Photo courtesy of Fotografiska
10 Must-See Exhibitions And Activations Celebrating The 50th Anniversary Of Hip-Hop
In honor of hip-hop’s golden anniversary, check out 10 must-see exhibits, activations and programs that celebrate the history and enduring legacy of the boundary-pushing genre.
On Aug. 11, 1973, Clive Campbell, an 18-year-old performer known by the stage name DJ Kool Herc, and his sister Cindy co-organized a school fundraiser that became widely credited as the birthplace of hip-hop. From that Bronx apartment building community room emerged a wide-reaching movement that not only changed the lives of the artists who helped the genre evolve, but the lives of fans who summarily immersed themselves in the sound and culture of hip-hop.
Fifty years later, hip-hop has weaved itself into the cultural fabric of the world. Elements of the genre can be found throughout fashion, film, photography, dance, technology, language and art. Beyond its cultural impact, hip-hop serves as a platform for artists to highlight social concerns, such as discrimination, mental health issues, police brutality, and the inequalities that marginalized communities face. And by speaking truth to power, countless emcees and music makers have given a voice to the voiceless through their art.
Celebrations surrounding the golden anniversary of hip-hop have been going on throughout 2023, though many will ramp up this summer to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Kool Herc and Cindy's original Bronx jam. Here are 10 exhibitions, events and activations that celebrate the artistry, history, impact and evolution of the cultural movement.
Through May 20
Nas’ Mass Appeal Records has partnered with Fotografiska New York for a hip-hop photography exhibition that explores four of the genre’s core elements: rapping, DJing, breakdancing and graffiti.
Featuring 200 portraits, "Conscious, Unconscious" takes visitors through five decades of hip-hop (1972–2022), highlighting little-known connections between different artists and offering a closer look at pioneering women emcees, the various subcultures that arose across the country, and the gender disparities that exist within the male-dominated industry.
"We made a thoughtful effort to have the presence of women accurately represented, not overtly singling them out in any way," exhibit Co-Curator Sacha Jenkins said in a statement. "You’ll turn a corner and there will be a stunning portrait of Eve or a rare and intimate shot of Lil’ Kim that most visitors won’t have seen before."
From Breaking to Belly and Eight Mile, hip-hop cinema has helped extend the genre’s global reach by fusing sound with entertaining narratives that allow viewers to immerse themselves in the culture. To commemorate the 40th anniversary of Wild Style — the first hip-hop motion picture — the National Hip-Hop Museum will hold a screening at Zero Space NYC on June 11 in conjunction with Five Points Fest.
Director Charlie Ahearn and cast members will attend the event, which will also feature DJ sets and live graffiti painting.
Through July 16
Mobile technology and the emergence of social media in the aughts helped bring hip-hop to the world, further cementing it as a major cultural influence. The Baltimore Museum of Art's "The Culture" exhibit explores the intersection between art, fashion, technology, and music over the past 20 years.
The exhibit features paintings, sculptures, fashion, music videos and memorabilia, including the Vivienne Westwood buffalo hat Pharrell donned for the 2014 GRAMMYs and one of Virgil Abloh’s last collaborations with Louis Vuitton.
Through June 24
This five-month-long series curated by Lynnée Denise explores the connectivity of Black music, tracking the African diaspora through performances, screenings, and curated conversations on themes like kinship, sacred traditions, Afrofuturism, literature and liberation.
At Harlem's Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, visitors can take a walk down memory lane at the "Through the Lens" exhibition, which explores different elements of Black music. Black-and-white photos captured by documentarians Joe Conzo Jr. showcase hip-hop and Latin music in New York in the 1970s and '80s, while Malik Yusef Cumbo's portraits feature the likes of Snoop Dogg and reggae singer Dawn Penn.
Through June 30
At a pop-up in the Bronx for the forthcoming Universal Hip-Hop Museum, visitors can take an interactive trip through hip-hop’s golden era — 1986–1990 — in an exhibit focusing on the five pillars of the cultural movement: MCng, DJing, breakdancing, aerosol art, and knowledge. The exhibition includes original artwork, a giant interactive boombox, platinum plaques, sneakers, all-access passes, fliers, posters, recording equipment, Adidas sweatsuits worn by Run DMC, and a notepad with original lyrics from beatboxing pioneer Biz Markie and more.
