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Ladies and Gentlemen, theMIND: A New Voice of Enlightenment

On his debut project 'Summer Camp,' the Chicago-based rapper delivers a crisply rendered exploration of the human condition.

Photos by Bryan Allen Lamb

“Age doesn't matter: It's a man-made concept that we created just to keep time,” Zarif Wilder offers emphatically, pontificating a bit at the end of a long brunch. Wilder is only 27, but he's thought about this subject a lot. “It's just how many years gravity has weighed down on you. That's it. Nothing more. It's not a limitation. Especially not in music.” He digs in, getting worked up. We’re just casually chatting, but we’ve hit on something important. “I always got mad when people said that about musicians, like 'He's too old, he can't do this anymore.' I'm like why? Like his brain stopped working? What happened?! What do you mean, like he can't think anymore?” He adopts a tone of mock horror, delivering it like a joke, but he's quite serious. This kind of cynicism frustrates him.

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When Wilder seizes upon an idea that really captivates him, his entire demeanor gives itself over to incredulity, as if he's just been told the most marvelous tale about a mythical creature that walks the forest, or has perhaps been quoted the most outrageous price for a handful of magic beans. It's a contagious enthusiasm, one that draws you in as a co-conspirator. Wilder has a warm face, with inquisitive eyes and a broad smile. He wears a short beard and small stud in his nose. He is someone you want to talk to, candidly. The world is an amazing place, after all, and there is much to discuss. Wilder, who performs music under the (rather appropriate) name theMIND and in person goes by Zigg, is ready for the task, although he’s come around fully only recently.

“I was a pessimist,” Wilder says, and with fair reason. Chicago, where he has lived for the better part of the last eight years, felt dark, plagued with its familiar litany of problems; in Philadelphia, where he grew up, he'd lost a number of friends. “It kind of felt like everything was going to shit.” Then, last summer, while touring with his good friend and frequent musical collaborator Mick Jenkins, something began to change. Pulled into new conversations on the road as he traveled the country and then the world for the first time in earnest, Wilder found himself re-examining his perspective. He talked to Iraqi refugees in Switzerland and visited Paris in the weeks before the Bataclan attack. He met people from new cities every night.

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“It instantly transported me back to when I was this little kid, looking at the world in this, like, 50-different-angle lens,” he says. The conversations helped him confront his doubts and insecurities, such as the survivor's guilt he felt for pursuing music as people he loved struggled. “[Those doubts] were slowly moving away and fading as I was telling my story back to people, and people were telling their stories to me. I was realizing that it was this healing process.” He had an epiphany: “Everything has a beginning and an end, and there's nothing you can do about it. The time spent in the middle is what you can control… I felt like I was back in this position where I was like, 'Oh, I can start over.'”

Emboldened by the process, Wilder found words for songs he'd been working on for months, and his ideas came together in the form of an album, Summer Camp. It is a truly phenomenal work of art. Toying with R&B's quirkier technological possibilities, yet capturing the nostalgic warmth of vintage funk, it is Zapp & Roger for 21st century dreamers, a crisply rendered exploration of the human condition. As a body of work, Summer Camp is designed to be a journey, following Wilder's personal awakening, and it delivers on the promise, building toward a conclusion that places a value in new beginnings. Guiding that awakening—in quite literal terms—is a female voice that serves as theMIND's anchoring conscience and gradually fades into the background, becoming more of an omnipotent presence “just talking to me and just being like 'Ay man, you're good.'” In an interlude before the final track, the voice offers something of a guiding principle for the album: “Just promise me you'll rejoice when you find yourself under the moonlight,” she says, “instead of spending time wasting thoughts on loss when you could truly gain it all.”

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A female voice made sense to play this role. Wilder's own life experiences have been profoundly colored by his relationship with his two closest sisters, one of whom is his twin. It was a conversation with her last year, on the heels of his trip to Europe, that helped the pieces for Summer Camp finally fall into place. “It changed my whole perspective on how I looked at my childhood,” he says. The three grew up together in foster care, shuttled between different families and group homes since before Wilder can remember, at the age of two. They would make up stories about who their parents were, imagining their mom was Halle Berry. “I think you try to find the upside to anything,” he says, although he notes that it “wasn’t all roses and daisies,” in what can only be a substantial understatement.

“The first home we went into that I remember was just fucked up,” Wilder recalls. “Like we lived in a basement with dogs. That sounds crazy, but it wasn't. I feel like Mowgli because I felt like I was raised by wolves almost. I used to ride on a dog's back in a basement. True story.” Around the time he was nine, the three of them were adopted, which seemed promising until Wilder realized their new mom only really wanted his sisters and had been forced to take him as part of the deal. He channeled his frustration into writing raps, spending time at the house of a friend who would make beats in FruityLoops, and he developed an interest in theater at school, although, without parental support, it didn't go far. He tried to run away to Atlantic City—he was quickly brought back—and began acting out, doing anything he could to get attention.

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After a second attempt at running away in ninth grade, he landed in a shelter, and he chose to transfer to a group home rather than return to his house. While he was waiting to make the move, a mentor, his middle school science teacher Jeffrey Williams, let him crash for a weekend so they could figure out how to keep him in a path at school that would lead to college. The weekend turned into a month, which turned into a year and eventually became permanent. Williams encouraged Wilder's interest in music, helping him set up a home studio in the basement, and Wilder eventually headed to Columbia College in Chicago to study music business.

“Looking back on it later on in life [my sisters] kind of felt like I abandoned them,” he says now, of his decision to leave home. At the time, he'd thought they'd understood his choice, which bred years of resentment as both sides felt the other had failed to offer much support in a period of intense need as teenagers. “My sister revealed some fucked up shit that happened to her, and she was like 'and you left while that happened.' And I was like 'I didn't know!'” Wilder explains. Last year, though, they finally had the adult conversation that they'd needed.

