Tunji Ige Is Fired Up, and His New EP 'Missed Calls' Is Just the Beginning
The boundary-pushing rapper discusses 'Missed Calls,' moving on from 'The Love Project,' and a new era of music.
Photo courtesy of Tunji Ige
Tunji Ige's 2014 mixtape The Love Project was a rare kind of debut: Thoughtful and thematically cohesive, it carved out its own sonic territory and articulated a clear artistic vision. It instantly established Ige, who finished it in his dorm while in college outside of Philadelphia, as a part of hip-hop's young, budding, alternative vanguard. The tape arrived with hype, off the back of the song “Day2Day” with ILoveMakonnen and Michael Christmas, and the buzz continued to grow after its winter release into the spring. Ige finished out his sophomore year of college while juggling his nascent career and then left to pursue music full time, leading to an artistically fruitful period that included collaborations with a who's who of up-and-coming rappers and artists like French pop act Christine and the Queens.
Over the summer, Ige also began working on a follow-up project, the EP Missed Calls, which he released last Friday on Soundcloud, iTunes, and Spotify. As convincingly realized as The Love Project was, Missed Calls is an obvious step forward, emerging from the former's warm and sophisticated but clearly Kid Cudi-indebted sonic imprint into something more immediately and individually distinct. The EP rattles with electronic energy and aggressive brushstrokes of vocal manipulation. There are isolated production tricks that will sound familiar to fans of artists like Kanye West or Chance the Rapper, but the overall palette pushes into a fully fresh and organic blend of contemporary electronic and hip-hop production.
On “Fired Up,” pulsating synths race ahead over boom-bap drums and triggered patches of vocals swoop in with radio pop song precision. “On My Grind,” which is probably making Travi$ Scott jealous as we speak, lurches through a woozy, textured hook while a vocal sample swirls around for a beat. “22,” a Soundcloud exclusive because of a transcendent Vybz Kartel sample that's still being cleared, coasts on a soft hook over drums that sound like they were recorded in space before floating off on psychedelic guitar riffs.
“This is post-backpack, post-swag rap, the end of trap, and it's not wack,” Tunji raps on “Fired Up,” and it's a neat encapsulation of his sound: The kids who might have fallen into the world of Native Tongues or Rawkus Records acts in past decades are working with a broader set of ideas about the genre now. There is, broadly speaking, an alternative to the genre's more mainstream commercial sound, but while that faction of hip-hop might have defined itself in the past in opposition to other music, now it might be better understood by its genre-agnostic embrace of influences. The idea of “conscious” rap is too limiting for a generation who came of age listening to Lil B, Gucci Mane, and James Blake and who, because of their age and the access provided by the internet, see little reason to shy away from appreciating both Drake and Mos Def.
Within that framework especially, Tunji Ige is one of the most exciting artists right now, a rapper who is above all interested in bending sound in energizing ways. He is not yet the most consistently gripping lyricist, despite being an agile and entertaining rapper, but this project has found him focusing in on a sound that hints at massive potential. As fun and satisfying as Missed Calls is, it might be most intriguing in the way that it forecasts a breakthrough. It's not hard to imagine Tunji's next album connecting in a major way and shifting everybody’s sound forward, a la Drake's So Far Gone. After a few, uh, missed calls trying to connect, I got Tunji on the phone to discuss the project.
Noisey: Where does the title Missed Calls come from?
Tunji Ige: It’s the culmination of a period of people not being able to get a hold of me throughout me stepping from being a college student to me pursuing a career in music—dropping out and doing tours, doing mad studio sessions and meetings, and things of that nature. It's the music inspired by that and the music that I want people in my life to listen to and feel sonically and be able to visit that and be like 'OK, Tunji’s justified for his whole year for it being hard for me to reach him because of this project.'
You were still balancing classes and music last spring?