"We’re providing visitors with a sneak preview of what we’re doing with the museum that opens in 2024," Rocky Bucano, president of the UHMM, told Billboard. "And for me personally, the responsibility of making sure that we have a space to amplify and magnify and inform people all around the world about what hip-hop actually is, is so important."
Aug. 11 - TBD
Prolific emcee and preservationist KRS-One is marking the golden anniversary by hosting a series of events at the birthplace of hip-hop: the community center at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, where DJ Kool Herc held the fundraiser that would spawn one of the most impactful cultural movements of the last century.
"The 50th Anniversary of Hip Hop is a global movement that speaks to the grit, voice, and power of how it came to be in the first place — we used our voices when they tried to silence us. We used our creativity when they tried to stifle us. We created the culture because we wanted to stand out and stand up for our artistry," the rapper said in a statement. "Hip Hop is the people’s movement. I am excited to showcase this to the world in the space where it all began at 1520 Sedgwick in the Community Center. It feels right to be here, where it all began."
Upcoming events include educational and historical programs, photo exhibits, a logo-making competition and a series of Hip-Hop Kultural Specialist courses taught by KRS-One.
In homage to the school fundraiser-turned-neighborhood block party that birthed the movement, the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. will host its second-annual hip-hop block party this summer.
"The origins of hip-hop and rap rest in community where people gathered together in basements, on street corners, neighborhood dance parties and community shows to tell the stories of the people and places that brought it to life in a language all its own," Dwandalyn Reece, associate director for curatorial affairs at NMAAHC, said in a statement about the 2022 event.
Attendees can enjoy live musical performances, immersive art, interactive graffiti and breakdancing activities, and an outdoor exhibition of hip-hop artifacts. And it wouldn’t be an epic summer party without good eats: The museum’s Club Café will be cooking up a hip-hop-inspired menu to mark the occasion.
Last year’s inaugural celebration featured dance workshops, a panel discussion with hip-hop trailblazers Bun B, Roxanne Shanté, and Chuck D, performances from J.Period, D Smoke, DJ Heat and The Halluci Nation and a late-night dance party with a live set from Salt-n-Pepa’s DJ Spinderella.
Through Jan. 7, 2024
Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture’s "Contact High" exhibit highlights hip-hop’s vibrant aesthetic, showcasing more than 170 images from the genre’s 50-year history.
With photos dating back to the ‘70s, there’s a little something for everyone to enjoy, but ‘90s hip-hop and R&B fans in particular, will love this collection. Among the exhibit's images are never-before-seen contact sheets and photos of the genre’s biggest stars like Aaliyah, Wu-Tang Clan, Notorious B.I.G., Diddy, Tupac Shakur, Beastie Boys and more.
Run-DMC helped bring street style to the mainstream with their 1986 ode to Adidas, and sneakers have since become interlinked with the genre and its artists — from Eazy E’s love for Nike Cortez to Nelly’s "Air Forces Ones." This immersive exhibition at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City, New Jersey chronicles hip-hop’s long-running relationship with sneakers and how notable emcees helped propel different brands to commercial success.
Curated by avid sneaker collector Sean Williams, "From the Feet Up" features 50 sneakers designed and worn by various artists, including Public Enemy’s "Fear of a Black Planet" Pumas, De La Soul’s collab with Nike, as well as kicks worn by Beyoncé, Tupac and more. Visitors can also view the 2015 sneaker-culture documentary Laced Up in the backroom gallery after checking out the exhibit.
Nashville’s National Museum of African American Music will celebrate the culture all year long with an interactive exhibit that examines the origins of hip-hop, how music makers used technology, like sampling, to evolve the sound as well as the socio-political messages that many artists incorporated into their lyrics.
Visitors also get the chance to create their own custom beats inside the exhibit as they learn about the genre's pioneers.
Photo: Kimberly White/Getty Images for Hennessy
6 Must-Watch Hip-Hop Documentaries: 'Hip-Hop x Siempre,' 'My Mic Sounds Nice' & More
Myriad documentaries have followed the journeys of hip-hop artists and unpacked the impact of hip-hop culture. In celebration of the genre's 50th anniversary, que up docs that shine a light on some of the biggest names and events in hip-hop history.
