Maryland artist McKinley Dixon reflects on fourth album 'Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?'

Neu McKinley Dixon: “Jazz is my backdrop”

Meet the jazz-indebted bookworm and Maryland rapper making long-overdue waves on UK shores.

Only now, coming into the release of his fourth studio album ‘Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?’, is McKinley Dixon making his UK breakthrough. May saw rapturously received shows in London and at The Great Escape, as well as heavy rotation on the airwaves; for the Maryland native, the steady rise to prominence suits him. The smart musical construction of his work, which lies somewhere around the intersection between hip hop and jazz, suggests a meticulous nature, as does the execution of his elegant, literary lyricism.

Which is not to say that his music lacks urgency. On his newest, McKinley sees himself as having picked up the baton from his idol, author Toni Morrison, who he once described as “the greatest rapper ever”; he’s named the album after the trilogy of novels she released between 1987 and 1997. “I was inspired by the way that she captures the human conditions and the complexities of people,” he explains. “She’s really good at talking about the love and the horror right in the same verse, which is brilliant. As a rapper, it’s something to aspire to. She found a way to communicate how hard it is just to exist as a human being, which is something a lot of rappers do; it’s just that I’m trying to do it with more of a literary eye.”

Accordingly, the ten tracks on ‘Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?’ wind their way through the Black American experience with thrilling ambition, drawing parallels with Greek tragedy, nodding to afro-futurism and incorporating gospel elements. As is his calling card by now, there’s deep introspection too - especially on ‘Tyler, Forever’, an unflinching portrait of grief. Tying it all together is McKinley’s thrillingly broad blend of sounds, which he takes to new heights this time around.

Maryland artist McKinley Dixon reflects on fourth album 'Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?' Maryland artist McKinley Dixon reflects on fourth album 'Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?'

“I’ve always taken more inspiration from how artists talk and how they hold themselves on their records.”

“Jazz is kind of my own soundtrack, something I can talk with, rather than talk over,” he says. “I think, because it’s not locked into a certain rhythm or form, I’m able to change the inflection of my voice - be louder, be quieter, be more vulnerable - and it isn’t weird when any of that happens, the way it would be if I did that over a trap beat, or if I just dropped a saxophone over a classic hip hop beat. That’s why jazz is my backdrop; I think I’ve always taken more inspiration from how artists talk and how they hold themselves on their records, rather than the actual sonic side of it.”

His last record, 2021’s ’For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her’, was an intense affair that he describes as “expelling trauma’’; ’Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?’, though, should be interpreted more as “a celebration of life”, as he resists the idea of his albums being deemed deliberate political statements. “It can’t really be ignored how Black music, and specifically rap music, is intrinsically tied to being ‘trauma music’ for people who are watching on,” he reflects.

“The two albums before ’For My Mama…’ were vibrant, beautiful albums in the way they talked about life, and then ’For My Mama…’ came out and got so much more acclaim - but at what cost? Because I was just existing; I wasn’t consensually politicising my life. That’s why I’m trying to make music that’s for me first - because if you do that, you don’t have to worry about what’s coming next.”

‘Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?’ is out now via City Slang.

Tags: McKinley Dixon, From The Magazine, Features, Interviews, Neu

As featured in the June 2023 issue of DIY, out now.

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