When Jae Esquire started rapping a decade ago, it was at first a way to gain attention.
At the time, Esquire was new to the scene, and the musician said she’d regularly attend shows and introduce herself as a DJ and producer, but that nobody was biting on the beats she was crafting. “And so, one day I just grabbed the microphone and started rapping,” Esquire said in a late July interview at Upper Cup in Olde Towne East. “And then people were like, ‘Oh, you play the piano? Oh, you rap? Oh, you do this?’ And so, I’ve used rap as a vehicle just to get people’s attention, to be honest, just to get into spaces, just to get in the door.”
And Esquire hasn’t stopped knocking down doors, developing a multi-hyphenated career as a radio DJ, a teacher, a composer, an improv actor (with the all-Black troupe), a voice-over actor and a rapper whose new album, The Dark, releases digitally today (Tuesday, Aug. 1). “I come from the era where in order to be on TV you had to sing, dance, act, do backflips – whatever needed to be done,” Esquire said. “And I always try to come with that.”
Indeed, Esquire attributed the longer-than-expected four-year wait between albums in large part to these competing interests rather than the lingering COVID pandemic, which stalled out much of the music industry for more than a year. Similarly, Esquire said the coronavirus had no impact on the comparatively darker themes that surfaced in this latest batch of tunes, a handful of which center on the idea of navigating loss, confusion and sleeplessness in pursuit of brighter days. “Stay searching for the light,” Esquire raps on “Fall Time,” delivering her words atop hypnotically steady drum rolls and celestial swaths of synthesizer.
“We all go through it,” Esquire said. “And it doesn’t matter what ‘it’ is – whether it’s starting a new career or the death of somebody. It’s meant to be a universal theme. … The things that are in The Dark are sort of relatable, everyday things. I’ve gone through them, but we all have. It’s about looking to your higher self, or that voice that tells you to keep going, to keep doing what you’re supposed to do.”
Throughout, the rapper turns out tracks centered on concepts like exploring one’s inner-self (“Buddha”), remaining upbeat amid the day-to-day slog (“Warrior”) and how tapping into a deeper consciousness can give us more power to control our present condition than we may at times realize (“Elevator”).
Esquire acknowledged that much of the material is a departure from the more upbeat material heard on earlier records, and that the release required her to expand on what she believed a Jae Esquire record could encompass. “I’ve had some people tell me I’m hella mysterious and that they don’t know anything about me personally,” said Esquire, who assembled the songs comprising The Dark steadily over the last two or three years. “And I think this record might give more insight into some of those regular parts of me, where it’s not me standing on the desk at the radio station, dancing.”
At the same time, Esquire said being on the radio all of these years helped to prepare her to drop her guard on record, the rapper relaying how it was essential to develop an on-air approach in which she wasn't talking to a wide audience but rather one distinct person. “And who is that person? And what kind of car do they drive? And what do they do for a living?” Esquire said, describing how she builds a more fully realized picture of this imagined listener in her mind. “And once you know these things, you can talk to them.”
The Dark is also the first album Esquire wrote and produced largely absent outside help, an approach she chalked up partially to budgetary concerns – “I needed to cut costs a little bit,” the rapper said, and laughed – but one that also forced the musician to trust her instincts in a way she hadn’t before.
“I’m a hands-on person anyway, so I’m always producing, I’m always writing and I’m always instrumental in every aspect of the creative process,” Esquire said. “But this time, I had to oversee it from the first word recorded to the last note. It’s the first time since the beginning where I’ve had to do it all myself literally from scratch.”