The character at the center of the new album from Columbus rapper Sam Rothstein is something of a mess.
He’s depressed, broke and beset by addiction. Worse yet, he can’t see a way out of the endless, numbing loop that has become his life, and absent a pressure release valve these internal tensions are ready to combust. “Don’t get good sleep because the bullshit don’t ever rest,” Rothstein raps over pulsating dark techno loops on the appropriately titled “Goin Thru It.” “But I don’t wanna bug friends, so I never get it off my chest.”
Things eventually boil over in “Night Night,” which closes with Rothstein unleashing a series of primal screams as the hopelessness of his situation finally settles in. “The screams [capture] the idea you’re sort of trapped, and the sun is never coming up,” said Rothstein, who will celebrate the release of TOME Pt. Zero: The Madness on Thursday, Oct. 12.
The largely autobiographical project, which will continue to surface in a series of EPs released in the coming months, opens in the harrowing years that preceded the 2022 birth of Rothstein’s son and runs through the comparatively sunny months that stretched out in its wake. Following the eventual release of the final EP (TOME: Pt. Five), Rothstein said he will hang it up as a rapper, embracing the completion of this musical arc as a capstone statement.
But as the first album in the series lands, there’s still time left on the clock, still hope to be uncovered.
“Part Zero is sort of when I was at my lowest point, and that’s when things are the most digital and harsh and rigid sounding,” said Rothstein, who focused the initial EP on a series of chilling electronic beats. “I wanted it to sound very hollow and flat – not this big, lush thing. … Then as I sort of open up [on future EPs] and talk about the problems I’m actually having, and admit to the things I’m fucking up, it moves into a more melodic, more natural sound.”
While TOME might be epic in scale – the project will also include a series of short films and podcasts meant to flesh out the story – it remains modest in approach, Rothstein crafting an undeniably human portrait of the artist as a young man.
“I feel like every musician at some point has that onstage-in-front-of-80,000-people fantasy,” Rothstein said. “Everybody writes albums and stories like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to make it! I came from nothing!’ But nobody writes about, ‘Well, I’ve failed. And I’m giving up.’ I wanted to do something that showed the other side of the coin, which is probably something way more people can relate to than a success story like fucking Drake. I wanted to make an album for someone who has maybe been an artist for a while, and who might have a kid on the way, and show them that even if you have to tie it off and leave it there, you should still be proud. And it is important to me, and I am proud of these 10 years – no matter the metrics or how few plays [the music] got. No. This happened. It existed. And it’s important to memorialize it, to cement it.”
Rothstein traced his desire to document this history to having become a father, relaying the deep impact parenthood had on everything from his sense of responsibility to his increased comfort with silliness, because when you’re around a kid "you’re just doing so much silly shit.”
“By the time you’re in your 30s, I think most people have seen people die. Maybe you’ve lost a friend or two, or at least your grandparents. But it’s much more rare to watch a life begin. And that whole process is so cool and so miraculous to experience,” Rothstein said. “And it’s why I decided to make this project and tell the whole story leading up to [his birth] and then a little bit after. It’s the first time I’ve been truly inspired to make something where it’s like, oh, what’s happening around me in this time and place is special. And I know this is something I’m going to want to remember.
“For so long, I felt like I was rapping about the same shit, rapping about throwing shows. And that was boring to me, so I can’t even imagine how boring it was for other people. But now I feel like I have something to say, because I had to grow as a person, and I actually had to take a new step in my life. … I just knew this was a very real and visceral thing. And it’s the type of thing people should make albums about.”
Along with documenting the present, TOME also points a way forward for Rothstein – particularly in the podcast and film components that round out the project. An early version of one of the podcasts timed to Pt. Zero, for instance, features discussions on the widened sense of perspective that accompanies age, and the ways motivations can shift over time, while the surreal short film offered a glimpse into what Rothstein views as the next artistic phase of his career.
“This whole project is my official bridge into film, since I’ll essentially have a full-length feature on my hands when we’re done,” said Rothstein, who will remain active in music, both in terms of booking concerts with his company, At Work Agency, as well as in recording, though he’s unsure what form the songs might take moving forward. “This is the idea that’s peppered throughout [TOME]. It’s not about quitting something you really, really, really never thought you would, and that you thought you would be doing forever. But it’s realizing you’ve gotten to a point where you’re finally okay with it, and you’ve accepted that you’re not actually quitting. You’re just starting something new.”