What It Is

What It Is

“This is a New York record,” Sylvester Onyejiaka II, aka producer and multi-instrumentalist Sly5thAve, tells Apple Music of What It Is. Since arriving in Brooklyn after studying jazz in Denton, Texas, Onyejiaka has used his training in composition and improvisation to reimagine the work of Dr. Dre on 2017’s The Invisible Man, as well as finding himself playing with the likes of Stevie Wonder and Prince. Now stepping into the limelight with his own original compositions, his decade in New York finds its expression in the collaborative ethos here. After moving into the shared creative space dubbed The Clubhouse in 2011 and striking up writing partnerships with singer Denitia and rappers sene, Scienze, and LeXuS, Onyejiaka soon found himself opening his ears to new sounds. “I was swept away by the New York vibe, its busy-ness, its creativity,” he says. “It was a golden time at The Clubhouse; from 2011 to 2015 me and all these amazing artists would just hang out every day and make music together.” Opener “Boulevards” provides rolling synth basslines and Denitia’s falsetto hook, while Scienze and LeXuS trade bars on the saxophone-laced G-funk of the record’s title track and Brazilian artist Thalma De Freitas provides an ethereal vocal take on the pensive “Expatria.” Read on for Onyejiaka’s in-depth thoughts, track by track.
Boulevards (feat. Denitia) “Denitia was one of the first people I met when I arrived in New York, and she has since become one of my closest friends. We have a theoretical band together called Strawberry Jam, and this comes from one of those writing sessions we had in my early days of moving to the city. It initially ended up on a series of demos I had sent to Anderson .Paak but who I ultimately never heard back from. Denitia and I both thought it was dope, though, so she wrote this beautiful hook and we finished it.”
Consequence “I wanted to make this record less of an intricately arranged work like The Invisible Man, which was my orchestral reimagining of Dr. Dre’s music. With all these songs, I created in what I call the Jackson Pollock approach, where I just throw a bunch of stuff on the canvas and then peel it back to see what's left. So at the end of ‘Boulevards,’ it turned into a jam session, and then that evolved into ‘Consequence’ because I was really feeling what was happening in that moment.”
What It Is (feat. Scienze & LeXuS) “When Scienze came in to collaborate on this one, I was telling him how I get so sick of people telling me who I'm supposed to be, or how people assume what I'm thinking or what I want; they say, ‘This is what it is.’ A lot of that has to do with the Black experience in America, how people assume if you're Black you must like rap, or you must play basketball—especially for me, since I'm 6’5”. That was when we came up with the hook saying, don't tell me what it is, tell me what it's meant to be. Don't place me in that role you've carved out for me in society. I want to do what I'm capable of outside of your expectations.”
C-Side (feat. Denitia) “That was another of the Strawberry Jam songs with Denitia. We were in my old apartment and I remember she wrote these lyrics about how we connect on social media more than we do in person. It became this song about how we keep people in our heads and can sometimes even feel deeply for them there, taking them with us everywhere, but ultimately we have to reckon with the fact that it isn't real life, it's just a digital illusion.”
Daddy Warbucks (feat. sene) “sene was one of my first close friends to have kids, and I remember being in my early twenties and interacting with children then was kind of scary; it all seemed like such a heavy responsibility to have. He's of course now got responsibilities as a father of two young girls, and it's not something that's to be taken lightly, but for this track he wanted to frame it in a playful way with the lyrics, trading off of the character Daddy Warbucks. This was another Anderson .Paak demo, and sene killed it.”
Interlude A “I like to think of a record from start to finish as a complete piece of music. I've never been a fan of just throwing a bunch of random songs together. And so the interludes in What It Is help tie together the sound because they're related to certain songs that they're scattered throughout. You can see how those themes have then progressed in the body of work as a whole.”
Expatria (feat. Thalma De Freitas) “Thalma is the one person from LA on the record. One time I went out there to work with her and we decided to bring in her Brazilian influence. She felt she couldn't really express herself fully in English and she was also missing home, so we started to talk about the meaning of the Portuguese word saudade, which translates roughly as a feeling of sadness. That was when she came through with this heavy, perfect, emotional track. It doesn't matter if you don't speak Portuguese, as you can still get the feeling she expresses in it. I like to make music that can reach further than the confines of where I'm from, and this track perfectly expresses that.”
The Night (feat. Melissa McMillan) “Melissa and I went to school together. We finished this song in the winter of 2019, and I remember it being really cold then. We had this melancholy feeling, a seasonal depression that sinks in when it gets dark in New York at like 3:30 in the afternoon and it's hard to get everywhere as there is this disgusting gray city snow on the ground. That feeling of melancholia was so prevalent, so we decided to express it in the song, talking of times where you might feel like the nighttime lasts forever so you just want to stay inside and waste the day away.”
Expatria Interlude “There is a loop that had happened in ‘Expatria’ which I expanded into this interlude and which I love—it was a happy accident. It's perfect because it reminds you of that earlier sound in the record and ties it all together. It's only 30 seconds, but it's a cool little blur to snap you back into the context of the entire album.”
Right Here (feat. Denitia) “According to Denitia, the lyrics on this are a revelation of unconditional love, where there's no need for pretence, it is a love that will listen when you talk and it is a shoulder to cry on. It's a reaffirmation of someone being there for you, like you're whispering it into your lover's ear and reassuring them. It also uses the 1-6-2-5 chord progression, which I love, and it allowed me to create this feel of loading up rhythmic samples and then juxtaposing it with drum programming.”
More or Less (feat. Marlon Craft) “Marlon is one of the most inspiring young MCs out there who I met when he was super young, around 19. He's this skinny white kid from Hell's Kitchen, and I remember when I first heard him freestyle, I could tell that he can really rap. I had never released any of our collaborations before, so I wanted to get him on this project. I sent him this beat and he just immediately sent me back a fully fleshed-out song with the premise of trying to say more with less words. It is all about the idea of having substance behind your words and to not just be talking bullshit.”
Interlude B “This was another jam session that evolved at the end of ‘Right Here.’ I remember that chord progression, which is really common in jazz music, and it lends itself to so many different interpretations. We finished the part I was recording and then I would let the track play out and see what else came. It evolved into this nice mellow little outro, like you're coming down from the end of it.”
With You (feat. Denitia) “This was one of the first songs me and Denitia wrote together. Originally, that song had a full string arrangement, a full horn arrangement—all the bells and whistles were on it, and it was just overproduced. It was one of the greatest learning lessons I've ever gotten, to know when to strip things away and take a step back. It's easy to get hung up and to shoot yourself in the foot by getting married to ideas rather than the idea of the song itself. This record represents an expression of everything I've learned along the way as a producer, and it shows how I've grown. And so I wanted this to be the first single because it's the most indicative of that learning process.”


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