Given its social and cultural impact on our lives, it’s hard to believe that hip-hop is only celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. From its beginnings at a party in the Bronx, the culture of hip-hop bloomed and has spread to every corner of the globe.
Filmmakers have been commemorating hip-hop — from its MCs and DJs, to b-boys and girls and fashion icons — in all its glory for decades. Myriad documentaries follow the lives, journeys, successes and downfalls of hip-hop artists from across the U.S. and beyond. As we celebrate hip-hop’s birthday this August, here are five essential hip-hop documentaries to reflect on the magnitude of 50 years of groundbreaking culture.
Also considered the first ever hip-hop motion picture, Wild Style is so close to the truth that it’s more of a documentary. Offering a glimpse into 1981 New York, it stars real-life graffiti artists, musicians, rappers and dancers, portraying hip-hop as a cultural phenomenon alongside genres like punk and new wave.
Featuring some iconic names including Fab Five Freddy, Lady Pink, the Rock Steady Crew and the Cold Crush Brothers, the film’s vague plot doesn’t matter. Instead, Wild Style captures the essence and grit of New York City when hip-hop was on the precipice. It’s a hugely influential and inspirational part of the canon and a crucial historical document.
This four-part docuseries provides an overview of how hip-hop works and, as its name suggests, plots its evolution from emergence to global recognition. In making the film, MC Shad Kabango intended to explore how hip-hop made a name for itself in the music industry. Through the memories of stars like DJ Kool Herc himself, the Sugarhill Gang, Russell Simmons and Public Enemy, he discovers that the real legacy of hip-hop is how it allowed those without a voice to have their say.
Now four seasons in, this series covers every decade, style and corner of American hip-hop, highlighting the contributions of women like Queen Latifah and Monie Love. Charting key events from Kool Herc's first block party to the early 2020s, this multi-award-winning series is the perfect place to start if you want an overview of hip-hop's development from the perspective of the people who’ve led the way.
Nas: Time is ILLMatic
This 2014 documentary unpacks the events that led to Nas’ 1994 debut album ILLMatic. Through interviews with his father, brother and East Coast hip-hop legends like Pharrell, Alicia Keys and Busta Rhymes, it not only delves into the process of making the album, but of the social context in which he made it.
The artist said he made ILLMatic with the intention of showing people that hip-hop was changing and becoming something more real. "I tried to capture it like no one else could," he says.
The documentary’s producers came to make the film from a similar perspective. Co-Producer Erik Parker was writing for Vibe Magazine at the time of the album’s 10th anniversary and realized he couldn’t fit everything he wanted to say about it into a written article. He contacted One9 and together they decided to make this film.
Together, they ended up delving much deeper into the culture and wanted to reflect the feel of the streets that infuses the album itself. The result is a timeless and absorbing documentary that captures the real essence of the hip-hop scene.
My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women And Hip-Hop
Women are often left out of the conversation around hip-hop, despite their huge successes and significant contributions to the genre. This documentary by renowned filmmaker Ava DuVernay seeks to redress this by focusing on the careers of legends like Missy Elliot, Salt-N-Pepa, Eve, and MC Lyte.
Through interviews with these artists and and more, My Mic Sounds Nice offers a unique and insightful angle to the discourse around the issues women face in the industry — from sexual objectification to lower pay. With commentary from those who have dominated the rap and hip-hop world for decades but often haven't received the same accolades as their male counterparts, My Mic Sounds Nice is a must-see film.
The Art of Organized Noize
Focusing on a label rather than the artist, The Art of Organized Noize explores the pioneering producers behind the Dirty South sound. Organized Noize producers Rico Wade, Ray Murray and Sleepy Brown detail how Atlanta shaped the hip-hop world.
Record label Organized Noize was responsible for supporting the careers of Diddy, Outkast and L.A Reid amongst others — which it famously did from the confines of a dungeon. In a basement room, the Dungeon Family (OutKast, Goodie Mob, Organized Noize and a bunch of local artists) holed up, smoking weed and creating music that would define the region and popular hip-hop.
Organized Noize built an extraordinary sense of community and comradeship, which comes in interviews with some of its famed roster, as well as from admirers from further afield.
