"I ain't no Christian / That was momma's thing." With these words, Astronautalis cut himself free from the traditions of his baptism.
It'd been a meandering four years since the transplanted Minneapolis rapper released the galvanizingly existential This Is Our Science. Turns out that album was the philosophical foundation on which he'd build his own metaphorical church.
That church turned out to be a diocese — a family of secular belief systems, each with a mission spelled out in the tracklist of his fifth LP, last month's Cut the Body Loose. The prodigal rhymesmith is back in town to preach his latest gospel at the Turf Club and 7th St. Entry on June 17 and 18, respectively.
He agreed to lay down the doctrine of the slanged-out Creole apparition that is Cut the Body Loose.
The Church of Individual Wherewithal
If there's one central credo to Astronautalis' body of work, it's that self-reliance is the gateway to paradise.
Cut the Body Loose is a purgatory between This Is Our Science and reality. It champions the same fierce individualism of the previous record, but does so with the jaded vocabulary of a man who's seen those ideals fail.
"I felt a pin in my balloon after making this album of uproarious anthems on self-reliance and independence," the real-life Andy Bothwell, 34, says of the "romantic" and "optimistic" Science. "And then having people listen to it and then do the exact same things I was talking against."
Astro's always been a sloganeering despot on record, but Cut the Body Loose allowed him to get closer to the uglier, uncomely sides of his personality.
"There's a really selfish and self-indulgent corner of what the new record is," he says. "This record became about seeing bigger world issues that represented the exact opposite of that [optimism]"
Cut the Body Loose is about how you proceed once those anthemic fight songs amount to nothing more than stylish bumper stickers. Instead of returning to the dusty American Revolution allegories of past records, Astronautalis relays the determination of his friends in post-Katrina New Orleans and the proprietors of illegal house shows in Slovakia.
"In a lot of ways, you can say this is my religion," says the hard-traveling MC, originally from Jacksonville, Florida. "I've found a rock in the self-reliance, independence, and hard work of individual human beings. And I feel almost obligated to share this with people."
First Church of the Prophet Jason Feathers
Around 2013, Astronautalis started acting weird. He bought a gold grill. His drawl got more pronounced. At the inaugural Eaux Claires festival in 2015, he holed up in a confessional booth that he presided over like some sort of twisted televangelist.
With this new aesthetic came a new name. He took on the persona of Creflo, the bombastic cleric frontman of Jason Feathers, a grime-rap band he'd formed alongside Bon Iver's Justin Vernon. Together, they released De Oro, a bizarre, braggadocious hip-hop album that utterly baffled critics. But to Astronautalis, it was the most intuitive pivot he could've made.
"[That record] helped me embrace a lot of parts of me that I'd forgotten about," he says.
There's a reason Cut tracks "Running Away from God" and "Kurt Cobain" shiver with New Orleans horns and "Attila Ambrus" jumps with Creole piano. While searching for an aesthetic closer to his honest self, Astronautalis went back to his Southern roots.
"I wanted it to draw on both the South I grew up in and the musical roots of weirdo jazz scene in New Orleans with folks like Professor Longhair and Dr. John," Bothwell says.
Part of that journey back to Dixie involved Astronautalis revisiting the idea of the minister. It's a deeply ingrained trope in American life, especially so in the ludicrous swampland of northern Florida.
"The idea of the American fire-and-brimstone minister is something even my fans in Slovakia are familiar with," Bothwell says. "A good preacher takes a big, gigantic message and finds a way to package it in a relatable, entertaining way. What I'm doing isn't too different."
The New Church of Universal Slanguage
Considered alongside his early work, "SIKE!" seemed almost sacrosanct when it dropped as Cut the Body Loose's first single. All of a sudden, the skinny hipster boy from the Midwest was going from chronicling Russian scientists to sampling Allen Iverson soundbites, blessing up to Lil' B, and calling Rick Ross "just a cop with some bad tattoos."
Though he's often sequestered in the sub-genre "indie-rap," Astronautalis has never been a backpacker. He grew up on the No Limit, Slip-N-Slide, and LaFace Records — bordellos of blinged-out hedonism that defined Southern hip-hop in the 1990s. For the first time in his career, Astronautalis embraced those industry-rap influences.
"I felt really disenfranchised with what rap had become for a while," he says. "But rap has become the most exciting it's ever been."
More than that, hip-hop has evolved into the common lexicon of the people. Astronautalis hears sportscasters using rap neologisms, and he sees Hillary Clinton hitting dabs on Ellen. It trips him out.
"Language is the lynchpin of every record," Bothwell says. "If I wanted to communicate big ideas in this day and age, [hip-hop slang] was the natural language to operate in."
The Church of the Urgent Catharsis
The ritual of "cutting the body loose" is a very literal tradition in New Orleans jazz funerals. During the service, mourners will say their final goodbyes to the deceased before entombment. Instantly, the music in the procession becomes more upbeat, releasing all the sick grief of the ceremony and turning it into a true celebration.
It's a beautiful moment, one that's replicated on Cut the Body Loose. It's all despair and dire circumstance until the title track. Heartbreak ("In the Tall Grass," "Guard the Flame") and disaster ("1515 Washington," "Forest Fire").
"I don't have an answer to the problems in the world, and that's the point of the album," Bothwell says. "It builds up to that point in where all the problems have compounded, and then there's just this big, dumb, ignorant, joyous dance party."
"Cut the Body Loose" pivots directly into "SIKE!" before culminating the euphoric turn in "Boiled Peanuts," a wistful ode to youthful idiocy with a hook sung by fellow Southern transplant Lizzo.
There are no callbacks to the systemic tragedies he despairs over earlier in the tracklist, nor is there any grand, philosophical conclusion. There's just a memory of a dumb kid dissing too hard at open mics. Then, it's over.
"I'm letting go of that desire to find a point and finding a new happiness," Bothwell says. "I don't wanna make a manifesto. Manifestos are boring as fuck."
Turf Club: 8 p.m. Fri., June 17 • Turf Club • $15; more info here.
7th St. St. Entry: 8 p.m. Sat., June 18 • 7th St. Entry • sold out; more info here.