“I want to be in love, I want to know intimacy,” Mykki Blanco confesses on one of Mykki’s spoken-word interludes. “This desire burns so deeply…It isn’t even sexual/It’s love.” The theme of disaffection persists throughout, but is nowhere as plain or heartfelt. And yet, the sentiment’s almost too heartfelt, too arch, and when the New York rapper and performance artist goes on to suggest, “Perhaps I’m going to have to love myself first,” the overt triteness seems to give up the game.
This observation isn’t meant to cast Blanco’s sincerity into doubt. On the contrary, it’s exhibit A in how Mykki explores an inner life lived on both sides of an ironic wink. With a battle rapper’s dexterity and a pop star’s showmanship, Blanco, born Michael Quattlebaum Jr., shuttles between cadences, accents, pitches, and personas (including Mykki, a squeaky-voiced and peevish tween), and even in the most defensive of these postures, his words surge with pathos. A behind-the-mask reveal, if not superfluous, scans as one more pose, with an undercurrent of real feeling.
But then, it’s easy to fixate on the play of image and identity when assessing the full-length debut of a wiry, black, lantern-jawed gay man whose nom de guerre is a fictional 14-year-old girl; the critical frameworks are practically waiting in the wings. For his part, though, Blanco, perhaps protesting too much, has been unambiguous with interviewers about having limited use for the term “queer” and none at all for queer theory.
More to the point is that Mykki is abundantly entertaining—a seedy, playful camp melodrama produced and performed with the unblinking conviction of an overdue star. Across the album’s slim but sinewy 45 minutes, he and producers Jeremiah Meece and Woodkid blend vaporwave, footwork, grime, dancehall, cloud rap, and trap into a melodic rap mélange that’s as often darkly comic as melancholic. Blanco presides over the bacchanal as a jaded Jean des Esseintes, a trap lord sipping ice cream floats, bored by the shallow fruits of fame it takes most rappers at least two albums to start bemoaning.
Because the dominant mood is pensive, the screwier tracks stand out. “For the Cunts” channels M.I.A.’s “Bucky Done Gun” as an ode to bitchy hedonists, who giggle in sync with the hook’s militant snares. The scary-funny “My Nene” puts Blanco’s whole range on display, as he lurches between hook and verse from a contrabass love man to what Tex Avery’s peripatetic wolf might sound like voiced by Danny Brown. Then jealousy strikes, the drums fall heavier, and he plays both sides of the lovers’ quarrel, anguished supplication bleeding into defiance and vice versa, before closing out with a growled Spanish mantra. It’s histrionic, delirious, and thoroughly brilliant.
The two-part crescendo of intensity on “My Nene” recalls Blanco’s “Coke White Starlight.” “My Nene” comes as close to anything on Mykki to that song’s headlong dive into the abyss. The album departs not only from the scattershot nature of previous Blanco mixtapes, where the rapper showed more interest in noise and Kathleen Hanna than hip-hop credibility, but also sustains a lucid, if not quite diaristic, focus on guarded vulnerability. Mykki’s centerpiece, the astonishing “High School Never Ends,” weds an experimental edge to the epic sweep of teen angst and its lingering adult afterlife. It’s expertly sequenced after “I’m in a Mood” and “Loner,” and together the trio of tracks forms a mopey triptych of fabulous alienation, cresting with a torch-song piano as Woodkid taunts breathily, “Why don’t you just delete me?”
Read out loud, these words are funny, lampooning the preservation of grudges on social media. But Woodkid sings them dead seriously, and then a string section swells out, and suddenly petty iPhone-era squabbles take on the grandeur of Greek tragedy—or at least a modern adaptation starring teens. Such is Blanco’s world, where emotional transactions take place across constantly shifting surfaces, under a low-lying fog of narcotics and the phatic chatter of scenester supernumeraries. Mykki distills this experience into a pop debut of disciplined eccentricity and disarming force.