MaLLy embraces a vintage sound and new attitude on 'The Journey to a Smile'


MaLLy AC Johnson Photography

Happiness is an elusive (some would say impossible) goal, but local hip-hop artist MaLLy is on his way there with a fresh outlook and a new album, The Journey to a Smile.

That journey wasn’t easy. After a nine-week, 50-date tour with Brother Ali in 2014, MaLLy felt creatively stalled. He continued performing material from his previous (and much darker) album, The Colors of Black, but he didn’t know what direction his music would take next.

Then, in 2015, he reached out to a producer friend, PC, who sent him a few beats. The music had a calm, vintage vibe, and, when combined with lifestyle changes like going vegetarian, quitting alcohol, and taking up a Buddhist meditation practice, MaLLy began to write with more vulnerability and authenticity. Soon, songs about celebrating the present moment, empowerment, masculinity, and spirituality flowed freely. The process made him fall back in love with music making.

“This album was like therapy,” he says. “It was truly a journey to find myself and proudly walk my own path as an artist. Instead of trying to look happy, this album was my ode to being happy.”

We spoke to MaLLy about his metamorphosis ahead of his Oct. 5 release show at Icehouse.

City Pages: When you first stopped drinking, was your plan to make a permanent lifestyle change or did you just want to be more clear-headed for the album?

M: Initially, it was like a test for myself. I was like, “Let me see if I can chill out for a week of not going out or having drinks on the weekend with friends.” I woke up after the first week on a Saturday, and I was like, “This feels great! I’m not hungover. All my facilities are intact. I’m not confused or angry or bitter.” The day-after hangover feeling of depression and sadness wasn’t there. I was like, “Let me go another week.” And then a month happened. Two, three, four, five months happened, and I was like, “I think this is a full-blown lifestyle change.” I just wanted to be clear-headed for life, not even just for the project, just in general. It had gotten boring, to be honest with you. After a while, I literally heard this voice in my head saying, “What are we even doing this for?”

People thought it was weird, too. They were like, “Dude, you’re not drinking? And you’re not eating meat anymore? What’s going on?” People thought I was in a cult. They thought something had gone wrong. I was like, “No, I just decided I don’t do that anymore.” Nobody ever gets weird or questions if you stop smoking cigarettes. But with drinking, it’s everywhere. If you perform, they got drinks in the green room. Even if they don’t, a fan wants to buy you a drink. You go to the afterparty. There’s happy hour if you work in a corporate setting. The company party. It’s so abundant. It’s like you almost don’t think about it. It’s just there. It’s as easy as breathing air. I was like, “Yeah, I just don’t want to do this anymore.”

[Now that I’m sober] I’m so present about things. I’m not wishy-washy and confused. My mood is balanced. Life is completely different because of that. And I value myself and the people around me so much more now. I’m really here with people. I can go to places and feel what it feels like to be in a certain environment because I’m not numbed. There’s no veil over my essence or over my feelings. I’m 100 percent there. I’m tuned in. It definitely contributed to how the album turned out.

CP: The first track on the album honors your mother. How has your relationship with her shaped you?

M: “Dear Mama” is actually more of an ode of gratitude to both my mom and my grandma. The woman you hear speaking on the track is my grandma, from a voicemail she left me. I was having a down moment and she called me back to leave some encouraging words. When I listen back to that, that’s like a tearjerker moment for me. Some of the stuff she’s saying, like, “God loves you and so do I,” that hit me in the chest really hard. Both my mom and grandma have definitely been two pillars in my life as far as instilling some values: being honest, educating yourself, being a loving person, working hard. Being an only child, I got to spend lots of time with them. They’ve always been at the center of why I do a lot of things. I want to be the reflection of their investment. I want people, when they see me, to say, “This dude is the product of strong mentors, ethics, and two beautiful, strong black women who never were rich but they have rich spirits, rich hearts.”

My mom recently experienced her second bout of breast cancer in late 2018. Just going through driving someone to all of their appointments, making sure that the mastectomy was successful…it was a serious undertaking for those months, from the diagnosis to the surgery. I feel like it brought us closer. I think it let me know that my mom and my grandma are my real ones, they’re two of my favorite people in this world that have always shown love. If it wasn’t for them, there wouldn’t be me. They’ve always encouraged me to be the best at whatever it is that I’m doing, as long as I’m happy, that’s all that matters. Which is why I say, “Dear Mama / I hope you really like this,” like, “I hope you not only like the record but I hope that you’re proud of the effort and the time and the investment that you put into me as a person, as a son, as an entrepreneur, as an artist. I hope that you’re proud of the job that you did.” I think this particular project is a reflection of their hard work as much as it is mine.

CP: Another one of the standout tracks on the album is “Faces.” What experiences informed that song?

