Cover photo and album art by Lauren Washington
In this CentralSauce featured interview, Brittney Carter breaks down her evolution as an artist from fifth-grade poetry to opening shows for Jay Rock and her debut album release, ‘As I Am.’ While you read, stream the playlist below, created by Carter, for a sense of the music that soundtracked her journey.
Sometimes a piece of art is so unquestionable in its quality that it’s easy to believe the artist was born with the singular purpose to create it. When we view a final product in this way, we attribute an almost pre-ordained talent to the creator. In doing so, we overlook much of the process involved in the development of the artist. How many masterpieces were never created because the would-be creators were overcome by their failures? How many one-of-a-kind talents were never realized because the conditions of their life left no room for development? Brittney Carter’s As I Am bottles not just the life lived but the evolving introspection of an artist along the path to creation. Art changes the way we view ourselves and, in turn, influences the art we create.
Remember rappin’ in mirrors hoping nobody would hear it / and now they quoting the lyrics I was ashamed to read” – Brittney Carter, “Can’t Go Back” (2020)
When the 29-year-old emcee from the southside of Chicago spits this couplet on “Can’t Go Back,” she unravels a complex glance into her self-confidence. There’s the relatable innocence of expressing yourself in private and the protection from vulnerability privacy warrants, but there’s also a touch of disbelief. She found the right moments to expand that self-reflection outward and was received with affirmation for her talent and observation.
Carter prioritizes the quality that she sees in her music, but she also sets her own standards up against those of her inspirations — Ms. Lauryn Hill, Nas, and Kendrick Lamar, to name a few. She doesn’t separate art into leagues, but there’s still a surrealness to seeing herself playing alongside the pros. The penultimate track of As I Am, “Happened So Fast,” takes the form of a panicked phone call where she vents the rapidly changing climate of her hobby turned career trajectory.
I went from rocking out stage, not tripping ‘bout pay / satisfaction was reaction that I seen up on they face… / Already written in stone so why I’m questionin’? / Y’all confident in me, but still I need more evidence” – Brittney Carter, “Happened So Fast” (2020)
When Carter started rapping, it was driven by a passion for being creative. It was a hobby, an outlet, a form of personal expression. Now she has to think about marketing strategies and copyrighting that expression. In a Dec. 7, 2020 interview, Carter and I spoke about how the sudden progression changes the way she views herself and her art and how that introspection has changed over the years leading up to this moment. There’s a charming quality to the conversation, and the emcee’s reserved modesty is not to be mistaken for underestimating herself. Her frequent spurts of laughter bring a lighthearted quality even to topics it’s clear she’s given intense thought to. From discovering an artistic side to branching out and finding the confidence to share that expression, finding affirmation, and opening herself to a career — this is the artist’s evolving introspection.
Miseducation & Crazysexycool: Discovering an artistic side
Before maturing to the ills of adulthood, certain magic hangs over the discovery of everything new. There’s discovery of the world, but also the discovery of self. Whether it’s the sweep and swoon of fireside R&B, the boom and bap of ‘90s hip hop, or the charm of classic pop acts, Brittney Carter still looks to conjure a bit of that golden age magic.
The earliest music she remembers is the sound of Mary J. Blige and Luther Vandross as her mother worked around the house, and energetic car rides with her father bumping Nas, Jay-Z, and 2Pac. The first CD she ever owned was the gift of Crazysexycool by TLC, home to “Waterfalls,” one of the more widely recognized singles to leave the ‘90s. The diverse influence of her parents’ listening habits also encouraged her to branch out — she adds pop acts like Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, and Backstreet Boys to this era of music discovery. “I have so much music that I would listen to in that lane,” Carter tells me. “I feel like, in music, a lot of that is missing now. Not that pop doesn’t exist, but it’s not the same thing. The Backstreet Boys and bands like that, it’s almost like a missing genre.”
The old hits summon memories of warmth and comfort for Carter even to this day. From a young age, music was more than a passive listening experience — she remembers writing down and printing lyrics to 1998’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the first CD she purchased with her own money. Music became more than a background sound around this time, but something to absorb fully and intentionally. In high school, Carter and her friends placed the same significance on listening to an album that you would put into watching a movie. “That’s how I listen to my music,” she explains. “I’m gonna sit through the entire album, and I’m gonna listen to it front to back. For most hip-hop artists, there’s a story that’s being told there, and I don’t want to miss anything.”
Brittney Carter (photo by Ben Schmoyer)
While making music of her own hadn’t quite come into the picture yet, the earliest identifier of Carter’s artistic side came in reading and writing. She tells me she’s avidly journaled about her experiences her whole life. The practice began to document her day from sun up to sundown, but as she got older, the exercise turned her pen inward. Journaling became a way for her to expand on her thoughts between paper pages. As this era of discovery helped her identify what she loved in art, her introspection set the stage for her to evaluate her own expression.
Brandon: Do you remember the first time you ever shared something artistic you had done?
Brittney: I want to say maybe fifth grade, and I didn’t really have a choice in sharing. I think we were like writing poetry or whatever in our class, and afterward, my fifth-grade teacher laminated everybody’s poem and put it out in the hallway. That was really tight. I still have it — that’s the crazy part.
What made The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill stand out to you with such significance?
I was just so impressed that she was just herself, and it was still so hard. You can hear the content behind it, but just the rhyme schemes — and in my opinion, I think that her rapping and her singing were on the same level at one point. I was just so intrigued. She’s super talented.
How does this era of music discovery influence the music you make today?
