Even if you're not familiar with Los Angeles rapper-producer Pyramid Vritra (real name Hal Donell Williams Jr), you're probably well-versed in the rap collective Odd Future, which he helped found in 2007 with Tyler, The Creator. The outfit was later a launching pad for solo stars Earl Sweatshirt, Domo Genesis, Syd and Frank Ocean.
Unfortunately for Vritra, the path to success wasn’t quite as smooth: He missed out on the group’s initial breakthrough after he and his musical collaborator Matt Martians (also a founding member of Odd Future, and now a member of the R&B/funk group The Internet with Syd) were evicted from their apartment. Vritra, who was just 18 at the time, was forced to temporarily return home to Atlanta. “When I came back [to Los Angeles] I found out that everything was already signed and I was kind of on my own,” he recalls to Billboard. I was experiencing the success of Odd Future, but I wasn’t necessarily a part of it.”
He and Martians continued to make music under the name The Jet Age of Tomorrow, producing three experimental hip hop records that featured familiar names like Vince Staples, Earl Sweatshirt and Mac Miller. All drew some notice in the underground (Kendrick Lamar sampled a section of “The Knight Hawk” on his 2011 hit “A.D.H.D”), but without the label and distribution deals that their peers received Columbia Records and Sony Entertainment, they failed to make a mark in the mainstream. Vritra’s subsequent solo records (self-released and released independently by Stones Throw Records) were similarly received; general applause but not enough attention to help him quit his day job as a forklift driver at Lowe’s.
Then came depression, and an unrelenting desire to escape the life he was leading; one dominated by drugs, failed romantic endeavors and unresolved anger towards his father. “Lost my mind and nearly lost my life, or rather the desire to live one,” he wrote on his website in 2018. Reflecting on that period now, he says making music helped him confront the situation head on. “I was really depressed, and it really helped me vocalize what I was going through, deal with it, analyze it and address it.”
His world was crashing around him when British composer/producer Will Archer (who makes music as Slime and has worked with New York R&B singer Amber Mark and London indie-pop sensation Nilüfer Yanya) approached him in 2017. (“I had been spying on Hal’s online stuff for a little bit,” Archer explains). Archer eventually emailed some beats, and Vritra laid down a couple of verses, marking the beginnings of a song called “Shallow Grave” -- which both say is their favorite song on burd, their debut album under the name Wilma Vritra, due out this Friday (Apr. 5) on Bad Taste.
The duality between Archer’s misty electro-jazz symphonies and Vritra’s melancholic rap lyrics reflect these dark times, and provide a window into the depression and suffocating anxiety that many are feeling -- with Brexit looming on one side of the Atlantic, and an opioid crisis destroying lives here in America. It’s rare to hear rap music confronting this reality, but as Vritra suggests on “Shallow Grave,” “How else could you live in times like these?”
The duo recently took time to chat with Billboard about using music as therapy, trusting each other’s creative instincts and embracing the complex legacy of Odd Future.
How long did it take to make burd, and what were some of the challenges and highlights of the process?
Will Archer: It took two years, though some of the instrumentals -- like “Vroom” and “The Hill” -- are much older and were originally written for [my own solo project] Slime.
Establishing a workflow at the beginning was very difficult. Both Hal and I were busy doing our own thing, it could have easily come to nothing, but I knew we should finish the project so I packed a variety of music and went out to meet him in LA. I’m not sure how I’d feel about putting this out without us having met; a track or two written remotely is OK, still not ideal, but an album like this requires eye contact. The highlight has been getting to know and work with an incredibly skillful and humble guy.
Originally you worked on one song together and then sat on it for a year. Was there a reason for that?
Archer: Other than just normal life shit, I moved back to Newcastle and I was living in this flat that was falling to bits. It was massive, and I had a big studio, but all my friends and family had moved away and I was there basically because it was cheap. I was in a very strange place in my head, and it was also when I was writing the bulk of my solo album, which is [almost] finished now. It wasn’t that I didn’t like what Hal sent, it just took me a while to process it and realize that I wanted to make a real project out of this.
