"People that were born there are still there, or died there," Amber "Sweetz P." Hill tells us of Altgeld Gardens. The rapper is carefully inspecting a chicken wing over her plate at Muddy Waters, looking up seriously from beneath a dark ski-hat and curtain of dreads."That's the type of place it is."
Altgeld Gardens is a housing project on the South Side of Chicago. Built for returning African-American WWII veterans, it is both a historic landmark and an ongoing prison cell of sorts -- the bars of which are formed metaphorically by both inside and outside forces.
Though Sweetz P. and her extended family have called Minneapolis home for many years now, those formative days spent in the Gardens are what so decisively shape her sound and aesthetic on Life Behind Barrrs, the full-length she will release as the final act of a trilogy this Tuesday. Much like her previous work, Life Behind Barrrs is rife with trippy trap-induced beats, laden by Sweetz's throaty vocals combining artful storytelling with an ample dose of braggadocio and swag.
"This is the summary, the graduation CD of sorts," she says. The album was recorded locally at Kid Nasty Studios by her friend Monster Cody. She began writing it the day after releasing #Liferrrs: Guide to Watching Porn Without Headphones earlier this year, and didn't stop until she was ready to enter the studio. "This one kind of wraps up my entire lifestyle -- my entire movement, everything that I have going on," she says.
The album reads much like a diary. "Life Behind Barrrs is not just lyrical bars, or jail bars, or going to the bar and getting a drink, or Xanax bars," Sweetz P. explains. "It's life in general, behind whatever it is you do."
Stepping inside those places in her mind brought Sweetz P. back to the streets of the Gardens, and the grittiness is palpable in the album's sound. It has nothing of the polite Midwestern rap politics; instead, Sweetz P. deftly defies gender roles and embraces more aggressive lyrical tactics.
Sweetz P. takes the black hoodie and gold grill swagger of a cocksure A$AP Rocky and slips it over the body of a woman. She shakes us out of our secure and sexy Nicki Minaj image-addled minds the way Lil' Kim did when she rapped about showing us how she can make a Sprite can disappear in her mouth -- except Sweetz P. is a woman talking about having sex with other women, not bragging about her blowjob prowess. The reactions have been severe. How could she refer to women as "bitches" in her music? Being a woman herself, how could she behave in such a misogynistic manner?
"It's crazy as hell," she spits. Just considering the notion has her visibly angered, hands balling into fists. "Are you fucking joking me? That's crazy, that that accusation can even be made, but people are small-minded. It baffles me."
Though these accusations disturb her deeply, all Sweetz P. can do is shrug them off, and continue to stand apart as a lone wolf in her male-dominated field. "At the end of the day, it's music," she says. The message is more of a personality indicator, a peephole into her interactions with the world around her. "I'll call a man a bitch, too, if he's acting like a bitch. I'll say it. It goes both ways for me."
At times, being a woman who refers to other woman as "bitches" can be conflicting. Yet one may argue that by utilizing what comes across as an overwhelmingly masculine approach, Sweetz P. is actually taking back the power of the words by making them her own. She harnesses them into her songs and projects that brash power and masculinity alongside her feminine whims in a manner that undercuts gender barriers. Thus, she affords herself the same luxury of language in a genre where the sexuality portrayed in the art is vastly dependent on the gender of the artist.
One can see that she also enjoys the fuss. Even her name was chosen as a means of throwing people off. "You think you're going to see a chick like Nicki Minaj rapping and shit," she laughs. "You're like, oh, girl! They're watching the video like, did she rap yet?"[page]
Growing up entrenched in the solid support of her family members gave her the confidence to start down this unlikely path. "I've got a huge, huge family, and that's probably why I didn't need to have many outside friends," she says. When she first became serious about learning how to rap, 12-year-old Amber had only the support of one older cousin, Link. "That was the first one that really was like, all right, lil' cuz, you can rap," she says. "He was the first one that really listened to me."
At 15, she cut her first mixtape. "I had all these songs and I'm like, I gotta put this shit out," she remembers. Her brother went in half on the studio time, and she was able to release her first project. Ever since then, being a rapper was the only viable career option to her, a dedication that shows through on Life Behind Barrrs.
"I'm 26. So I'm like, shit. Ten years have gone by, and now I can listen to how I've grown, how I've really become an artist," she says. The change is evident. "I'll listen to some of my stuff from just a few years ago and I'm like, damn. The overall growth is there, and I can see it myself." She's still surrounded by the same friends and family -- everyone in her current crew and the other artists represented by her label here in Minneapolis are all family from Chicago.
After listening to Life Behind Barrrs, Sweetz. P.'s easy friendliness and sense of humor caught us somewhat off guard. Her musical presence is so huge that it projects a much larger-than-life image of the well-spoken and thoughtful woman sitting before us, something she hopes more people will come to see. Interestingly, though she's received high-profile write-ups and enjoyed much far-reaching success as an artist, she still faces many huge hurdles here at home in the local music community.
"I think it is because of my approach and my style, and my lane," she considers. "People are taken aback more with what I have to offer." Her unpredictable and somewhat jarring style is what makes her so interesting though, and she see none of these hurdles as obstacles. When she speaks of what she's up against, it's much like listening to the lyrics in her songs. "I'm not afraid; I'm up for the challenge," she declares.
"I'm ready to kick some ass and take names. I'm not intimidated by anything, or any of that," she says, taking a slow sip of her beer. "To be honest, I'm ready to be put up against something that's going to give me a challenge. As far as right now, I haven't come across anything that has."
Life Behind Barrrs w/ DJ Burn One will be released this Tuesday, November 25, and she will announce a release show on social media soon.
GIMME NOISE'S GREATEST HITS