For the past eight years, Tony Envelope has operated like “a semi-retired boxer,” as he described it, stepping up to play the odd show “when the fight is right, and I have enough time to get in shape.” (Think Sylvester Stallone again sporting his trunks to battle it out with Mason “The Line” Dixon in Rocky Balboa, from 2006.)
“People would be like, ‘Did you retire?’ And I’m like, ‘No, I’m just extremely inactive,” said the Columbus rapper, who prepares for his rare live performances by revisiting his early music, often delivering lines aloud to no one in his Clintonville home. “It’s not like my youth where I was pretty much ready to go anytime, anyplace. I’m also a little self-conscious, because I just don’t have anything new, so I feel a bit like a Civil War reenactor of the early-2000s Columbus hip-hop scene.”
The reasons for Envelope receding into the background are manifold. He enrolled in college in 2016, earning an engineering degree from Columbus State Community College. He also got married, had a kid and bought a house, gradually easing into a life in which music was no longer the same priority that it was for him coming up. Additionally, at the time Envelope took a step back, he had reached a point in his life where he didn’t feel like he had anything new to add to the larger conversation.
“I didn’t have any super-fresh thing that I needed to get out into the world,” said Envelope, who will headline on Saturday, Feb. 18, performing alongside and , among others. “Not that my point of view was worthless, or not worth having, but considering everything that was going on in our society at the time, it didn’t feel like the world needed it. And that’s alright.”
Envelope said he was first drawn to making music as a teenager by those “baseline, 18-year-old boy motivations.”
“You want to make friends and you want to meet girls, and I don’t think it goes much beyond that – at the time,” he said, and laughed. “As embarrassing as it is to say, if someone told me that they went into it at 15 for a more noble reason, like they wanted to change the world, I would say, ‘You’re fucking lying.’”
But even in those early days Envelope said he was drawn toward hip-hop, specifically, because it was a more literary form, the 16-bar format allowing him added space to play with language – something he didn’t view as prevalent within other genres of music.
And then there was the act of performing, which brought with it a sense of connection that the musician appreciates more now in retrospect. “There’s no better feeling, and you feel so tapped into humanity,” Envelope said. “It’s what I imagine that Avatar, hooking-up-your-ponytail-type-feeling is about. And that’s kind of what you want with all art – some sort of human connection, and then to have that be reciprocated.”
Despite these more recent revelations, the time away from hip-hop has, in some ways, complicated the idea of a larger return. For one, the weight of expectation, which increases with time, makes the thought of a comeback all the more daunting. The rapper said he’s also wary of any new songs falling short of his own high standards, potentially damaging the public perception of his early work, of which he remains proud. And then there’s the biggest question with which the musician has wrestled in recent years: What exactly does an Envelope song sound like in the year 2023?
“If you’ve ever done Double Dutch, there’s that moment before you enter the rope, where you’re rocking back and forth, waiting for the right time, and I feel like I’ve been doing that since at least 2015,” he said. “No one wants to hear little one-liners about current events anymore, because Twitter does that 1,000 times better. … At one point I had some legal issues and some instances with the Columbus police, but even though those were my experiences, I didn’t feel like a middle-aged white guy was the appropriate person to be voicing them. Then Trump took all of the oxygen out of the room for doing anything political, in my mind, because it seemed so obvious.”
And yet, Envelope has been unable to shake the familiar tug that first compelled him to make music, and he’s become increasingly open to the idea of using hip-hop as a means to explore fatherhood, which he said had reawakened him to things about life that had become routine.
“We flew to New York last weekend, and flying on an airplane can generally be annoying. But then doing it [with my daughter], it’s like, oh yeah, that’s the wheels coming up. ... All the minutiae of life that you got accustomed to becomes brand new again,” he said. “I’m not trying to relive my childhood, at all, through her. But it is the act of reliving childhood, in a more general sense. So, yeah, I can see fatherhood having a wealth of material for me. … I don’t know. I’d be a fool if I tried to get the Jack Harlow haircut and wore joggers and tried to make drill music or something.”