Yeah, I was doing meetings and going to classes and doing like the Webster Hall basement in New York and taking the Megabus back to campus. In the beginning of it, it was like having parallel lives. Especially with the platform I came from, where it wasn’t like grassroots marketing or whatever. It was through the internet, so people would find out progressively. It wasn’t until like “Day to Day” was going off a lot. Makonnen got signed, and that’s when people recognized me.
You have a line on here that goes “this is post-backpack, post-swag rap, the end of trap.” It seems like maybe you see yourself as a little apart from whatever else is going on in rap.
Yeah, and it’s not so much a diss on trap when I say it’s the end of trap. I did that intentionally: The track right after “Fired Up” is “On My Grind,” which is definitely trap-influenced. It’s more like it’s the end of putting out music that can’t stand the test of time, the end of getting like 20 crazy beats and just not putting care into the work. The end of emulating others completely, to the point where you’re trying to mimic somebody. And as far as the other, like post-backpack, post-swag rap, it’s the things that have inspired me , what I grew up on, just combining everything into my sound.
Do you feel like there is a new sonic movement where rap is going in a certain direction?
Yeah, it’s like we’re at this threshold of the crazy 808s and Auto-Tune croon stuff that we’ve been listening to, and it’s tight when it’s done well. But we’re getting a lot of oversaturation, so you can’t distinguish what’s dope from what’s wack. It’s going to be a resurgence of artists trying to push it in a different direction. And that’s going to deal with hip-hop merging more with like electronic dance music and it not having a negative connotation. It’s going to be more creative; people are going to find different ways to add to the sound. It’s like that conscious, being able to rap on these like futuristic-produced current sound stuff. And still be able to retain what we like hip-hop for because you want to hear something that means something.
It takes like a project like Missed Calls to get me into that realm where I can add onto that, where we can distinguish ourselves as the new generation. And for me to empower other kids coming up as well. I think definitely that’s where it’s shifting to—regardless of what happened to, unfortunately, Bankroll Fresh—with the youth, the kids are down with each other. They’re really down to empower each other. We all have no gripes, and everybody’s doing different stuff, and we’re all being ourselves. I noticed that at SXSW this year. There’s a million people who do music who are friends. We might not have a track together, but I consider them friends. Because we’re doing music for a living. We’re all the same age, and that’s a really good thing.
Tell me a little about Noah Breakfast. He’s all over this project.
I met Noah just from being in Philadelphia and doing music. Philadelphia’s a very small knit community music-wise. Everybody that’s popping and nice from Philly, that sounds completely different, we all probably have one mutual friend, 20 mutual friends. I started working with him like two summers ago, and then just basically building since. Noah was Xaphoon Jones from Chiddy Bang, and he gave me a lot of insight toward the music industry and how things work. And basically helped me develop my sound.
Initially all the tracks were produced by me and done and recorded. He came in, and he would take the sessions and then I would be like ‘no, I need you to do keys here’ or ‘I need you to change something with the automation here or do some drum sequencing here.’ Basically to take the songs to the next level. Throughout the course of a month in August is when I re-punched all the vocal takes from the original demos, and then we spent the past six months finishing up original production and mixing and mastering. I did like 15 mixes and masters on every track, so that’s why it took so long.
It seems like you’re going for a really different type of sound, and even from The Love Project specifically. Were there certain things that pushed you in that direction?
I tried to create my own sound. I just got tired of people comparing me to people. I just want it to be like ‘yo, this stuff is on the same level now.’ It’s not like an emulation of it. I wanted to make my own sound. I feel like I got that. You can obviously hear influences, whether it be like 'Ye or Cudi or Drake or James Blake or whatever, but as far as it being me I feel like it’s a good foundation. I don’t feel like anybody could do a song like—you hear a lot of 'Ye and Drake in—“Bring Yo Friends,” but I feel like that’s me. Songs like “All Night,” I feel like that doesn’t sound like anybody else. Songs like “22,” where the structure is like one hook and one 32-bar verse and then another hook, whether it’s messing with song structure, just trying to do something that’s never been done before.
Kyle Kramer is an editor for Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.