Pyramid Vritra: There was a period of time where I was also unresponsive because there was so much turmoil in my life. Then that kind of leveled out, and he came out to L.A. and we knocked the majority of it out the week he was here.
On “Shallow Grave” you ask, “How else could you live in times like these?” Can you explain the feeling behind that lyric?
Vritra: The line before that is a drug reference [“high in the daytime”] -- but it’s like, how else do you expect me to survive this? Everything is so bad, everything is so horrible, I would honestly rather die. But I can turn to this vice, and then I’m OK for a bit. That’s what I feel like 90 percent of people are going through, and it’s really unfortunate. But it’s this mass depression that is pulling people together.
Hal, you’re also a producer. Did you have much input into the production on burd?
Vritra: I didn’t produce any of burd, and I didn’t want to. It’s rare that I work with other producers that I feel completely comfortable with. The stuff that he sent me, and the style of his production, channeled this thing in me that I was never really able to channel, and it helped me express the situation I was in. It really helped me mentally, so I’m super grateful for that.
Archer: It was a real clear division of labor. I’ve listened to Hal’s [own music], he’s a really accomplished producer… but it’s great that there was this unspoken division.
Hal, you have this manifesto on your website -- and in it, you mention that working on burd gave you a “brief appreciation for life again.” How did it help you?
Vritra: I was really depressed, and it really helped me vocalize what I was going through, deal with it, analyze it and address it. That’s what the album is about, vocally, for me. Then on the production side, it’s a pretty mellow sounding album and I think the duality of that makes it sound even better.
You also wrote that it’s been hard to find trust, companionship and community. Have your circumstances changed since you wrote that?
Vritra: Not really. I feel like I have found trust and community with some people -- I’ve gotten close to Will, I’ve gotten close to a few other friends -- but I’ve also realized that with everyone that I meet, I can’t instantly expect or think that they’re going to be in my life forever. I am way too emotional and I go overboard with a lot of things. So I have developed this numbness to a lot of things, and that’s the perspective a lot of my music comes from.
On your own material the production is often quite dense, it clouds the lyrics a lot more. Has working with Will given you more space to tell your story?
Vritra: Definitely! When he came out to LA, that was at the peak of the situation I was in. It was a horrible time for me, but it was the perfect time for me to write and express it. So when he came out, the production and the darkness of it, it was instantly a way for me to get all that out.
Archer: The music that I was sending Hal at the time was never designed for a specific mood or anything like that, it’s just a total bonus. I think we’re lucky that it came together at a time that suited us both musically.
Hal, you were a teenager when Odd Future was thrust into the spotlight. What type of impact did that have on you?
Vritra: It was weird, because before I moved to California we were making a little bit of money off the Jet Age of Tomorrow stuff, but after I moved and when everything was getting signed, that’s when Matt got kicked out [of his apartment] and I had to move back [home]. So when all the deals were signed I was back in Georgia and when I came back to Los Angeles I found out that everything was already signed and I was kind of on my own. I was experiencing the success of Odd Future, but I wasn’t necessarily a part of it. Everybody had all this money, but I was the one driving people around asking for gas money.
So that upset me for a while, and I started to distance myself. I kind of wish I didn’t do that, and I’ve reconnected with some people. But I distanced myself for a good bit of time, because I hated how that felt.
Now it’s permanently attached to you. How do you feel about that?
Vritra: I partially don’t mind it, because the people that matter count me as a member in Odd Future. I don’t need the money, because all that did was cause a lot of drama between other people, and they don’t talk to each other anymore. I would have appreciated being financially stable, but the problems and situations that came from that, I partially feel like it was better for me to not benefit from that. I feel more like us coming from that same cloth is a stamp, it’s a validation of the type of musician I am and the type of musicians they are. It’s just that they’ve had more exposure than I’ve had.