Manchita's after-PRTY: The fierce rapper tries a little tenderness on her solo debut, 'One'

Bionk and Manchita

Bionk and Manchita Adam DeGross

“The most important thing was to witness myself survive being vulnerable.”

Manchita is talking about her first solo project, One, a five-song EP recorded with producer Bionik that’s more melodic and subdued than anything she’s attempted before. Until now, she’s been known for her bold, aggressive raps. They helped form the vivacious aura of GRRRL PRTY and Tha Clerb. They sank effortlessly into the electronic clamor of Marijuana Deathsquads and Slapping Purses. They proved a gritty foil to Spyder Baybie Raw Dog’s filthy fervor.

But while Manchita’s lyricism has always been dark and honest, her brazen stage presence and take-no-shit attitude have tempered the heavy subject matter she breathed into her uptempo work. With the slower R&B cadences of One, those emotional extremes are now placed front and center, laid bare on beats in sometimes jarring detail.

To help develop this new sound, Bionik used mixing techniques that drew upon gospel and ’90s R&B, surrounding Manchita’s unadorned vocal takes in lush atmospheres. The more lithesome voicing came organically, so that what felt right for the material is what came through on the record. For Manchita, though, the process was unnerving at first.

“I have a complex relationship with femininity and what it means to be a woman, and I am challenging myself on it, and I’ve done work on it, and I still have kinks to work out,” she says. “One of those kinks was having a softness in just the way that my voice sounds. It sounds like a female voice. There’s part of me that’s like, that’s weak, which is just ingrained sexism, and that’s my shit to handle.”

“I really respect that she embraces all these sides of herself,” Bionik says. “The more dominant performance and more intimate performance, masculine/feminine, whatever you want to call it—she’s able to move between those two worlds really well.”

But the production on the new album required Manchita to come to terms with that aspect of her voice—and herself. “This project is me being okay with the feminine part, and allowing that part of me to rise a little bit to the surface and be present, instead of shunned and shamed and guarded, and associated with fear and vulnerability,” she says. “There’s strength there too, and I need to be able to access it.”

“I just felt like she has what it takes to be intimate and still come across as very enthralling without the power,” says Bionik. “I know she was kind of reticent at times about whether that was okay to sound that vulnerable or something, but to me it’s just as edgy as your powerful shit because of how personal it is, and because it has this sinewy voice that just gets at you.”

At a in-store performance at Electric Fetus, where she debuted some of her new material, Manchita flaunted the strength that resides within this softness, demonstrating a rapper’s breath control and mic control as she weaved between emotional registers and complex rhythmic sequences. It was a profound display, one that seemed to expand beyond the intimacy of the space. As Bionik dropped beats and added light percussion, Manchita’s gentle harmonic touch came off just as assured as if she’d been spitting about chucking the deuces.

“I think the idea that the only way that the feminine energy can be powerful is to be super dominant, that’s a paradigm that we have to get away from,” says Bionik. “It’s a super brave departure from what you know you can handle, and then taking on a whole new terrain, and conquering it. It’s the key to any real success with art, to bare yourself as much as possible, not knowing what’s going to happen.”

The collaboration between Manchita and Bionik was a long time coming. They first worked together on GRRRL PRTY’s 2015 EP, and again on Bionik’s The Way I Be EP, where the One track “Shame on Me” first appeared. After many conversations about embarking on a more extensive project, what Manchita calls a “pivot point” in her personal and creative life pushed her to finally follow through.

This time last year, Manchita experienced an emotional crisis. “Everything was just kind of shifting,” she says, mentioning that GRRRL PRTY broke up around then as well. “I crashed, and then I had nowhere to go but up, and grow—really starting from the ground up,” she says. “So it’s just equipping myself with tools to handle what may come, and just accepting my mental health as a thing I need to take care of, like my joints.”

The visuals accompanying the EP not only deftly represent the duality of strength and vulnerability you hear in the music, but have personal meaning for Manchita related to that pivot point. The album cover features a striking Adam DeGross photograph of Manchita wearing a torn fishnet over her head like a ski mask, her deep stare both intimidating and irresolute. The video for “Cashed,” a stripped-down production that combines grace and disarray, directed by Maria Juranic, plays with a range of distinctive images, including symbolic costuming that works off design ideas provided by the performer herself.

“The fishnet bodysuit with the feathers is super sexualized, but I’m wearing the scrubs from when I was in the hospital,” says Manchita, referring to a brief inpatient stay when her mental health crisis overwhelmed her. “That was intentional, and it was meant to be this flap against, like when waves and a rock crash or something. And people might not notice little things like that, but every piece of clothing was in there for a reason, or came from somewhere specific.”

Manchita is careful to reject the “tortured artist” trope, insisting that her creative work thrives when she’s in a good place mentally. Practicing the skills necessary to have access to this part of herself has been especially centralized since this period of change. She’s discussed her mental health in depth with Andrea Swensson on The OK Show in 2015, where she also talked about her former relationship with Micheal “Eyedea” Larsen and the difficulty of owning her grief after his passing in 2010.

When Manchita is complimented on her striking honesty, no matter what style she works in, she responds, “It’s honest in another way, too... because you can be honest and still guarded. But there was a difference — it was like a shedding of exoskeleton or something.

“To be tender and allow myself to be tender, I think that is ultimately what the challenge was for me,” she adds. “The release of it is about surviving.”

Manchita EP release show with Bionik
With: Lady Midnight, DJ Keezy, Mina Moore, Eric Mayson, and Shannon Blowtorch
Where: 7th St. Entry
When: 8 p.m., Friday, June 9
TIckets: $10/$12; more info here