Twenty-five year old Taylor McLendon didn’t get her moniker Ivy Sole from her time spent at the University of Pennsylvania or her affinity for sneakers (although she considers herself a severe Nike head). Rather, when she was six, McLendon fell in a bush of poison ivy and the name has stuck with her long after the rashes have faded. “It’s a merge between a nickname I had as a child, and just feeling like I was a complete individual,” she says.
She used college as a way out of Charlotte when she moved to Philadelphia in 2011 for UPenn’s Wharton School of Business. “I saw [Charlotte] as a detriment when I was younger, but I don’t have to worry about people saying you don’t sound like a rapper [from Charlotte]. It’s liberating.” Sole didn’t know it, but the gospel and soul influence that were apart of North Carolina’s soundscape would seep into the hip-hop music she was admiring from afar—and that’s how she arrived as a singer-songwriter.
In our hour-long conversation, we talk about sneakers, her goal to stay indie, and her college experience. But it’s clear there are two things that keep her anchored: Charlotte and Philadelphia. She cannot choose one city over the other, any more than a parent can pick a favorite child. Both are cities she grew up in, and though in different ways, have shaped the music she’s growing into. It’s not quite gospel, not quite hip-hop, not quite soul, but a mix of all three while borrowing from elements of pop and international sounds. “I didn’t realize how much Philly impacted my taste in music as a kid.”
It’s the first time in our conversation where she’d nerd out about a seemingly tangential topic, but its message was deeply important to her. For a few minutes, she connects the dots from the Black Lily, a club in Philadelphia known for its roots in neo-soul, to her love for the Soulquarians. Philly’s neo-soul influence and love for rap collectives led her to three collaborative groups of her own: Indigold, Liberal Art, and Third Eye Optiks. “I think collaboration is what makes hip-hop special,” she says. “In a lot of ways, black music is a social phenomenon. Hip-hop was born out of a gathering, much like gospel, blues, and jazz. The gathering of people and fellowship is one of the greatest gifts hip-hop has given me.” That worldview is the blueprint to how she’s mapped out her solo career.
After departing from rap collectives, she looked to establish herself as a solo artist. Her debut mixtape EDEN, released in 2016, fit its biblical concept. She gave herself room to make mistakes in this realm of uncharted territory. She questioned organized religion on tracks like “Master Plan,” spitting lines like, “Is it the master plan or is it the master’s plan?” She challenged gender norms and sexuality on “The Vow,” pushing back on the ideals she thought she wanted as a child: “I wanted a husband, a dog, a spot on the PTA / Soccer mom with a body to slay, oh my how the times have changed me.” Sole is planted in her potential, realizing that reaching a new level requires uprooting. “Of sun on skin and dandelion, I left the shackles in my mind / Behind, the forest floor beneath my feet,” she raps over sultry guitar strings.
On EDEN, Ivy sowed her seeds musically, and she used WEST and EAST to exercise her sound. She was her strongest when she dipped her anecdotes in her poetic prose. Similar to Noname and Syd, she painted pictures about anything, whether it was the talented tenth or an elementary crush. Sole could make it sound like art.
She had one advantage: a German rapper, CRO, was in love with her music. Last July, she received an email from CRO’s management asking if she was willing to collaborate on his album. “I was like, I don’t have Germany money.” But they did. Sole spent one week in a German studio and left with two tracks on CRO’s album, tru. When she needed a studio to record her album, she gave him a call. “I hit him up and was like, ‘Can I come through to record an album?’ and he was like, ‘Yeah.’” She laughs when she recalls his answer like she couldn’t believe a simple question was all it took. “For two weeks in January, nothing had been written outside of [two verses]. When we left the album was all but done.” Overgrown was written and recorded in only 14 days in Germany.
The album might have been written in two weeks, but the seeds Ivy planted on EDEN were blooming. She polished her poetry into a sharp staccato on “Parables,” purposefully pronouncing every syllable. The punchy production on “Rollercoaster” mimics the sound Timbaland architected for Aaliyah in her prime. Stringing together the mixed-bag of genres through voice clips is Instagram Influencer Jstlbby, spilling positivity into some of Sole’s heavier tracks, dropping in nuggets of inspiration like, “You are the motherfucking shit… You can do whatever you want to do in this world.” On this album, Ivy Sole is fixated on second chances. She doesn’t wallow in the decisions she’s made, like the Afrobeat track “Taken,” featuring Ghana’s B4bonah, on which she illustrates falling in love with a woman in a relationship. She’s arrived in her own skin and is no longer cloaking herself in non-descript songs about romance from her previous EPs. Sole is outgrowing expectations.
