Tulsa/OKC hip-hop artist's heady new concept LP challenges narrative conventions on storytelling and depression.
Content Warning: Suicide
SIYLA’s name is an acronym: “Since Infinity You’re Loved Always.”
On “DIMETHYLTRYPTAMINE”, the final track on the OKC-via-Tulsa rapper’s self-titled concept album, SIYLA elaborates, “To exist is to be loved…The meaning is that life is beautiful, and worth living.” But the positive affirmations are epiphanies only arrived at after intense introspection.
“This journey is through my own peaks and valleys,” SIYLA continues in the song. “The good, the bad, and all that brought me to this conclusion. This is a journey that represents my whole life flashing before my eyes right after I killed myself.”
Unhinged album opener “DEAD”, which samples 1960s psychedelic rock band The United States of America and ends with a gunshot, starts SIYLA off in a decidedly less upbeat mindstate.
“It’s all from my perspective, so I actually die,” SIYLA said in a phone interview. “If you really see your quote-unquote ‘life flash before your eyes’ like everybody says, you’ll see every good thing that the moment was blocking you from. What you see through my life flashing before my eyes is moments that come and go, headspaces that I get in, peaks and valleys that I carry myself to, and it kind of gets all explained, wrapped up in the end, but that’s how it starts…I don’t necessarily come out and say that’s what’s going on, but you can kind of tell…I didn’t want to make this cheesy, but I didn’t want to make this something that was too hard to understand.”
The album’s inspiration came from tragedies in SIYLA’s personal life.
“I started having an unusual amount of people I know commit suicide — from family members to friends,” SIYLA said. “I always wanted to talk about it…I didn’t know how to do that for awhile though…I actually made a couple of songs on previous mixtapes and stuff that spoke on it and alluded towards it.”
SIYLA had the idea for the concept album while he was recording 2018’s The RUE Theory (also an acronym, meaning “Relevant, Unnecessary, Extraordinary”), a mixtape meant to be a showcase for alter-ego The Unorthodox Rapper. Decidedly less intentional and organized than the new album, RUE’s concept was more like “everything under the sun.”
“I’ve got to make music for the vibes that I’m feeling in the moment,” SIYLA said. “Sometimes it comes out, and it just doesn’t really mean anything, but, you know, it usually does end up meaning something down the road…I’ll often write music that I don’t really understand until maybe like a month or so later…A lot of it ended up having meaning, but it also was initially nonsense.”
SIYLA, meanwhile, is meant to have meaning, but some of the deeper messages may take multiple listens to fully hear.
“I have something that is supposed to be dug up here,” SIYLA said. “People listen to it, and they’ll be head-bobbing the whole way through, but by the end of the song, they’re just kind of like, ‘What did I just listen to? I’ve got to figure it out.’”
Tongue-in-cheek lyrics celebrate materialistic distractions while mental health issues lurk beneath the surface: “Lock that bullshit in the basement,” SIYLA tells himself after a boastful verse lapses into something more revealing on “GOD WILL”. “Save that crazy shit for later.”
The irony in the juxtaposition between the narrator’s internal and external monologues provides comic relief and serves a larger narrative purpose.
“A lot of the attitude in a lot of these songs is very sarcastic,” SIYLA said, “but in a way that the point is very prominent. It’s very obvious. It’s kind of pointing out the bliss in ignorance that is taking place in letting these things slide for a long time and being so aware of what the issue is at hand but not doing anything about it…In this album, darkness is very prominent and you kind of just see that through the different songs and…the variety in the genres. …There’s a bunch of different worlds and moods and emotions that I bring people through.”
Inspired by ambitious albums by Kendrick Lamar, Tyler the Creator, J. Cole and N.E.R.D, SIYLA’s songs span musical subgenres, sometimes dramatically switching beats mid-track, but unlike the intentionally random RUE, the genre-hopping here also serves as a storytelling device, to get the “message across in a sound that makes sense.”
“It really ranges from trap rap to more chill r&b rap as the album progresses,” SIYLA said. “I love trap music. I’m all about everything that is really poppin’ today and the really hard, heavy-hitting drums and stuff. I kind of mix that with a little bit of a more hardcore aggressive Denzel Curry or $uicideboy$ type of flow in the beginning of the album, but then that totally morphs into something that’s more singer-songwriter, and we got songs that would totally do great on radio…It just starts out so aggressive and so angry and everything, and then you kind of see this realization and this humbleness settle in. But you also see how much of a fight that is, and how much it really is a conscious thing to do. You’ve got to make sure that you’re always doing it.”
Songs in the album’s first half feature saxophonist Jacob Lee and vocalist Rylee Evans (“HEART”), vocalist Hunter Gotcher (“TALKING”), and guest verses from Josh Sallee (“MAN”), and The Kaleidescope Kid and Aaron Sawyer (“NEURONS”).
“Everybody who ended up being on the album was supposed to be on it,” SIYLA said. “I’m glad I had a group of people who can see my vision, too…I really like having as many hands in the pot as I can. We all made something really significant, I think, with how this all ended up and how it all ended up being structured, which is not really by any rule book or formula. It was just kind of out of the box, and that’s how it was supposed to be.”
But as the album progresses, SIYLA is left alone in an internal spiritual struggle.
“It’s kind of told through a dialogue between me and God. Let’s just say that,” SIYLA said. “Conversely, it could actually be a whole love album, as well, written to a significant other. And in that way, everything is a mirror in itself. If I’m trying to find out what God-slash-love is, I’m also trying to find that balance within myself, and wherever I am with that reflects wherever I am with whom I love in my life.”
Judging by the response at the album’s listening party, SIYLA said he thinks parts of the story are translating to listeners.
“Some people were legit crying because, I think, a lot of the music and the instrumentation hit for a lot of people,” SIYLA said. “Some people were just laughing their ass off at some points because there’s, like I said, a lot of sarcastic moments. It is, though, a rollercoaster of emotion, because you’re kind of seeing a fastforward of my life and everything that brought me to the conclusion that life is beautiful and worth living, no matter what. But it’s from a perspective of it being too late to do anything about that.”
To have these realizations while still being alive to appreciate them is a blessing.
“That’s just where all my gratitude comes from, because in dealing with that stuff myself and being so close to doing things that are irreversible,” SIYLA said, “I just kind of see things differently than how I used to, and you see that perspective change in the album…My goal is to get everybody to see a point that I believe, which is that simply to exist is to be loved because this experience of life is so much greater than we even understand because we take it for granted every day, all the small things. That’s why on the cover and the back of it, there’s very simplistic graphics…It’s trying to bring people back to the simple things about life, as in, like, the beauty of a flower or something like that.”