Photos by Bryan Allen LambAt some point in the last couple years, Joey Purp figured out how to rap. For a guy whose job is being a rapper, this has been a useful development. As someone known for being friends with rappers, it has been helpful for his reputation. And to the general populace interested in having something to play at their parties this summer, it has been a public service. Take his song, “Girls @,” with Chance the Rapper, which came out a couple weeks ago: It bounces along to an irreverent hook about credit cards and Birkin bags that’s both playful, and, particularly for a 23-year-old rapping about the opposite sex, warmly humanizing. It is also some fun and funky shit. It sounds like kids raised on Pharrell figuring out how to channel the spirit of their hero in the best possible way.
“When you really figure out what you want to do, and—whatever it is—when you start really going for what you want to do… things start coming to you, too,” Joey told me on a recent Friday evening, leaning forward in a chair at the VICE offices and snacking on granola clusters (vegan—he checked, because he is vegan). He was in town from Chicago, wearing the same denim jacket he’d had on the last two or three times I’d seen him, and his hair was in the same loose ‘fro as it is on the cover of his new mixtape iiiDrops. I’d first met Joey a year and a half earlier to talk about a project he’d made as part of a duo called Leather Corduroys, and we’d struck up a natural rapport, which is Joey’s way with people. That collaboration was decidedly goofy—imagine a pair of leather corduroys! that’s ridiculous!—but, as the product of he and his friend Kami fucking around in the studio and cycling through popular rap styles, it marked an important transition in which you could hear Joey finding his sound.“Before I didn't know exactly,” he says, pausing and correcting himself. “I knew what I wanted to do, but I wasn't taking the steps to do it, I just thought it was gonna happen.” Joey is an easygoing person to whom good taste comes naturally, so this type of assumption is not hard to imagine. But soon he lands on what changed: “I learned how to make the things that I like to hear, as opposed to copy the things I like to hear.”
The things Joey likes to hear, judging from the music on iiiDrops, involve him rapping his ass off. Where his 2012 debut The Purple Tape coasted on hazy vibes—“I just really wanted to be Curren$y”—and his work in Leather Cords flirted with rap’s weirdo pop fringe, iiiDrops builds the case for Joey as a skilled rapper in a more traditional sense, as the kind of guy who might make a bunch of skull-cracking collaborations with The Alchemist. In place of the meandering, poem-like style that characterizes a lot of more lyrically driven rap right now—nonetheless well-represented by the project’s uniformly excellent guest features from Mick Jenkins, Saba, and his longtime friends Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa—Joey tackles beats with a natural ease, delivering his lines with a nonchalance that makes them easy to rap along to and obscures some of the clever care with which they were written. On “Girls @,” for instance, he plays with homonyms that shift the meaning of his lines as they unfold, letting the words “she SoCal / she NoHo” become “she no ho” as they go into “she no smoke / she no toke,” which morph into a play on a girl namedropping his friends when the line gets to the phrase “she know Chance”: It also works as “she know Smoke / she know Towk,” as in the producer Smoko Ono and rapper Towkio.“He's just funny as fuck, and his writing ability is just super next-level,” said Knox Fortune, the engineer and producer who worked side-by-side with Joey on all of iiiDrops, clocking into the studio together like a job. “Like if he doesn't do rap in the future, which will be a self-choice, he could be a writer for TV or some shit.” As a rapper, though, it’s not hard to imagine Joey swerving into the broad-appeal lane of similarly straightforward stylists like J. Cole or Drake. He has a knack for effortlessly weaving together sharp social commentary and emotionally resonant observations with smart internal rhyme schemes and shit that just sounds cool. On “Godbody” he rhymes “baking soda” with “wood grain the color of shaken soda,” which, picture it. Or consider iiiDrops closer “Escape” (a song a bit reminiscent of Drake, in fact), where he pulls up from discussing “all the niggas with burners that left the safety off / And kids turned statistics that’s left dead when the summer’s gone” to quipping “This shit feel right, ooh this shit feel like / Jordan for 40 at 40 to let you know he’s still Mike” in the space of a breath. He has a tendency, too, more common in older songwriting (and not just rap), to loop back around to the same idea several times in a song, tweaking the words with each repetition for effect.
All of this bears mentioning because the thing is, nobody, including him, really counted on Joey becoming much of a rapper. His dad, who is black, was a hustler turned church deacon who loved Jethro Tull, while his mom, who is white, managed two thrift stores and loved Marvin Gaye. He grew up bouncing between neighborhoods in Chicago, where his high school friend circle, which called itself SaveMoney, included several musicians. Among them were Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa (maybe you’ve heard their songs with Kanye?), but Joey’s role was more just the cool guy of the group. He’d dropped out of high school his senior year after finding out he could take a test to get his GED downtown, and he spent his days hanging by his friends’ schools and selling weed or bumming around the city with whoever had decided to skip class that day. He was into streetwear brands like Crooks and Castles—“I was fat as hell though”—and his plans for the future included moving to Oakland and eventually starting a marijuana dispensary.“I always thought like, man, when we’re walking down the street, people stop me more than they stop y'all, and y'all rap,” he recounted, referring to Vic and Chance. “I always had a big head about it, like ‘I don't need to rap, bro. Bitches come up to me just like they come up to y'all. And I'm Joey Purp and I got a rap name and I don't even rap.’” But he began to see that there was more to his friends’ popularity than being popular: Their words resonated with people, and that seemed exciting. Also, it turned out they were making money from it.
