Lucien Parker plays the optimistic outsider on “Black Sheep”
The First Wave student and Minneapolis-born MC talks with us about his first full-length album.
Minneapolis native and UW-Madison student Lucien Parker titled his just-released new album Black Sheep, so naturally he spends a lot of time on it rapping about feeling othered and apart, as both a young black man and an MC/singer/songwriter trying to find his way. Parker, 19, finished the record during finals week of his freshman year in UW's First Wave program, a time when students of color were confronting UW administrators over racist incidents and racial disparities on campus. This bleeds into his rhymes on the beat-less track “Black Sheep—Interlude”: “Just moving perpetrators from the dorm to a dorm just down the block is your form of a solution? / Please excuse us / if I don’t give a fuck about the policies where white kids lurk and follow me and try to get abusive / let me knuckle up / take 'em for a ride my nigga buckle up / they never get the consequences / School gonna tell us, ‘suck it up.’”
And yet, as a whole, Black Sheep doesn’t come off as a documentation of alienation or bitterness. Instead, Parker’s sense of being the odd man out fuels a parallel theme of ambition. He begins “From The Jump” with the lines “I been feeling underrated / unappreciated, got me feelin’ jaded,” but soon turns from frustration to a conviction that better things are ahead: “They ain’t gonna cage me, I’m shooting for the hundreds / give my shit a chance and I promise you gonna love it.” He tends to see both sides of that in both his songwriting and in real life: Parker was given up by his birth parents, but says the white family that adopted and raised him has been very supportive of his decision to be a musician, even if that family situation inevitably contributed to his feeling of being out of place.
Parker learned several instruments as a kid—violin, trumpet, and jazz drums—and soon after he got into rapping and spoken-word as a high-schooler, he got more and more interested in also writing hooks and crafting songs as a whole. That musical well-roundedness might explain why he sounds sincere and self-possessed while dabbling in a variety of styles on Black Sheep. His 2015 EP Take A Breath showed an affinity for jazz-influenced production and Parker’s beginnings in spoken word. This time around he wanted to experiment with beats he considers “a little more industry.” Most are from NYC production duo Geek Session, whose contributions range from the eerie, crawling, synth-misted “Late Night Trip” to the seductive and trap-like “Chapter II Sacrifice” to the warm horn hooks of “After Recess.” Parker also hooked up with Madison-based producer DJ Pain 1 for “Sacrifice Pt II,” which combines a prickly zither-like melody with woozy, swelling bass.
The important part, though, is how Parker adapts to this variety as a rapper and songwriter. On “Good Side,” produced by Toronto-based RelOne, he intersperses his sung vocal hooks with verses that patiently examine the yearnings and hopes of young love. On “Sacrifice Pt II,” his rhymes suit both the stuttering pace and hazy atmosphere of Pain’s beat: “I feel like rioting, so impulsive / Chain on my ankles, just take ‘em off me / I’m bout to set off this fuckin’ blaze / Back in the summer with sultry days.” Parker not flashy or grandstanding, so it can take a few listens to really appreciate his workmanlike versatility on this record.
Parker is spending most of his summer in the Twin Cities, but sat down with me last month when he was in Madison to play a show.
Tone Madison: Do you find yourself playing around a lot with song structure as you write? I noticed on "Chapter III Resurrection" that you stretch out the song a bit and throw in some little structural twists.
Lucien Parker: Yeah, I definitely try to play with it as much as I can. I kind of try to find specific pockets within the beats. Every beat has a pocket for the hook somewhere that will sound similar later in the track that it did the first hook, so I'm kind of trying to find those and then do whatever I really want to and go from there. Sometimes I like to incorporate sub-hooks, I would call them, for lack of a better term. I'll have a phrase that I use maybe in both verses that isn't the hook but that comes up again.
Tone Madison: Tell me a bit about how the Pain 1 track came together.
Lucien Parker: It's called ["Sacrifice Pt II"]. It's a really dope Chinatown trap-beat. It's a banger, it's a hit. But yeah, he sent me a really good track that I was really excited to work with. But yeah, he's crazy. When he sent me that one, I was really surprised—I knew he made a lot of stuff, and obviously you can't be a platinum producer without having versatility—same with being a recording artist—but it was definitely a surprise to hear the one he sent me, and that's why I really wanted to work with it, because it was something that I hadn't heard from Pain 1 before.
Tone Madison: Do you find that being from the Twin Cities and going to school in Madison, you kind of have two different pools of collaborators to draw from?
Lucien Parker: Definitely. It was definitely important to come to college, and now I have two fanbases. I mean, I have small fan bases in other places, but it was definitely important to have a two-city structure. It really helped out with the sound and what I could do and who I could work with.
Tone Madison: And right here, there's a lot of people within First Wave and the campus community, but also folks outside of that.
Lucien Parker: Exactly, yeah, and I definitely work with a lot of people outside of First Wave, but First Wave artists are really great. I think they're doing a lot of big things, and a lot of them haven't put out some the stuff they're working on yet, but it when it comes out, it's going to be a force to be reckoned with.
