way that it can be beneficial to creating a community. We don’t need all of these little individual movements. Cash Money, Young Money, No Limit, these people have movements because they connected a bunch of different people from the city and created a community of artists to showcase to the world. And I haven’t seen that yet, personally. I know there are people working on that. And I don’t think New Orleans is lazy. I think that sometimes we’re misguided.
“In the same way that companies market to all these different avenues—we have to pick up artists from all these different avenues so that everyone in their respective channels is fed and everybody gets what they want at the end of the day. Then there’s a tumbling-down effect that allows an artist to be more free and expressive in doing what they want to do and doing their art.” Such a system would absolve an artist of worrying about getting a cosigner or having a certain sound. “That’s all it is. That’s all it takes—a community. It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a community of artists to raise a movement. And I think that that’s really what we’re trying to do here. Me, PJ Morton, Tank, and anybody else who I left off.”
Self-analysis is just as important to Pell as the more external process of community building, especially when it comes to vulnerability within the context of the internet—something that affects the way artists today brand themselves. “There needs to be more of that in rap in terms of being a real person, which is so misrepresented right now. Social media allows us to be vulnerable, but at the same time it allows us to feel like we have to program ourselves for attention. And a lot of times I think that it’s cool to have a personality, and it’s great to have it on social media, but that shit’s making you more of a computer than a real human. Because at the end of the day, you’re more dynamic than what you show the world. No one is ever going to show you all their deepest darkest things. And if they are, then how real is it?”
Voodoo Fest will afford Pell the opportunity to showcase his dynamism to others, but it’s also a chance for him to step into the sun for the first time, in some respect. “It’s my first time in a while performing in New Orleans, so that’s really huge for me, more than anything else in the world. The fact that I’m going to be around my friends and family and thousands of people is nerve-racking. Honestly, I still have a little bit of a jitter thinking about it right now because I know how much I’m going to give to it, and I hope that everybody enjoys themselves. I think it’s going to be my greatest show I’ve ever done.” For a native New Orleanian with a home base elsewhere for now, it’s taken on more gravity than a simple live set. “It’ll probably be one of the few moments in my life that I’ll actually have the people that I grew up with surrounding me at a performance. So I don’t think it’ll even feel like I’m an outsider, so to speak. Because you can change the address on your lease, but New Orleans is always home.”
Immediately beyond the performance lies Pell’s next chapter as a musician. He’s calling Girasoul “a dark twist” in a personal journey that still has chapters waiting to be written. “I went through a dark phase in traveling and visiting home that I still want to talk about. I feel like there are certain things that I left out [of the EP] that I needed to leave out in order for me to be happy in a way that I want to be for my [next full-length] album, which is probably going to be the happiest thing I’ve ever dropped in my life.” For now, his music will embrace isolation not as a spiritual hindrance but rather an impetus for connection to others. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel,” as he puts it.
Before dropping a full-fledged, full-length album, Pell is perfectly content allowing his new EP and its anatomy to speak for itself. “I separated this EP in my mind into three different acts to coincide with the three things necessary for photosynthesis. The first act is dirt; you need the soil, something to grow in, and that’s your experiences. That is all the shit you went through that makes you who you are. And then, number two is the water. You’re starting to realize that you’re growing but at the same time, it’s all muddy. You’re not really sure. Nothing is clear yet to you. You’re in this darkness. The rain comes down on you, too. It’s like baptizing, in terms of you understanding of what’s going on with you. And all that dirt that you resented, it’s getting loosened by that water allowing this acceptance of it. And then, third stage is sunlight. I think the third process involves sun and I think that’s the light at the end of the tunnel. That’s full acceptance and understanding of who you are and being happy about it. And then you truly are allowed to grow. And that’s where you become a tall, ten-foot sunflower.”
Saturday, October 28
2:30 p.m. (Wisner)