“I remember Chance got put on the Childish Gambino tour, and it was right after senior year or something like that,” Joey said. “And I remember him telling me that he did 13 days, and he was like, ‘Bro. G. They're gonna give me 500 dollars every show, for 13 shows.’ And I was like, ‘ohhhh, shit! We gotta rap, bro! 500 dollars [times] 13, that's like a lot of money!’” Joey was impressed. “I never understood the correlation between you making a song, somebody listening to it, somebody seeing you at a show,” he explained. The business of music had always struck him as a vague, but seeing his friends turn it into a career made it seem more attainable. “I just thought rappers had money, and I never met a rapper, so it's not realistic.”Having the friends he does has undoubtedly helped Joey—raising his profile, offering him resources, and giving him the incentive to stick with music where others might have dropped out. “I would rather start rapping with famous friends than start rapping with nonfamous friends,” he quipped. But it also comes with downsides: Being seen as the fourth or fifth guy out of a crew (along with Joey’s elementary school friend Towkio, there’s also Chance’s bandleader Donnie Trumpet, responsible for last year’s broadly collaborative album Surf) can be a tough association to shake, and trying to model your career after one that’s been as charmed as Chance the Rapper’s can be discouraging. It’s taken time for Joey to set aside his ego and acknowledge that maybe things will be different for him than for his friends who were already writing raps as sixth graders. “They're supposed to be famous first, you know what I mean?” he mused. “They were shooting earlier.”
The upside is that the self-reflection has given Joey a chance to figure out his strengths and who he is. “One of the most valuable things that's happened to me is I had a chance to not blow up,” he suggested, and there’s no doubt the low-stakes experimentation and slow-burn fanbase building of Leather Cords—with songs like “Mexican Coke” and “We Don’t Know How to Stop” that gathered Soundcloud streams in the hundreds of thousands—was helpful. Even I’ve watched him evolve from the high-energy, flamboyantly earringed hypebeast I’d see hanging around shows three or four years ago in Chicago to a more considered, laid-back conversationalist who gets a kick out of letting a joke hang in the air for a beat too long. Joey Purp has, quite simply, remained someone who people want to talk to, “someone who's centered, who's understanding, and,” he explained, laying out the qualities he aspires to, “someone who is attempting in every situation to be fearless.” And Joey on record is now interested in being that fully rounded person—son, brother, friend, dad—that he is in real life.He has a wide range of experience to draw upon: He points to factors like growing up with his oldest brother, who is two decades Joey’s senior, incarcerated on a murder charge that’s been under appeal for 12 years. On “Cornerstore,” his most direct song, he alludes to an incident from when he was seven or eight, when he and a friend found a revolver his middle brother had hidden in the closet (“aimed it at my head and made a gun sound,” he raps, incredulous that he didn’t pull the trigger). He sagely works in lyrical images from his own life—the Cabrini-Green projects where he spent some time growing up that have now been torn down and rebuilt as condos, for instance—for their broader philosophical heft than for shock value and uses self-portrayal—the motif of mirrors is all over iiiDrops—with thoughtful consideration rather than solipsism. And still he’s more than conversant in the party-oriented politics of his generation, whether he’s discussing people getting down in photobooths—another recurring motif—or lightly poking fun at a girl bragging to her friends about hooking up with a dude with a pool. There’s a sense, above all, that he’s fascinated by the way people behave in given situations.At some point in the past few years, Joey Purp became a dad. His daughter, who is two, has also helped him grow up, as well as focus on the way people behave. This has been an enlightening process, one that no doubt will come in handy as he continues to tackle these issues in his music. After all, what better way to understand the complexities of life than experience them again with someone learning about them for the first time?Most recently, he was stunned by the way his daughter responded to him asking her a question by saying “ummm”: “I just was like, whoa. You picked that up. We didn't teach you that. We didn't say, ‘when you're thinking, say “umm”’ the way we said, ‘this is orange juice, and this is orange, and this is juice,’ you know what I mean.” He got going, really excited by the phenomenon of the human brain, and, here, too, there was a sense of how his brain worked. “She was just watching us be people. And then picked up ‘umm!’”Bryan Allen Lamb is a photographer based in Chicago. Follow him on Instagram.Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.