Hip-Hop x Siempre
Although historically left out of conversations about the genre, “Latinos have been an inherent part of hip-hop from its start," Rocio Guerrero, Head of Global Latin at Amazon Music, said in a statement. To wit, Amazon's documentary Hip-Hop x Siempre details the contributions of Latinx artists throughout the culture's 50-year run.
The Amazon Original includes interviews with Fat Joe, Cypress Hill's B-Real, N.O.R.E., and Residente, and up-and-coming acts such as Eladio Carrión, Villano Antillano, Myke Towers and Snow Tha Product.
"Latino artists take inspiration from Hip Hop beats and lyrics, infusing them with traditional Latin rhythms to make the genre our own, ultimately aiding in its global reach and relevance,” Guerrero continued, adding that the documentary honors "this shared history and its impact on our culture by highlighting the diverse and intergenerational voices that are part of the movement."
Photo: Maxime Ellis
Global Spin: Ayra Starr Shakes Off The Haters In This Confident Performance Of "Bloody Samaritan"
The West African songstress turns a Los Angeles stage into an Afropop party thanks to the 2021 single off her debut album '19 & Dangerous.'
Ayra Starr has a message for the haters: "Dem no fit kill my vibe." It's the empowering statement at the center of her 2021 single "Bloody Samaritan."
The song was released as the lead single off the West African songstress' debut album, 2021's 19 & Dangerous, and even earned a guest feature from Kelly Rowland on its official remix.
In this episode of Global Spin, Starr hits the stage in Los Angeles to perform the confidently defiant Afropop track. She's backed by a full band with a hype man, who got the enthralled crowd amped for the performance by shouting, "Alright L.A., let's turn this place into an Ayra Starr party, alright?"
"Vibe killer, bloody Samaritan/ Protect my energy from your bad aura/ Na my pastor say I be my healer/ Everythin' I desire, I go receive," the Benin native sings in a sparkling pink minidress and diamond choker as a wind machine gives her long locks the Beyoncé effect.
Adding to her rising profile as one of West Africa's most promising young talents, Starr most recently collaborated with Tori Kelly on the two-time GRAMMY winner's new self-titled EP, adding her distinct Afropop flair to album cut "unbelievable."
Press play on the video above to watch Ayra Starr's performance of "Bloody Samaritan," and check GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of Global Spin.
Photo: Mauricio Santana/Getty Images
Mitski's Road To 'The Land Is Inhospitable And So Are We': How Expanding Sonically Illuminated The Liminal Space Between Brutality & Love
The singer/songwriter's seventh LP embraces Western soundtrack tones, experimental pop twitches, and lithe ache, building a new set of concentric orbital rings without losing any of Mitski's trademark intimate intensity.
Mitski likely didn't know the Pandora's Box she was opening while producing her debut album. Though the 2012 LP, Lush, was self-released — and reportedly doubled as a project for her junior year at SUNY Purchase — it carries the grand orchestral drama of a seasoned singer/songwriter, her already clarion vocals bolstered by clever songwriting. Just over a decade later, she's now idolized as a celestial being in a pantheon somewhere between indie pop star, poetic genius, and voice of a generation.
But Mitski's level of success has had its pitfalls. Despite her rather coy image and indie background, Mitski has garnered a rabid following with the stan culture of a stadium-filling act (for one, there's a Twitter account called "mitski's archive" that managed to track down rare footage of her college days). In turn, Mitski's career has often rung with a certain tension and internal conflict — yet, remarkably, the music has always remained transcendent.
Resilience has long been part of Mitski's journey, even before she realized she could turn to music as an outlet. Born in Japan to a Japanese mother and American father, Mitsuki Miyawaki spent much of her youth traveling internationally because of her father's job. Having to do that over and over — let alone as a mixed-race, Japanese-American child dropped into the Czech Republic or the Democratic Republic of Congo — was likely bewildering. But music gave some sense of home, of certainty: "Whenever she was lonely in a new house or city or country, she'd walk around and hum invented fragments of melody," Margaret Talbot wrote in a profile of Mitski for The New Yorker.
But still, she didn't fully find what she was looking for until high school, when she joined a choir, and then began writing songs in her teens. "As a teenager, I didn't want to be alive…I just wanted to be dead. I didn't have anything I was good at, because I didn't know I could make music yet," she told Talbot.
