Masego is tired of talking about quarantine. Not only because the last eight months have been filled with an unpredictable virus, protesting against corrupt systems, and a nail-biting presidential election, but because the talented DJ, singer, saxophonist rarely creates music about his current reality.
"I don't make music about where I am right now," he tells VICE over the phone. He's gearing up for his first highly-anticipated release since 2018 despite the pandemic’s unnerving effect on the industry, but he's used to staying at home and dreaming up new musical worlds. "Any producer that you could name has a high level of shyness and introversion," he says." I've been in my crib. I'm always in the studio. I looked up to dudes staying in the studio for multiple summers and staying in their room figuring things out."
A child of the internet growing up in Newport News, Virginia, he spent the early years of his career fusing different sounds together, minting and then popularizing a genre he describes as "traphousejazz." "At first, it was quite literally trap, house, and jazz," he says of early releases like The Pink Polo EP. "But now it's become how I approach music when I'm in the studio. I'm going to put an afrobeat song on, but use an Argentinian instrument, and add a Jamaican feature," he says, making mention of "Silver Tongue Devil."
Seclusion is the nucleus of his music, but travel is equally responsible for his eclectic sound. Even his stage name Masego, which means "blessings and prosperity" in Tswana, spoken in Southern Africa, is a souvenir of the wanderlust that's stuck with the 27-year-old singer since high school. When we speak, he's just a week away from the release of Studying Abroad, a six-track EP reflecting on his first time leaving Virginia. It's about discovering who you are when you're stripped from the security of home.
"And I don't want to think about / Where we'd be if we stayed / The same route every day," he sings on "Passport." His desire for variety extends to the music. In three minutes, our proverbial passports are decorated with stamps from Amsterdam and South Africa, with women from both locales speaking on the track; but the song's biggest influence is Japanese culture, which he credits to his own memories of traveling there after finally getting a passport and time he's spent binging the anime series Hunter x Hunter. The song's intricate production includes the heavy percussion and string instruments of traditional Japanese music, which feels more like appreciation and less like cosplay. But according to the artist, the song's marriage with R&B's slick drums is owed to the ingenuity of producer D'Mile.
"I'm always looking at the credits," he says, explaining his choice of recruiting D'Mile to produce two of the EP's songs. "If I like a song, I'm trying to figure out who made that beat, and D'Mile's name came up like five times in a row," he says. For Studying Abroad, Masego said he wanted D'Mile to depart from the funk-infused sound that has become synonymous with his work with Lucky Daye, Snoh Aalegra, and Victoria Monét. "I don't want to work with somebody with the sound that made me like them," he says. "Give me the weirdest beats you got. I'm attracted to something you wouldn't know is him on a first listen."
This sharp detour for D'Mile isn't the song's only bait-and-switch. The closing verse is sung in Japanese. When I ask Masego for a translation, he explains that it's about a kiss shared with a woman he meets in a club, likening it to a "whimsical, childlike love—almost like a fairy tale." Even though I'm in Japan and there's girls in my section, I'm still a hopeless romantic," he says. Though sung in a different language, it's the opening scene of a story of a relationship, one that starts off promising but quickly begins unraveling through Studying Abroad's six tracks.
To be a Masego fan is to know that he often uses music as a vehicle for exploring romance and the dynamics of the women in his life. On his 2018 debut album, Lady Lady, songs like "Tadow" and "Black Love" cemented the traphousejazz singer as a modern-day casanova. After all, it is hard not to seem like a ladies man while he plays the saxophone flirtatiously on most of his records.
But, there are moments when he uses the instrument for less dreamy occasions. "The saxophone was added on as anything I couldn't say, I let the saxophone say," he says of "Bye Felicia." "It was my petty partner."
Aside from being a trip around the globe, Studying Abroad feels like an excursion through Masego's emotions. We meet all sides of Masego: the good, the bad, and the ugly. He's charming on "Silver Tongue Devil," a sweltering diasporic duet featuring dancehall star Shenseea, but concludes the project with a break up song, "Bye Felicia," which leaves no room for reconciliation: "You ain't really on my mind / Not allowed in my space." And still, although the relationship didn't work there are still lessons to be learned.
Studying Abroad finds him singing like he's got one foot in the streets and another in the clouds, trying to find the balance between being a hopeless romantic and a hopeful one. The music is a reflection of the soul-searching he's doing about the type of man he wants to be. "If I lean into the version of Masego who is this silk ladies man, I'll be single forever doing that," he says. "If I lean into the 'Black Love' version of me, it's like, Oh, is Masego going to go the Bryson Tiller route and get a kid, a wife, and be a gamer? [But] I don't have to go into the lane of Everybody's in my DMs, so I'm going on dates with all of them. I tried to take advice from other people and think of other routes [in love], but that wasn't feeding my soul. [Studying Abroad] was mainly [about the] frustration of the dating process, like, So what do I do now?"
To find his answer, Masego turned to the place where he used to seek inspiration when he started making music in Newport News: his imagination. "Mystery Lady" is a love song about a woman he's never met, inspired by Ciara and Bow Wow's "Like You"; it's a two-year old song he and his band used to warm up to during sound check, though he still sounds unsure about whether he's meant to be with just one woman. "Could it be monogamy ain't meant for me / Nah, that's way too reckless, I'd get too jealous," he sings. Although he dismisses the thought almost as quickly as he says it, we can hear the wheels turning in his mind, as though he's trying to find a way, any way, to win at love–no matter how unconventional.
"Polygamy" is probably the most interesting song on the record—even though it's the shortest and least elaborate. For the listener piecing together his words in real time, it can be difficult to decipher if Masego's longing for a "dream team" is rooted in a fear of not finding "the one," or an actual desire. It's a stark departure for the man who, just four years prior, wrote "Black Love," a song where he fantasizes about his wedding before a first date. "The lyric that sticks with me in the song is 'Try to date one, mess it up,' he says of "Polygamy," admitting his shortcomings.
Masego says like the rest of us, he was glued to Jada Pinkett-Smith's Red Table Talk, a popular web series with conversations led by the women of the Smith family, and it opened up his mind about how love and marriage could function. "'Black Love' was me going on a first date and my mind taking it way further, 'Polygamy' is me doing the same thing. Now, I'm marrying three women and we're making this thing work, and we're a dream team."
The worlds that Masego dreams up now are different than the ones he conjured up back in Virginia—but they're still a universe where he's in charge. If anything "Polygamy," and the rest of Studying Abroad, represent that he's still a bit of a dreamer, even if he thinks it'll get him in trouble in the end.
"I hope I don't get yelled at by my mom over 'Polygamy,'" he says between laughs. "Is there anything else on there you think I'd get yelled at by a Black mom for?"
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.