By Gabriel Aikins
When it comes to how the human brain works, nostalgia is one of the most powerful forces. The movies and shows we watch, the video games we play, and the music we listen to in youth will always hold a special place in our minds, and inevitably spring back up in pop culture. Think Billie Eilish sampling The Office on When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? or Ariana Grande recreating iconic early 2000 rom-coms for the “Thank U, Next” video. Nostalgia isn’t just a backward-facing experience, though. Those memories and works of art can be used as building blocks to influence and create new experiences and new art. There are few who know this better than Kansas City’s Blackstarkids. Taking the media they loved growing up in the 2000s and combining it with their formidable songwriting and producing talent, the young musical trio of TyFaizon, The Babe Gabe, and Deiondre are creating captivating, timeless sounds at an incredible pace.
While new LP Whatever, Man – out today on Dirty Hit – is their first album on a label, it’s Blackstarkids’s third album in a little over a year, following 2019’s debut, Let’s Play Sports, (which includes album opener “MTV”) and their first 2020 album, Surf. The energy present in the trio’s nostalgic pop tracks also comes across as they speak to MTV News over Zoom, and clearly explains how they can put music out so quickly. Asked if working with a label was a big adjustment, Ty replies with a flat “no” before chuckling and explaining they already had written half the album in March before meeting and signing with Dirty Hit in April, after which the second half was finished quickly. “Honestly, I can’t say I felt a huge sense of pressure because we had already established what we were doing with the project, so it was like, OK, let’s keep going and try to make it good,” he says.
While Blackstarkids draw from icons throughout time, Whatever, Man draws heavily in sound and aesthetic from the late ‘90s and the first decade of the 2000s, when they were still kids (Ty is 19; The Babe Gabe and Deiondre are both 20). The album’s track titles reference Kill Bill, millennial pop stardom, and Malcolm in the Middle — “Beatrix Kiddo,” “Britney Bitch,” and “Frankie Muniz” — and features intros and outros structured like iCarly-style web shows. The group utilize mood boards and their own knowledge of each other’s tastes as close friends to figure out what they want to create, and build out from there. In this case, the emotional high they were on this spring after the release of the grungier, more subdued Surf and the bright creative future drew them back in time to the dazzling pop that dominated the early 2000s. “It just feels good. It’s really bright,” Deiondre sums up. “It’s super nostalgic, too,” Gabe chimes in. “I remember growing up in that late 2000s era, and recreating that sound felt so good. My kid self is loving what we’re doing right now.”
Their work begins conceptually: The trio explain that a project starts with an album name and tracklist, and only then do they begin writing and making the music. They’ll choose existing songs as brainstorms. “A reference song could be anything,” Ty says. “So if the reference songs are more rock-based, then the song is probably going to come out more rock based.” The final product will often sound nothing like the reference song but carry similar feeling or ideas. The mellow and riff-based “Frankie Muniz,” for example, was born from a decidedly less mellow reference track: Green Day’s “Basket Case.” This stems from their multifaceted musical backgrounds. Gabe grew up around guitars and hip-hop and was making DJ mixes before Blackstarkids, Deiondre plays guitar in addition to his production chops, and Ty has had an encyclopedic knowledge of rap since before he was 10.
Making such a wide-ranging collection of songs requires constant communication and collaboration between the three friends. They agree that calling Ty and The Babe Gabe lead songwriters and Deiondre the producer is a good general way to describe how they work, but those roles aren’t strictly defined. “There’s plenty of songs that Deiondre has written on, too. And when he does solo music, he writes it all, so he’s a songwriter too,” Ty says. He and Gabe will often write while Deiondre produces. The trio will write and perform their own raps, too. All three bring a slightly different touch to their lyrics, with a common theme of expressing clear emotion and cleverly shouting out the icons that have influenced them. Gabe name-drops Britney Spears, Fergie, and Gwen Stefani on the chorus of “Britney Bitch” as she dreams of living the pop-star life. On the same track, Deiondre shouts out Myspace while rapping about the potential material perks of stardom for he and his friends, and Ty delivers the hook with his smooth cadence.
Deiondre’s role as producer is slightly more defined, and each track on whatever, man not only has its own distinct feeling – from pop icon-inspired “Britney Bitch” to “Tangerine Love”’s rock ballad sound – but also works to tell the story of all the things the group loves. “When Ty brought up the idea of the album and just overall what each song was going to sound like or feel like in terms of story, I knew I wanted it to be a lot of guitar-based songs,” Deiondre says. He cites the trend of palm-muting guitars that was prevalent in music and movies around the turn of the century as inspiration, like on Blink-182’s Enema of the State and in action films such as Crank, and adds that the guitar-based approach allowed plenty of space for more elements, including poppier synths and an array of percussion instruments and samples, to be incorporated into the mix.
As good as Blackstarkids already are, they’re still learning and expanding their talents on the music business side as they go. They laugh as they recall how Surf didn’t have album art until a week or two before release, a timeline Dirty Hit gently steered them away from. Whatever, Man builds on their collaborative formula and adds more refined songwriting as they find their voices and production constantly adding in new wrinkles as it gets crisper, like the nuanced and layered guitar loops on “Dead Kennedys.” “For us, when we listen to it we get to really tell what emotion we were going for. I like the fact the emotions on this album are so strong,” Ty adds. The time period-appropriate idols that fuel their nostalgic writing – Nirvana, Outkast, Prince, Smashing Pumpkins – also serve as templates for them to improve and innovate.
If their packed 2020 is any indication, Blackstarkids are well on track to fulfill that promise of greatness to themselves. There’s no limit to what Ty, The Babe Gabe, and Deiondre can do as they only grow closer and more skilled over time, just as their idols like A Tribe Called Quest and Beastie Boys evolved as they released each project. They’ve already proven to be masters of genre-blending pop and eager historians and excavators of the media they loved growing up. “I want it to be one of those things where it’s something that’s relevant for the rest of our lives,” Ty says. “Even if we don’t do it for the rest of our lives, it’s something that people always know and respect.”