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"I'm finally afraid to die / Finally know what I want from life before I lose it / It was money, love, and music / Now the freedom is the muse / To tell the truth and tell it fluid, let it flow until my ruin."
The opening lines of Charlotte-raised, Brooklyn-based rapper Ivy Sole's latest record "Candid" read with the urgency of a poet who's been realizing life is about more than music.
Ivy first splashed onto the music scene with soulful hits like "Free Fallin'" in 2014, garnering nearly 1 million plays on Soundcloud back when that was the place to find the most thought-provoking, replay-ready R&B. Since then, they've used their lyrical experience in Philly's spoken word scene and knack for nostalgic R&B samples like Alicia Keys' "You Don't Know My Name" to keep a steady yet ever-changing presence in the indie rap/R&B world.
Growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, where generations of their family lived is a big part of Ivy's identity and lyricism. But their sound is most often connected to the neo-soul of Philadelphia, where I first met them while attending the University of Pennsylvania. They also carry resonances with midwest rappers who bring a spoken-word flair to their music—music like Noname and Chance the Rapper's "Israel," where it sounds like the instrumentals are created to hold the lyrics.
Although Ivy has yet to reach widespread mainstream recognition, they keep finding ways to deepen the personal journey behind their music and take their art to newly liberated heights. They're constantly outdoing their music videos, dropping one from Cape Coast, Ghana, then highlighting their luring sensuality with a self-directed queer fantasy video for "One More Night."
Pitchfork's review of "Candid" called Ivy "a master of the slowburn," and now, they're using that skill maturity to share urgent lessons about struggling toward freedom.
"I would pay good money to go back to 2020 when I thought that dropping an album was doing something revolutionary or radical… but now I know it's not," they explained. "I am singing songs. Every nigga does it. The true work of it is in repairing [relationships] that are not necessarily my responsibility to repair. Having hard conversations I don't want to have." For Ivy, the real gift of the album was that it pushed them to finally talk to their parents about all the turbulence in their childhood.
A major theme of "Candid" is about how their mother, father, and step-father's contentious and disjointed relationships affect Ivy's own love life and self-perception. Some of the album's more emotional lyrics speak to a feeling of unwantedness—like on "What You Deserve," when Ivy raps:
I would offer my memory
Make believe these emery boards
Were wielded by hands none other than yours
That you gave me some chores
Instead of naming me a tedious work
I'd pretend that you attended my birth
Saw me lifted from a womb and was consumed with something other than fear
That you were simultaneous, that you were present and here
Instead of known and unknown
How that feels to a child that's always felt overgrown
felt that I deserved my alone
But the album is really a masterclass in radical empathy for parental figures who are all dealing with their own challenges. On the track "Runaway," Ivy starts off with an ambivalent stance towards their parents, but ends up calling them protagonists by the song's finish.
"That's just an entry point into saying that I had typecast my parents as heroes and villains, and they're neither. They're literally just people making decisions that impact me, but in a lot of ways have nothing to do with me," they explained. "They're the center of their story. They don't exist to be a hero or villain in someone else's story." Ultimately, Ivy understands that their parents were operating under the forces of capitalism, patriarchy, and the state violence of the carceral system, and that affected their ability to come together.
One of the more interesting aspects of the album is that you can hear them still struggling with the burdens of capitalism in their own life, too. In conversation, Ivy expounded on a passing reference in the opening track "Easy to Kill." Their maternal great-grandparents were both sharecroppers on farmland just outside of Charlotte until they eventually bought their land to work it for themselves. Today, Ivy's vision of freedom all the way in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn is still tied to making enough money to buy their own home one day. On their fast-paced hustle anthem "Chico," Ivy talks about trying to "cop the crib so the gentrifiers won't tear it down." But, as they expertly lay out in the chorus, it's hard to find ways to do that without feeling like you're selling your soul: "Stay sane, get paid / get paid, stay sane," until you're out of breath.
Figuring out how to make money in ethical, fulfilling ways has been a theme throughout their career. Ivy went to one of the best business schools in the country, The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and chose to pursue music instead. And even within that music career, they often go against the grain to make music that feels like growth, instead of just playing into the success of their more pop- or dance-y hits. That comes with the obvious "setback" of not reaching as many people. But Ivy doesn't think that should always be the goal. They recently made the big decision to pull out of a national tour with R&B artist Cautious Clay to avoid exposing their Black fans to COVID-19, telling me, "I didn't feel comfortable with putting niggas in the crosshairs of my desire to be seen."
After Ivy finished the album, they decided it was finally time for the real work to begin: talking to their parents. "The album gave me the opportunity to just be like, 'Alright, let me just try to get the full story so I never have to ask again,'" they said. "I could've lived my life ten times over without ever speaking to my dad again. I was prepared to do that until the top of 2021. But then I was like, at minimum for clarity for myself, I want to see if I can get better answers. And then I can decide from there if I want to be in relationship with him."
Ivy explained that this step reflects a growth in their Black liberation politics. A friend, Morgan Powell, had put them on to the idea that Black liberation movements will be messy, because everyone doesn't always agree, but "if you're not willing to fumble toward repair with me, you're not willing to grow with me." Ivy decided that should apply to their personal relationships too.
"I realized I was extending that philosophy to strangers, but wasn't giving my parents the same opportunity," they explained. So, Ivy went back to North Carolina to visit their mom and their biological father, who they hadn't seen in ten years. They said the visit ultimately gave them the perspective they needed.
You won't hear these particular stories on the album though, because Ivy thought it was important to create it before talking to their parents. "This album and forward, I have no interest in exploiting my personal experiences for commercial-ass art," they said. "I think the expectation that a lot of people have of Black artists to transmute trauma into shit that everyone can access is violent, to be completely frank."
Part of the way Ivy's trying to liberate their work from that paradigm is by taking a speculative fiction approach to storytelling—a strategy Toni Morrison promoted specifically for Black storytellers. Ivy alludes to personal stories by including some fragments from their life alongside other pieces that are completely made up. "What's beautiful is that I don't include a lot of details," they said. "A lot of these songs brush the story." This way, listeners are able to glean insights and emotions from Ivy's journey, but Ivy is also able to create emotional distance for themselves and make the project an enjoyable experience.
This month, they're expanding on that speculative fiction approach, releasing an experimental podcast to accompany the project called "Candid Radio." The five short episodes are full of close friends reading fictionalized scenes that are "autobiographically inspired." They're positioned in a type of afrofuturistic queer dream world, including a very queer sermon on lost love that makes you wish the congregation was real.
But setting fiction aside, the most honest thing about "Candid" is that it never promises the lessons it offers will make life simple. As Ivy says on "Reincarnate:"
Wonder what life would teach you if you let it
the lecture is getting longer
and it might not get no better
but better is really relative
betterment is my relatives
Ivy's music points to the reality that freedom isn't always the pursuit of happiness. Sometimes it's acknowledging hard truths, or making peace with the double-edged sword of trying to live ethically and extend empathy to people who've hurt you.
"Candid" guides us toward the intimidating, ever-winding path we can go down to understand ourselves better if we're willing to do the work, and some of the precious victories we can claim along the way.
Watch Ivy Sole's latest music video off their album "Candid": "Talk That Talk," directed by Juh Almeida.