Overgrown’s closer “Les Fleurs” is ultimately Sole’s thesis, as she sings: “Do you want your flowers now? / Or should I wait until the morning takes your breath away?” It’s a sobering line that makes Overgrown even more resonant. Forgive who you need to forgive—even if that’s yourself.
Noisey: What does the title Overgrown mean to you?
Ivy Sole: I actually wrote the phrase “overgrown” down two years ago because it felt like something my life was moving towards. I’ve outgrown a lot of situations, people, and bad habits. I’m still figuring out what life, love, and purpose mean to me, and that’s something that can and should change over time, but for the most part, I feel like I’m settling into myself.
On “Backwoods” you repeat, “I just made a right when it was no child left behind / Flashing lights up in my rearview but tonight they pass me by,” four times. Why?
I have a weird relationship with survivor’s guilt. A lot of black people who went to college can empathize. I can’t speak for all of us, but the likelihood of us knowing someone who has had run-ins with the law—or who are no longer living for one reason or another, is high. I look at that and wonder if the decisions I made before I was 18 would have been any different, would I still be in the position I’m in now? Statistically, that’s a no. I’m extremely grateful, but grateful almost to the point of guilt when I think of some people who didn’t make it. I wanted both of us to make it, to be honest.
How did you cope with going to a predominantly white institution and an Ivy League for four years in a city as black as Philadelphia?
Being one of few in a classroom so Penn wasn’t a huge stretch for me. As a city, Philly taught me how beautiful being black in public can be.
Penn has a very contentious relationship with Philly. There’s a lot of displacement that’s occurred at the hands of the University of Pennsylvania. Its relationship is inherently political and it doesn’t always end, in my opinion, on the right side of the spectrum. It’s interesting because I’m a black person who has inextricable ties to the university. I attended as an undergraduate student and I currently work in their black cultural center. For me, Penn is the perfect example of the double edge sword of opportunity. I am 100 percent a benefactor of Penn as an institution, but I also feel like it’s my responsibility to combat and to question the ethics of its policies and practices because I’m in the unique position to do so.
“Parables” and “Achilles” both have a religious undertone to them, and you go on to say, “When I talk about God I get skeptical looks.” Was there ever a time where you weren’t sure if you should mix religion in your music?
I don’t think people are as open-minded about religion as they consider themselves to be, on both sides. I often project my discomfort with organized religion on the people who believe it, when if I believe that everybody should be able to believe whatever they want to, then I shouldn’t have these very judgmental and visceral reactions to people’s faith, even if it does affect me to a certain extent. People want you to have a bulleted list when they ask, what do you believe in? For me, I don’t have the elevator pitch for that just yet.
On Overgrown, you’re giving us religion, introspection, and sex. Is it ever difficult for you to tap into your sexier lyrics?
My brain is always operating on some smooth shit underneath the surface. I have a very calm demeanor, but I pride myself on being able to be slick because I grew up around a bunch of Southern, fake playa, pimp types. It’s almost like my birthright to be on some slick shit. “Still Wasted” is peak who I want to be at all times, but nine times out of 10 I’m “Les Fleurs Interlude.” That interlude is like the insecurity and humility that life has taught me and “Still Wasted” is like the smooth, Anderson Paak confidence that I wish I had 100 percent all the time.
I also think spirituality and sexuality are very closely tied. There’s a certain level of deity present, a certain leave of reverence present when you are trying to engage someone that you’re interested in. There has to be there for you to even want to put yourself in a position to open yourself up like that.
Another theme on this album is second chances. The closer, “Les Fleur,” is sort of like an all-encompassing message of forgiveness. What would you say you’ve learned in second chances?
Often people make forgiveness this great equalizer. The hardest person to forgive is yourself. It could be for something as benign as forgetting your house key or something as big as feeling like you were blaming yourself for your childhood trauma. This whole album is about me forgiving myself for the things that I’ve done, and also the things that have happened to me.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.