M: My friend, Bambu, has a song on his album Prey for the Devil called “Whiteface.” I happened to be listening to his album one day. I felt like it would cool if I did, not necessarily a response, but a continuation, but instead of “Blackface,” I just wanted to call it “Faces” because it’s more of a metaphor of the different types of caricatures as well as faces of pain, experiences of racism, prejudice, and challenges in the world.

Parts of the chorus are kind of conflicting: “They wanna see a smile with a black face / But everybody scared of the black face / They wanna see you die with your black face / This whole crowd fell in love with the black face.” And it’s a mix of, like, people selling themselves out but then also other people wanting to take on those caricatures who have no experience or understanding of what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes.

I go on to say, “Three years since I been called the [N-word] twice.” That was a real experience that prompted that verse. The second verse goes on to really criticize mainstream America. “Been ridiculed since middle school / a tear big enough that’d drop and fill a pool.” That particular line comes from going to private school a majority of my life and being one of the only black students – if not the only black student – in my class, and really having a hard time with that, dealing with, “Do I assimilate? How do I survive in this environment without stripping down and minimizing and giving up parts of myself just to get an education?”

Then I go on: “Pray for high-flying vultures if you drive five over.” It’s a criticism towards racism and referencing instances where blacks have been shot. I think there was an instance where an individual was making racist comments from a helicopter, saying, “There goes the bad guy,” on a police chase. That’s the high-flying vulture. And then the idea that if you drive five [miles] over [the speed limit] and get pulled over by the police, this potentially could be your last time on Earth.

So a lot of “Faces” is a critique of this integrated but super segregated world but then also doing some undertone criticisms of self, like: What’s the part I’ve played in this? Where do I fall into the equation? Am I one of those faces that has rapped just to entertain people? But then also understanding that even if you entertain people, there’s still that weird paradox that people are scared of you or people judge you from outer appearance. Having a black face is a very complicated thing.

CP: There are religious references all over this album. How does your faith influence both your life and your music?

M: Growing up, I’d always had a relationship with God or with a higher power, more so looking at it like an energy or a vibe that governs how everything moves in the world. All living beings, to me, are manifestations of that. We’re all an expression of the supreme. The world doesn’t belong to us; we belong to it. Having that understanding since I was a young child and…prayer, specifically, this idea of you can pray or you can worry. I started off at a young age practicing Christianity very lightly.

More recently, I saw an interview by Russell Simmons where he was describing clarity over cloudiness – he used to get high and drunk and party hard – and he stumbled upon meditation and realized that meditation for 20 minutes means more to him than a late night of drinking and getting high. When he said that he prefers clarity over cloudiness, that just stuck with me. I said, “Wow. This is something that maybe I should explore.” I was very curious, having more of a seeker’s mentality versus just having super hard, definitive roles of where I fit or where I’m supposed to be spiritually.

A friend of mine introduced me to Common Ground Meditation Center in Minneapolis. I went to a couple of meditation courses and started to practice meditation. It’s like rewiring or retraining your patterns, your habits, how you see the world, how you see people, how you see yourself. For me, the way it started to spill over into the music was really not fighting, or trying to be perfect, with the material I was coming up with. Instead of trying to hide and come up with the slickest verse, why don’t I just have a very honest verse about how I feel about my spirituality or how I feel about the world? What’s my perspective on how I acted towards women in relationships or friendships? What’s my relationship with my family? How do I feel about myself right now? And being able to have those real conversations. My spirituality practice, as well as the music, has served as a mirror for me to be able to live twice and reflect on things that have happened and speak to a lot of those situations.

CP: Throughout all these experiences, what have you learned about happiness?

M: Happiness comes from so many places on a temporary basis, like I got a big pay raise or I got a new car or I bought a new house or I got married or I’m in a relationship or I put out a new album. Those are all slices of happiness, or things that create or incite happiness. There’s feeling it, but then there’s the state of being…trying to figure out, at this very moment, even if I don’t have every single thing that I’ve ever desired or ever wanted, am I good? Can I sit there and say, “I’m happy with my life?”

The thing that I’ve learned about happiness is it’s one thing to get there and experience it, but it takes effort and intention to maintain it. Happiness is available to all of us, within us. I’m not trying to make decisions for people who might have mental illness. Maybe it is a different road or different challenge to get there. I don’t have any mental illness that I know of, but in general terms, I do think happiness is available to us all. We have everything we need to get to that point or experience that. But I think it is a matter of putting the time in, of really counting your blessings, of understanding that happiness is here. It’s not way across the room. Happiness is within all of us.

We put a lot of stock in external things. And the external stuff is the stuff that we can’t control. If you’re outsourcing your happiness into external things, into something that’s volatile, that’s always in flux, that’s always fleeting, and that’s impermanent, then you’re at the mercy of the world.

With: Last Word, The Lioness, and Just Wulf
Where: Icehouse
When: 10:30 p.m. Sat. Oct. 5
Tickets: $8/$10; more info here