Settling into the United States for high school and then college, she dove head first into what music could offer. As Lush proved an incredible first step, another college-era project, 2013's Retired from Sad, New Career in Business, reinforced its predecessor's blend of chamber pop and indie rock flourishes; it was also her first in partnership with producer Patrick Hyland, who has worked on every Mitski album since. Both heady and delivered straight from the heart, poetic yet knifepoint-sharp, the one-two punch of Retired and Lush introduced a well of great potential.
Mitski's third album, 2014's Bury Me At Makeout Creek, served as a tidy turning point as her spotlight warmed up — especially because it was her first release with an independent label, Double Double Whammy. It's as if Mitski realized that people were drawn more to her than to the piano, and began exploring other ways that her intimate songs of pain and love could play out.
Rather than rely on the orchestra to underscore her rich, low-slung vocals, the fuzzier compositions embrace the roiling emotion they convey — ragged edges of distorted guitar and squared synth where once Mitski would have pinned everything together with a string section. What's more, the album's guitar-driven indie rock gave the feeling that she's sonically exploring her newly minted status as a signed indie rock touring act.
Removed from some of the preciousness of her college records, the distortion propelling "Townie" or the electronic percussion on "I Don't Smoke" pushed a rough-hewn color through Mitski's lyrics — underlining the uncertainty, the struggle, the hurt feelings that her storytelling implies. The musical complexities emphasized the lyrical conflict, and the propulsive energy was undeniable.
"The craft here is obvious, as is the accruing confidence of someone who's developed a compelling voice in obscurity," Ian Cohen wrote in a Pitchfork review of Bury Me.
The concept of obscurity is one that would be increasingly important over the following years. While her poetic lyricism is emotionally and visually evocative, Bury Me showed that it never feels diaristic; her internal reality and experiences are lightly obscured, but still essential to the process.
By completely reinventing her sonic palette while simultaneously deepening her lyrical vision, Bury Me hinted at an even brighter future — and set into motion the bind that Mitski has fought against ever since. As her music improved, her fame grew, and she soon found that her success was actually taking away from her ability to explore her musicality.
"When I record, it's this very precious and insular thing," she told Stereogum ahead of releasing 2016's Puberty 2. "With promoting Bury Me, I was so out of touch with music."
In that same interview, Mitski discussed how the songs for Puberty 2 were written without consideration of how they'd be performed live, as if she were attempting to retain some ownership of her experience before giving it over to the growing audiences. (Even so, Mitski toured both Europe and North America that fall.)
Puberty 2 did take a step back from the distorted, brash edge of Bury Me, but doesn't fully return to her orchestral roots either. No genre was safe, no sonic touchstone outside of her palette — everything swirled and caught up in her evocative storytelling, from jumpy electronic touches and burnished horns to surfy guitar. Her vocals ranged from skyscraping pop adventurism to deadpan chop.
The wide-ranging approach worked, as Puberty 2 landed on several "Best Of 2016" album lists and helped Mitski earn opening slots with the Pixies and Lorde in 2017. But as she announced the album's follow-up, 2018's Be the Cowboy, there were hints yet again that Mitski was exhausted by the realities of being a star, not just a creator: "A lot of this record was me not having any feelings, being completely spent but then trying to rally myself and wake up and get back to Mitski," she said in a press release.
Ironically, "not having any feelings" would be the last thing that comes to mind upon hearing Be the Cowboy. The record's scope widened even further than its predecessors; in an almost Bjork-like career trajectory, Mitski continued to find new levels of intensity and beauty without ever repeating herself.
Songs like the explosive and grandiose "Geyser," the disco-tinged "Nobody," and the stomp-clamp wonderland "Washing Machine Heart" showcased the maturation of Mitski's approach, each song creating a world of its own — and the album's universe all spinning beautifully together. While she may have struggled during the creation of Be the Cowboy, something clearly worked: the album became her first to land on the all-genre Billboard 200 albums chart and was her first to be certified Gold in the U.S.
As the attention levels rose like a precipitous tide, Mitski continued to seem wary, if not outright frustrated. "All the sort of aggrandizing, strangely worshipful commentary about me, it doesn't make any sense," she told PBS Newshour.