Tone Madison: Since you called the record Black Sheep, what were some of the themes you wanted to sort of tie into that?
Lucien Parker: Yeah, there's a few things in there. One is "black sheep" for me has kind of always been a way of thinking. I've always kind of been outside the box and off doing my own thing and trying to be an innovator and trying to do things that people have done before. And not all of it is purposeful. I think a lot of it just happens with being open to trying things. Part of it is that I was adopted into a white family, so I've been the only black person out of two in my entire family, on my dad's side at least. Then being in Madison, where you have a campus that's 77 percent white, and two percent of the population is African-American, is definitely a factor in what I wrote for the album, and what sound I made. All those things kind of meshed together.
Tone Madison: On one of the tracks, "After Recess," you even talk about being "the product of a family who ain't want me."
Lucien Parker: That line is actually about being adopted from the family that didn't want me. I've always kind of felt—it's very interesting growing up in a white family and being a black kid, because your parents want what's best for you, but can't really teach you how to be a black male in today's society. They can give me morals, they can give me life lessons, all these kinds of things, but can't prepare me for the experiences that I'll face as an African-American male. I've always struggled with this idea of not really knowing where my bloodline or legacy comes from. A lot of my music talks about that because I want to have my music last for decades—centuries, if it's possible, that'd be incredible. I wouldn't know, but it'd be incredible! Part of that is that I never had a legacy to look back on, so I want to build one for my kids and their kids and their kids' kids.
Tone Madison: And on that same track, you also talk a lot about how your ambitions and worldview have changed throughout your life, even though you're only 19 now.
Lucien Parker: I think that's the only track on the whole project where the beat isn't an overwhelming beat and the lyrics really breathe for themselves. That track, I kind of just went through a progression of childhood to now, of how I dealt with certain things that were happening and how I tried to form myself into what I am now, and the things that I did to become the rapper and the artist that I am now, and what factor were incorporated into me even becoming an artist in the first place. If you talked to my 10-year-old self, I wasn't like, "Oh, I'm gonna be a rapper one day, and maybe I'll be really good and work with Pain 1 and get these beats from New York and stuff." I was like, "I'm going to go into the NFL, I'm gonna go to Michigan for college and I'm gonna study business." I finally for the first time sat and really thought about, what has happened in my life that could have been a factor in pointing me in this direction? And a lot of those things that I've talked about, I mean, I realized that I've always had a very ambitious hustler mentality, of going out and getting it and doing it and being an innovator and getting things done, so I wanted to put that on the track.
Tone Madison: And so then you're sort of looking at how that ambition has taken different forms over time.
Lucien Parker: Exactly, yeah, and I wanted it to be the last track so that people would be left with that. The point of it is for people to listen to it and think, "OK, because of this ambitious mentality," what comes next?I always want people to be looking for the next thing. I don't think that projects should be finite. I don't think that they should be final and that should be the end of the discussion.
Tone Madison: So this being your first full-length project, what did you find were some of the challenges of making it?
Lucien Parker: Well part of the challenge was definitely finals week. [Laughs.] And just trying to keep the inspiration going and do it in an allotted amount of time. Once we announced the release date, then it kinda had to be done by the release date. But a personal challenge, I think, was trying to elevate my sound while staying authentic to me. A lot of people loved Take A Breath and don't want to see that part of me fade with industry music. Any artist that understands the business side of this understands that you have to play the game a little bit to get to where you want to be so that you can make the music that you want to make. To Pimp A Butterfly—that was so well-received partly because Kendrick already had such a big fan base. I feel like if he had dropped that when he first started, people would have listened to it and there would have been people who were die-hard for it, but it wouldn't have been as big and as widely promoted, because people don't want to listen to things that make them think that much. I struggled with Take A Breath more in that regard because it was hard trying to get people to listen and to hear the artistry that went into it. With this one, it wasn't like I just made stupid songs that were gonna be catchy, but I tried to take a little bit of what people that wanted more hook-oriented and very catchy mainstream stuff and smash that with my very lyrical, poetic, conscious side. You don't have to fit your music into a margin—I think you can do whatever you want with it—but it's definitely part of playing the game, understanding who your audience is and how far you can go.
Tone Madison: I saw you play live a few months ago, and your voice sounded a lot more scratchy and husky than it does on the recordings. Were you going for a smoother delivery on the album?
Lucien Parker: To be honest, I've noticed that a lot too, and I think some of that just comes from when I play live, sometimes I'm trying to hear myself while I perform, because we don't have earpieces at this level, at the local level. I guess I'm just trying to find where I can put my voice live, so that people will hear it out of the speakers and it will be clear. Sometimes I think I perform at a different level, vocally, than my tracks are, whether higher or lower or it's more intense or I'm projecting harder. But yeah, for this one, the recordings are definitely smoother, especially because that comes with getting better at mixing and engineering. But I'm sure live, it will probably sound a little bit different until we get to venues where they can push my voice and I can actually rap it at the level that I want to rap it at and people will be able to hear it.