There is struggling to make a record, and then there’s what P.O.S went through.
The 35-year-old Minneapolis rapper born Stef Alexander underwent a kidney transplant back in 2014. He spent more than a year on dialysis before that, forcing him to cancel an extensive tour in support of his last album, 2012’s We Don’t Even Live Here.
His recovery over the past three years — in between rare solo shows and live gigs alongside his Doomtree crew — has been arduous, he says, but the surgery abated the chronic kidney disease he’s suffered from since his teens.
“I feel like I’m as close to full strength as I can be,” P.O.S reports. “I’m older than I was when I got the transplant, but I feel way better than I did back then.”
Last January, as his strength returned, P.O.S began constructing the skeletal parts of what would become his new record, Chill, Dummy. Serious recording sessions began in earnest four months ago at the Hideaway Studios in northeast Minneapolis, as well as in the home studios of P.O.S and some friends. There is a fitful urgency that courses through the album’s 12 inventive tracks, with P.O.S conjuring the lyrical intensity of a man who knows how fortunate he is to still be here.
Chill, Dummy serves as P.O.S’ playful but pragmatic advice to himself: to slow down and not overthink every detail.
“The title is definitely directed at me,” P.O.S says with a laugh. “Anybody who relates to some of the songs can turn it in on themselves, too. But so much of the lyrics are written at me, kind of freaking out about reconnecting with my friends and reconnecting with life after being sick.”
P.O.S reunites with his friends in a major way on the new record, which drops Friday. In addition to longtime collaborator and primary Doomtree beatmaker Lazerbeak, he called on Kathleen Hanna, Busdriver, Lizzo, Open Mike Eagle, Allan Kingdom, Astronautalis, Lady Midnight, and several others to add to the feisty collaborative spirit of the record.
On “Pieces/Ruins,” Busdriver’s hook — “All of the places we love have been left in ruins” — forms the wistful centerpiece, illuminating the longing for lost, special places from our past.
“We had been having a long talk about gentrification,” P.O.S says. “When you’re a kid, you hang out at your spot every day. You’ve got your nooks, and your corner store, and your block. You make yourself, you make your personality. But just like the hook says, you get older and you stop looking so hard for those places. Other people see your corners as potential parking lots or ways to get money.”
Another highlight of the album is “Faded.” On it, P.O.S transforms “Faded High” — a 2010 song from his soft-rock supergroup GAYNGS — into something that feels entirely new.
“When [“Faded High”] came out, I thought it was really awesome and I wanted to make my own version of it,” he says mischievously. “When it was time to make this record, I had an idea and just asked [GAYNGS ringleader/producer] Ryan [Olson], ‘Can you send me the stems of that song so I can make a new one?’”
The reworked version features P.O.S’ exuberant rhymes blending with original vocals from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Minneapolis upstart Lady Midnight. Her rich, soulful voice is featured all over the album.
“I came to the Hideaway studio and it was extremely enjoyable and effortless,” Lady Midnight says of the Chill, Dummy recording process. “[P.O.S] had a very clear idea to start with, very much a director of his vision, but once that foundation was set, Stef encouraged me to just open up and vocalize my heart. The energy and chemistry felt very electric — even victorious — in the studio that day.”
That session might not have been possible without the help of P.O.S’ fans, who assisted financially and emotionally throughout his long recovery. Doomtree managed to crowd-fund more than $40,000 to help pay medical bills, and P.O.S says the supportive comments from fans kept him going through the darkest days of his dialysis and transplant surgery.
“That was the stuff that kept me wanting to wake up every morning,” P.O.S says. “Without my family, my close friends, Doomtree, and these comments, I would have lost it. Mary [Thayer], my manager and good friend, actually went through and wrote everybody’s comments down in a book and gave it to me while I was in my bed sick. Even now, I still flip through it and read everything people wrote.”
Making Chill, Dummy proved to be cathartic, a way for P.O.S to work through the emotions that mounted during his health scare.
“A lot of this record is very much just me being really mad at me, it’s really inward,” he reveals. “There were some really hard times during when I was sick that I didn’t even really acknowledge until I was feeling a lot better. And then I got to look back and say, ‘Wow, I was really struggling.’”
To give some love back to his hometown fans, P.O.S lined up two local shows in support of Chill, Dummy. The intimate 7th St. Entry gig this Friday sold out in a matter of minutes, but he’ll return to First Avenue’s Mainroom on March 17. Both those spaces hold special significance for P.O.S.
“If I’m being honest, I didn’t have any other goals in my music career aside from playing First Avenue,” he admits. “So, once I hit and then surpassed that goal, I had to reassess my whole life. Like, OK, so what do I want to do now?”
No matter what he does now — or next — it’s clear the music world is invested in his success.
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