When touring the record, Mitski opted to work with a choreographer named Jas Lin. The duo developed dance moves inspired by a Japanese form called butoh, resulting in what i-D called "slow, hyper-controlled motions, exaggerated facial expressions, and a fixation on hard emotions and absurdity." In another ironic turn, adding this performative layer between her inner self and her audience resulted in an even more rabid following on social media.
At the end of the tour, Mitski announced an indefinite hiatus from music, leaving social media behind as well — though, meanwhile, her songs were infiltrating thousands and thousands of TikToks. At the time, she told Rolling Stone that she expected to be done for good, to "find another life."
But the music kept calling, and it took less than a year for her return. "What it came down to was, 'I have to do this even though it hurts me, because I love it,'" she told Rolling Stone for a 2021 cover story, six weeks before Laurel Hell arrived in February 2022.
In a press release for that album, Mitski seemed to explain the urge as needing to deal with fame as a side effect of life as a creator: "I don't want to put on a front where I'm a role model, but I'm also not a bad person. I needed to create this space mostly for myself where I sat in that gray area."
For Mitski, that gray area resulted in an '80s synthpop record full of neon blue, splashes erupting from raindrops falling into puddles, and wafts of hazy smoke. Across its 11 tracks, there were love songs with reminders of death and explosively moving songs about feeling stuck — every track a blend of pleasure and pain.
Though various interviews saw her comparing herself to a bathroom stall ready to "take s—" from others, a "black hole" where people dump their feelings, and a "product" to be bought and sold, Mitski seemed to have turned a corner with Laurel Hell. As the album's beatific vibes suggest, she found a sense of acceptance during her hiatus.
"If I truly want the greatest magic in the world, the highest euphoria, the best thing, if I want to do that, I'm going to have to pay an equivalent price," she told Vulture. (She still maintained boundaries, though, declining to answer questions about her personal life.)
Mitski furthers that clarity-achieving experience with The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We, an 11-song ode to the one thing that still feels like hers: love. "The best thing I ever did in my life was to love people," Mitski said in a statement.
The first single, "Bug Like an Angel," balances immensities: the ecstatic and the mundane, rock bottom and ecstasy. Mitski embraces the dichotomy sonically as well, with lightly echoed vocals and acoustic guitars interrupted by a sudden choral interjection. "Sometimes a drink feels like family," she sings, the irony of 17 people harmonizing that last word played out in heartbreaking majesty.
The dizzying meteor shower of "Star" and the string-laden "Heaven" reinforce that blend of subtlety and theatrics. At times, The Land is Inhospitable feels like the soundtrack to a tragicomedy epic — a cohesive story of hope, love and hurt colliding.
Mitski has made unique choices in her live performances in support of the record, too — perhaps, in a way, to prevent the burnout and struggle she experienced after releasing albums in the past. A week before the album's release, she put on "Double Features," a limited run of listening parties in which playback of the album was followed by a classic film (like Drugstore Cowboy or Days of Heaven).
In terms of touring, she has opted for intimate, acoustic "Amateur Mistake" performances, with only 10 shows stretched across 39 days. The venues are smaller (New York's 1,500 seat Town Hall subs in for the Laurel Hell tour's 6,000 seat Radio City Music Hall), another sign of Mitski setting another boundary for herself. Judging by a video of her first stop in Mexico City, all of the moves she's made have resulted in something that feels sincere, beautiful and loving.
In a career of unlocking new formulas to convey her stratospheric talent, it seems Mitski may have found one that also supports her heart — a way to square the self that is hers when creating art, and the self that exists in the world for others.
"You have to go to both worlds all the time," she said in a press release. "I don't have a self. I have a million selves, and they're all me, and I inhabit them, and they all live inside me."
With The Land is Inhospitable, those selves populate an expansive, haunting world threaded through with love and care — finally living in harmony with the surrounding darkness.
Photo: Aaron Marsh
Teddy Swims Is Letting Himself Be Brutally Honest On 'I've Tried Everything But Therapy'
As the world continues to discover the magnitude of Teddy Swims' soulful voice, he realized the power of opening up and letting go with his debut album, 'I've Tried Everything But Therapy.'
Four years into his career, Teddy Swims made a promise to himself to be more honest. With that in mind, he decided to be unflinchingly real with his debut album title: I've Tried Everything But Therapy.
