“Becoming the Villain,” the opening track on the new self-titled album from Columbus rap trio DEADART, sets the tone for everything to follow. Within the track, the musicians explore the blurred line between heroics and villainy, establishing a series of themes that surface throughout the record, including the challenge in finding the will to move forward living in a society plagued by violence and greed.
“I desperately want to feel like there’s a future,” raps Happy Tooth, who’s joined in DEADART by fellow MC BDotJeff and producer Fisk. It’s an idea Happy Tooth later returns to on the staggering “Someone Else’s Dream,” on which he offers up a question that lands at the bruised heart of the project. “Am I excited for tomorrow when I fall asleep?” he asks.
Rather than offering up a direct answer, Happy Tooth allows the question to hover in the air, with the rest of the record serving as a murky response: sometimes, perhaps?
From a distance, DEADART can read as a heavy, depressive listen, with the dual MCs exploring the concept of death (“Who’s Laughing”), the seeming impossibility of carving out a career within the arts (“Satisfied”) and the challenge of finding inspiration in a world grown increasingly dark and chaotic (“Shadow of a Doubt”). Repeatedly, the two find escape in the digital realm, slipping between the cracks of the simulation on “Bang” and describing their surroundings as populated by non-playable characters on “GTA Type Beat.”
But within this often-oppressive realm, the two also snatch odd moments of beauty that serve as needed counterweight, whether it’s BDotJeff rapping about the importance of making art for art’s sake or Happy Tooth moving beyond metrics in quantifying his own musical achievements. “It’s all been successful if it helped a damaged soul,” he raps on “Underrated.”
“It’s something you have to reconcile with as an artist, because not every record is going to land the way you want it to, and not everyone is going to be happy with what you made,” Happy Tooth said, joined in an early October Zoom call by Fisk and BDotJeff. “But if one person listens to it and finds something in it, then it was worth it.”
Even “Who’s Laughing,” with its focus on the afterlife, ultimately serves as lyrical salve, with the two MCs positioning death as a shared experience. “We all leave, and it’s comforting,” Happy Tooth raps.
Not that this idea has been easy to come to terms with, particularly for BDotJeff, who has experienced death on a shattering scale in the last couple of years, having lost both family members and a close friend who had been an unwavering presence in the rapper’s life from the time the two met in second grade. “It still doesn’t feel real,” BDotJeff said. “But, right now, I just want to do my homie proud. I already know that if I were to lose the passion for [music], he would be upset with me, and I can still hear his voice telling me to tighten up, keep grinding, you can do this – all of this stuff. We started this together, and I’m still doing it for him and the dream that we had.”
These softer edges are reflected in Fisk’s production, which tend to project comfort even in those moments the dual rappers sound ready to incite an uprising, building on lilting piano (“Shadow of a Doubt”), percolating synthesizer (the skittish “Way Way Back”), electronics that mirror angelic choruses (“Who’s Laughing”) and swooning, heart-heavy brass (“Satisfied”). “It’s almost a pretty sounding album to me,” Happy Tooth said. “There are some abrasive moments, but for the most part it’s pretty relaxed.”
Both Happy Tooth and BDotJeff spoke to the idea that music can be therapeutic, and that writing and recording is now less about reaching a larger audience than steadying the turmoil within. “You do start to question your own motivations, like, why am I doing this? Why do I care so much?” Happy Tooth said. “And I’ve realized that I love the art, and I have to make it because deep down it makes me feel better.”
“The songs are like pages from a diary,” BDotJeff said. “Sometimes it can feel like yelling into an empty void, but it still feels good.”
At the same time, there’s a thread that runs through DEADART of wanting and perhaps even needing to connect with others through the music – even if it’s not on the scale the two might have hoped for years back, and even if it’s just a single damaged soul that finds some solace in their words. “Whether it’s 100 views or 100,000,” Happy Tooth raps on “Satisfied.” “Whether I dig a grave or I climb up a mountain.”
While the three musicians in DEADART never shy from grabbing a shovel and lowering themselves into the muck, the trio’s debut ultimately centers more on this ascension.
“I’ve gone through a lot the past few years, and life often doesn’t feel real,” BDotJeff said. “I think I reference this idea [on the record] quite a few times, that life is like a video game. We’re all just trying to get to the best ending, and all we want as people is to be happy.”