A Guide to Loving iLoveMakonnen

Emma Gase | Medium Talk Co-Creator

The First Tuesday (in August)

I remember the first time I heard “Club Goin’ Up on a Tuesday.” It was a Tuesday (obviously) in August, and I was in Las Vegas for a work conference. As I mindlessly thumbed through my blogosphere tabs before dinner, I came across a SoundCloud link to an artist I had never heard of with a weird name that sounded like an Apple product. The album art spelled in colorful bubble letters: “Have a Wonderful Tuesday.” As my Tuesday wasn’t going so well, I figured I could use some good juju. The moment I pressed play and those organ-style keyboards and “Sonny Digital” tag wafted out of my mini Jambox, I was done. I spammed the song to everyone I knew immediately, played it at least fourteen times before dinner (and wouldn’t be surprised if I spent the rest of August exclusively listening to it, either). Nine months later, the glow has yet to fade.

It all started when Drake, the Fairy Godmother of hip hop, jumped on then-unknown and unsigned artist iLoveMakonnen’s trippy keyboard banger, “Tuesday.” The song subsequently became a smash hit (Drake features seem to do that), topped numerous year-end “Best-Of” lists, and got nominated for a Grammy. A fluke? Perhaps, but you can’t argue with the hooks. Makonnen, for all his lack of finesse, has an undeniable ear for melody.

Makonnen doesn’t really sing about much other than selling drugs (except not Molly anymore, evidently) or partying (on Tuesdays), and barring his unique, um, tonal qualities, nor is he a technically skilled singer. His production is unrefined at worst, and simple at best—most of his songs are the result of dropping some 808s on top of seemingly mindless yet melodic keyboard plonkings. But for all his amateur stylings, crude lyrics, and rudimentary sound, Makonnen’s music radiates a charm and a freshness that gripped me in a way no other pop music has in a long time. But why?

First of all, Makonnen’s voice is unlike any other in pop music right now—sometimes he sings in a deep growl (“Doubted”), other times, in a devastating croon (his feature on Tunji Ige’s “Day2Day” remix), and other times still in a childish lilting, half-singing, half-rapping cadence. Most often, it’s a combination of all three.

On the production front, there is no denying his approach is rough around the edges. But rather than sounding simplistic by design like a DJ Mustard* (whose self-dubbed “ratchet music” has officially reached the saturation point on radio), Makonnen’s songs have an unpolished yet endearing texture that is surely borne of his DIY roots.  He makes party anthems that sound like they were crafted in a college dorm room—each one more delightfully odd than the next. There’s nothing slick about Makonnen’s sound, but you get the sense that he likes it that way.

*Let’s just assume we’ve all forgiven Mustard for putting “Rack City” into the Universe.

Makonnen IRL : May 9th, 2015 @ Metro Chicago

Is there anything more tortuous than a terrible opening act at a show whose headliner you’ve been anticipating for months? Nothing quite makes the time drag, the drinks disappear, and the crowd get restless than ninety minutes of shitty opening acts. Whether it was Atlanta producer/ MC Sonny Digital mumbling onstage over Post Malone’s “White Iverson” like a half-hearted stab at karaoke, or fellow Atlantan and rapper Key! running through his deep back catalogue of *one* good song, it was clear the crowd would only be satiated by one thing: iLoveMakonnen.

Just as things were starting to seem hopeless ($9 drink #3, anyone?), he appeared: Clad in a Blackhawks jersey, looking like an extremely turnt up teddy bear, Makonnen stormed the stage while his signature distorted, tinny keyboard rang through the Metro sound system. The moshing started soon thereafter. It was nearly impossible to distinguish which track Makonnen opened with between the screaming and the drink-spilling, but I’m 90% sure it was “I Don’t Sell Molly No More.” The crowd sang along to every word of every song, which for some reason were truncated at about 90 seconds each. And while Makonnen isn’t short on material (his mixtape count is over a dozen), somehow he managed to run through his repertoire in around thirty minutes.

I understand the limitations of new artists touring behind only a couple of unofficial tapes or an EP, but at least throw in some covers or deep cuts to pad the set list. When the house lights came on after Makonnen’s blasphemous 30-second rendition of “Tuesday,” my friend and I turned to each other in disbelief.  There had to be an encore! He hadn’t even played “Maneuvering!” But as the piped-in music began to play and the crowd dispersed, I realized I had seen all I needed to see: A very new artist performing a fraction of his very new material in a tiny venue, right before he (likely) becomes mainstream, big-time famous. I could be satisfied with that.

What’s Next for Makonnen?

Makonnen’s major label debut is set to be released later this year. As the first non-Toronto native in Drake’s OVO cohort, combined with “Tuesday”’s unlikely ascent to Classic Status, expectations are high. But they’re also unclear: What exactly are we supposed to expect from a 25-year-old Cosmetology-school dropout Grammy nominee who has been off probation for less than a year?

But really, that’s the best thing about Makonnen—you can’t pin him down. He’s collaborated with everyone from Mike Will Made It to Drake to Andy Milonakis to Ezra Koenig to (supposedly/hopefully) Rihanna on his upcoming debut. If that list of collabs seems random as shit, that’s because it is. But it also works in his favor—true versatility is hard to come by these days.

Makonnen’s latest single, “Super Chef,” raises even more questions. Is this the work of a Grammy-nominated artist hard at work on his major label debut album? Or just a silly, tossed-off track from music’s newest weirdo ingénue? Complete with an Austin Powers sample in the intro, his trademark tinkling piano over a heavy bassline, and some of the laziest verses ever spit (“Spitting verses” is almost too strong a term to describe the vocals on this track), it’s clear “Super Chef” is no “Tuesday.” But as far as Digestible Party Anthems go, what is? 

-EG