“It came out to be like washing the slate clean,” he recalls. “Like this is only the beginning. This isn't even close to the tipping point. This is just it, where we start at. We can start right here with healing. We can start right here with me understanding you and you understanding me, then we can get miles away from where we thought we were or where we think we are.”

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That conversation is addressed head on in “Only the Beginning,” while the concept of “summer camp” refers to that summer serving as kind of a coming of age period for Wilder to realize who he was. “Those songs didn't exist until I got back,” he says. “They existed, the format existed, but the words didn't exist. People [were] saying like I changed or 'what happened to you?'” The project has a tone of worn-in familiarity and a hopeful cast. Mantras pour out: “we're bigger than they told us we were”; “whoever said the sky was the limit wasn't living where I was living”; “they can keep your body but they can't keep your mind locked up.” Summer Camp is full of exquisite songwriting that deftly reimagines familiar hip-hop and R&B song structures—there's the plaintive second half of “Sa ve thwo rld” that howls “'I'm losing myself / waiting for you,” and the hookiest part of the whole project is a 30-second outro on “Purple Fox Fur,” a The-Dream-indebted litany of designer fashion. But above all it’s music about imagination, music that asks what it means to live and concludes that the greatest triumphs are ones of, well, the mind. If most music works simply to express emotions, Summer Camp also looks to understand them.

Musically, it is a best-case-scenario endpoint of the processed production trends that have swept R&B over the past half-decade, using digital tools and vocal effects to draw out nuance rather than offer the pretense of it, while still leaning on the warm, organic instrumentation that has come to define Chicago's insanely creative collaborative music scene in recent years. Knox Fortune, Noname, Carter Lang, Towkio, Donnie Trumpet, and Peter Cottontale, the latter two of Chance the Rapper's brain trust and band the Social Experiment, stepped in to lend their talents, just as Wilder appears, ever so subtly, on Chance's Coloring Book.

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However, the bulk of the project is the work of THEMpeople, the production collective that birthed theMIND. Wilder fell in with the guys who would become THEMpeople on his first day at Columbia, in the cafeteria. Sean Alexander (a.k.a. Sean Deaux) told Wilder he looked like a rapper and introduced his friend Lon Renzell (a.k.a. LBoogie), who made beats. “He was like 'come up to my room later. I’ll play you some shit,'” Wilder recalls. “So I came up there, and there were like three girls dancing. It was crazy. It was like a movie. And he was sitting up there on his keyboard like 'ay you fuck with this shit?'”

Along with Wilder, Sean and Lon's friend Michael Anthony, the “curator of THEMpeople,” rounded out the collective, which has swelled to include a number of artists at different points, but it is at its core, Wilder says, the production team of Sean, Lon, and Michael. By Wilder's second year, music had completely overtaken his academic pursuits at Columbia, and he dropped out. After a yearlong stint back in Philadelphia, working for an agency that helped place mentally disabled people in the workforce, Wilder found a steady gig in Chicago as the lead singer of a Top 40 cover band.

Meanwhile, Lon had met a group of high school kids who hung out on the corner where he lived downtown, and they started coming over to his place to smoke. They called themselves SaveMoney, and a bunch of them—Caleb James, Tokyo Shawn, Kami de Chukwu—made music. They had a friend named Vic Mensa whose band Kids These Days was blowing up, and another friend named Chance, who came by and played everyone a demo of a song he had called “Brain Cells.” THEMpeople started recording all of SaveMoney's projects, and, within a couple years, Wilder found himself at an odd junction with his cover band.

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“Right around the time Chance came out with ‘Confident’ with Justin Bieber, they were like 'oh yeah we should do this song,'” he remembers. “I was like 'nope, I know that kid. I’m not doing that song. It’s getting too close to home.’” That was his cue to quit. “Eventually I saw them not knowing who I was and them trying to do my own song as a cover, like those worlds just merging and me seeing a split version of myself in the universe and imploding.”

THEMpeople started working with Mick Jenkins, too, and Wilder ended up singing on Mick's songs “Shipwrecked” and “Dehydration.” These cameos provided him with much needed direction—along with sparking a continued partnership with Mick—and he scrapped everything he’d been working on to begin what would become Summer Camp. As he’s expanded his identity as theMIND over the last two years, he’s quietly become a ringer in credits of projects throughout the Chicago music scene.

And he's found a voice for himself in the process, as a bearer of optimism, as someone excited to marvel in the world—to really look at the Eiffel Tower, to really imagine the perfect beach—and examine what it means to live. Part of that process has been one of learning to let go and let fate do what it will, which is, like everything, a journey.

“I can't just drive if I don't where I'm going,” his voice protests to his conscience at the beginning of “Pale Rose,” the second song on Summer Camp. But, of course, on the other hand, she chastises him, absolutely, “You could.” As the album reaches its climax on “Only the Beginning,” his singing quiets to little more than a whisper. He reflects, “I was born in pieces / loving made me whole / devil stole my childhood / God won't let me go.” Here there is healing, and purpose. There's a sense of gratitude in his music, one that bleeds through in real life, too. It’s kind of a cosmic feeling, this idea that everything can be taken in with an open heart and a curious mind.

“When I experience shit, I experience shit. I'm there,” Wilder tells me, almost offhandedly at first but growing more intent as he speaks. “Sometimes people make fun of me, like 'are you about to cry?' I'm like 'yeah, this shit's dope as hell!' Are you not? They're like 'This is supposed to happen.' I guess.” Even now, just describing it, he sounds a bit incredulous. “This shit is dope! Let's cry together, guys! Like, how did we get here?”

Bryan Allen Lamb is a photographer based in Chicago. Follow him on Instagram.

Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.