While the title may be true for now, Swims is incredibly vulnerable. Across 10 tracks, he divulges the raw emotions of heartbreak, from reeling over what could've been in opener "Some Things I'll Never Know" to leaning into new love — while still in repair — on closer "Evergreen."
"It's the most honest I've ever let myself be," Swims, born Jaten Dimsdale, says of the album. "I'm proud of it, and I'm proud of myself. And it's a f—ing relief to just get it off my shoulders."
For someone who bares his soul in his music, both lyrically and vocally, it's rather surprising to think that he wouldn't be the type for therapy. But now that the album is out, his next step is seeking professional help — another promise he made to himself upon choosing the candid title.
In the meantime, Swims is already seeing the impact of being more and more open in his music. "Lose Control," the album's lead single, has earned Swims his first entry on the Billboard Hot 100 and first solo radio hit (in 2022, his Meghan Trainor collab "Bad For Me" reached No. 15 on Billboard's Adult Pop Airplay chart). But perhaps more notably, his powerful vocal runs on the song's dynamic chorus are stopping listeners in their tracks. As one YouTube commenter put it, "Man has a voice that speaks to the core of your soul."
Just before the album's arrival, Swims talked with GRAMMY.com about how I've Tried Everything But Therapy has helped him understand the impact of wearing his insecurities on his sleeve — and how his bewitchingly soulful voice ties it all together.
How does this album feel different from what you've put out before this, whether it's lyrically or sonically, or even how you feel mentally based around the process?
I feel like this is maturity. I can listen to these songs and I feel proud of them.
Everybody kinda doesn't like their own voice, you know? But I feel like I belong on those songs, and nobody could say what I needed to say the way I could say it. I feel like I'm saying something that I need to say and get off my chest in an entirely different way than I ever have.
I'm kind of an emotional toddler. I'm getting more of a grasp on what I want to say and how to say it, how to talk about my feelings more. I feel like the more I do it, the longer I do it, the more honest I become, the more I get out of the way of things. I'm learning to get out of the way and let the creative flow just be what it is now.
Going into writing this album, like, what were you going through? And did you have a goal in mind about what you wanted the album to be?
I really didn't know at the time. In the last four years, I've written maybe four or five hundred songs. I didn't write it knowing that it was an album, or write it knowing that this was going to be the album; but more so, when it started coming together, it just felt like things fell into place.
I realized that I've been circling around the same feelings and emotions for a very long time. It's always about — I was in a very toxic relationship, and I have been a lot in my life. This is me kind of learning that I can be loved, and that I am beautiful, and I deserve love. That's kind of what the struggle is and always has been.
The album title is interesting to me, because so many artists compare songwriting to therapy. But has songwriting always felt like therapy for you?
Songwriting can be therapeutic if you have a feeling that you need to get out, and you write that feeling down, and you get it out. But what I tend to do a lot in my life, I'll write it down into a song, and then I'll write it into another song from a different perspective. And I'll write it down 100 different ways, in 100 different perspectives, to the point that it ends up that that small problem has now turned into the biggest problem in my life, because I've thought about so many different ways.
Instead of being more therapeutic, [songwriting has] been more of a way of highlighting what I'm going through, sometimes way too much.
The title itself was kind of a promise to myself that I would go to therapy when the album comes out. I think it's something that everyone can benefit from, especially me. But there's still something about me — maybe it's a generational mindset, like, I'm not crazy, I don't need that, or maybe there's answers to questions I don't really want to ask that I'm gonna get.
I like my coping mechanisms. I like how I am and who I am when I do cope. So there's a part of me that's afraid that I'll have to change.
But I made a promise to myself, put a deadline on myself where I'll go and I'll seek help, and I'll try. It's also me being honest and open about that, to you and to everyone, that I'm like, "I need help, that's okay." I'm gonna ask for help, and that's a liberating and equally terrifying thing.
The nice thing is, there has been a lot more public acceptance of mental health in recent years. How have you felt that change since you started releasing music, and how has it impacted your songwriting?
I think what's so great about our industry these days is that I'm not held to the same standard as, like, Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson, where I have to be such a star, and you don't know anything about me. These days, as an artist, I get to be absolutely insecure and absolutely terrified, and it's what makes my artistry beautiful. And people that feel the way I feel can look at me and say, "That guy's so insecure, and he's so scared. But he's doing it, and we want him to win."
I don't want to swallow my insecurities. I don't have to wait until I feel like I'm worthy of love to put myself out there. Every bit of insecurity, and everything that's going on in my life, I'm allowed to just wear it and put it on for everybody to see. That has helped me in more ways than me trying to be anything I'm not.
You've said that for a long time, you worried about giving too much of yourself in your music, but seeing people connect to the music has made you realize it's actually making a difference. When did you start realizing that?
I am very lucky — every show we do, I have a meet and greet where I can talk to 100 people, and they tell me things that have changed their life, ways that I've affected them, and the ways that I've touched their lives.
I also want them to know that I'm just that fat kid from Rockdale County, Georgia, and still feels like that. And they make me be able to be honest and have an outlet to turn my trauma into something positive in me.
I feel like I learn it more and more every day that I am in a safe space, and I've created a safe space for people, and I become safer in that all the time. And I'm becoming more honest with myself, with them, in the safe space. It's just sacred, you know?
Was there a song of yours that kind of opened that up for you, because of the way that people connected to it?
I've had a few like that, but "Simple Things" that I released on one of my EPs is still a song I sing all the time. I thought the verses were only specific to my life and what I was going through — that was the first time I was honest, and I wrote from only what I was going through specifically to my life, and that connected and did more for people than anything I did [previously].
You've said that you're insecure, but would you consider yourself an introvert?
I think the more that I do this, the more I become one. I used to be the biggest extrovert in the world, but the more I do this job, the more I have to be social, I feel myself becoming more of an introvert.
Well, I brought that up because so many artists consider themselves introverts, when you are pouring your heart out in music that is then heard by thousands, if not millions, of people. Has that dichotomy ever crossed your mind?
Yeah, but that's kind of why I think I've become more introverted, because I gotta figure out what's still mine or if there should be anything that I should hold to myself. That is the question: What is still for me, or should there still be anything just for me?
That's so interesting to think about — I've never really thought about the battle that an artist can have when they share so much. Because it's like, at that point, you're so exposed, how are you even supposed to function as a private person in any regard?
Yeah. You figure it out, you let me know. [Laughs.]
It's cool that you're feeling so proud of this album, though, because I'd say that means that you haven't gone too far.
It's the most honest I've ever let myself be. And I don't feel exposed — I just feel like I said what I needed to say.
I've heard that I've Tried Everything But Therapy is coming in multiple parts and this is just part one. Is that true?
Yeah, we're planning on part two, but I don't know what that looks like yet. But I want to put out more music. And I think I want to come from a different place of what I've learned from how I've healed. I just don't feel like this story's done yet.
But you said you're going to start therapy after this album releases — so you're going to release a part two of I've Tried Everything But Therapy after you've been in therapy?
Yeah, I guess that doesn't make sense. But it will!
It would be kind of interesting to have part two be the response to therapy after you have done it.
Yeah, exactly. That's the vibe. Maybe we just go straight to part three and skip part two altogether.
Before you even released part one, people were going crazy over "Lose Control" because of how soulful you sound on it. When did you realize you had such a captivating voice?
It wasn't really a realization — I was bad for a long time. But I love this, and I wanted this, so I worked hard to become good at it. I wanted to be the best I could at it, because using my voice means everything to me, and I want to know how to do everything I can with it.
Well, you're doing something right, because people are exclaiming about it left and right. I saw a comment on one of your Instagram posts that said, "I just threw my shoe across my damn office, you better sing!" Do you feel the power of your own music?
I know, technically and dynamically, I am a good singer. When I listen to myself, I can't say I can't sing, because it's all there. Any singer or vocal coach could tell "That kid knows what he's doing. He can sing his ass off."
But also, there's part of me that still doesn't like my voice, too, just like anyone else. And I think that might be why I became so good at it. Because I want to hear it and be like, "Well, you can't tell yourself you ain't good, 'cause that was f—ing — that takes skill." I've learned enough to know that I can't tell myself I'm bad. [Laughs.]
And I have to say, I've been impressed with all of the people you've posted singing their own versions of "Lose Control."
People can sing! And people have been writing verses to it too. The love on it has been so rewarding.
I feel very justified [that the music] is connecting. I feel like it's already helping. I feel very humbled, appreciated and loved.