I mean, I think there’s always something new to learn from the newer artists. I love the fact that the newer artists aren’t afraid to step outside of the box, but I think a lot of the younger kids complain about like, oh, like the ’90s rap is boring — but most of my influences come from what I grew up listening to. That’s where I get all of my inspiration… references for songs or like ‘how am I making this sound?’ All of it comes from what I grew up listening to, and of course, the new like Saba. I love his voice, I love the instrumentation, I love the way his vocals are mixed.
The fifth-grade poem (left) was the first artistic thing Carter ever shared. The painting (right) is from an art class that eventually led to her connecting with her first rap performance.
Painting, poetry & performance: Placing a passion
Young adulthood is like throwing a generation of confused people onto the first mile of a marathon and firing the starting gun with no warning. In the ensuing chaos, you’re sure to trip over others trying to find their way as often as your own feet. All while wondering why you couldn’t be one of the lucky ones who got out ahead of the pack and are breezing their way down the street. The trick is remembering it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
After high school, Carter briefly attended college before it became clear the classroom wasn’t the avenue for expression that she was searching for. Once leaving school, she turned back to her artistic side in search of an outlet to place her passion. Through a painting class, she began talking, she made connections that led her to participate in a weekly poetry workshop. She enjoyed the written art form but remained reluctant to share over self-consciousness about the quality of her work. “Because it was new to me, I was just trying to make sure my writing measured up,” she tells me. “The stuff that I listened to — It’s like, okay, it has to be like this. This level or not at all. I don’t want to make an ass of myself [laughs]. I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself.”
After refining her writing with the workshop, she was finally prompted to share after ample prodding from her poetry peers. It just so happened that another woman in the class was a rapper by the name of Essie Linzy, who was impressed enough to recruit Carter for the Set It Off Cypher. For her first real experience with rapping, she was thrust into the competitive environment of an all-women’s cypher. This environment inspired her to further step up her game, albeit through a lot of internal pressure to excel. The cypher garnered enough attention to land the crew a few live performances. The ladies got to open a show for Chuck D and Public Enemy, as well as take the stage for civil rights author Michael Eric Dyson at a speaking event for his 2016 book, The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America. Performing for crowds gave Carter the confidence to really assess her potential as an artist and the sense that this was the right direction to channel her creative energy. It was a calling she had to arrive at.
Brandon: How did you cross over from writing into the musical side of things?
Brittney: At the end of every [poetry] writing session, they would have everyone share. I would pass every time. I’m like, ‘No, I don’t, I’m not interested in sharing.’ So there’s one particular time they’re like, ‘Okay, you’ve been here for like two months now, you have to do something.’ So I decided to share, and then people were like, ‘Yo, like, do you rap?’ And I was just like, ‘Not at all. Not at all [laughs].’ And I think there was an artist by the name of Essie Linzy — she came up to me and was like, ‘Yo, would you be interested in doing an all-woman cypher?’ And I’m just like, ‘Sure. That sounds cool.’ That was literally my very first time writing a full verse.
What encouraged you to go and do something that you knew would be put out there like that?
I guess I was just trying to have fun. In the very beginning, my goal wasn’t to become a rapper. I think I was just having fun. I was trying to find something that I was passionate about after I dropped out of school, and just being in a space with other creators kind of gave me joy, you know?”
How was that experience?
Nerve-racking. Oh, man, I put so much pressure on myself early on for absolutely no reason at all. I think I was just so intimidated. Because, you know, a lot of the people I was around had been doing music for years. I’m just like, stepping my feet in, and it’s just like, ‘Oh shit, can I do this? Am I capable of doing this?’ I was just in my head a lot about anything and everything. Performance, just the writing — was it good enough? It was really intimidating in the beginning. I always felt nervous.”
Did the pressure on you come from internally or externally?
It was definitely internal [laughs]. I just want to be great, you know? If I’m doing something, I just want to be really great at it. I never want people to look at me and be like, ‘Oh, this is okay.’ So I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself early on instead of taking the time to just grow and have fun. I was definitely just like, ‘Okay, this has to be perfect.’ Yeah, it was all internal.”
Brittney Carter (second from left) and the ladies of the Set It Off Cypher (Released: Feb. 1, 2016)
Conflicting confidences: Viewing the value of expression
Hobbies are often escapes from the real world. A hobby doesn’t demand a quota of your time or measure your worth by productivity — a hobby is practiced simply for the joy of practicing it. What happens then when the opportunity arises to turn that hobby into a career? How do you respond when your private pastime receives substantial recognition for its quality?
Brittney Carter didn’t believe it at first. When she was met with hype from friends and family, she figured they were just being supportive. When she started gathering recognition for her role in the cypher, she brushed it off as if her work didn’t meet her own internal standards. She had, however, quietly begun recording more music on her own over various instrumentals. “I had a freestyle I had written to… what’s that joint?” she paused in remembrance. “OutKast’s ‘Elevators’ beat. Yeah, it sounds horrible [laughs]. I sent it to like one of my homies, and he was so supportive. Like, ‘Yeah, man, keep going. Sounds awesome.’ Looking back, I’m just like, ‘You liar [laughs].’”
Despite her success with the 2016 cypher, Carter didn’t put out her first single, “Paper Crowns,” until 2018. Her mentality of refinement over release paid off. The key attributes of her unique cadence and introspective writing are apparent right out the gate. “I hear this instrumental where I get this music and, like, ‘what does this feel like to me?’” she says of her process. “I was a fan of it for so long before I was even making music, I think I gotta trust my judgment and not so much rely on what everybody else is telling me.” Her decision wasn’t about if she would be able to make it as an artist. She had a clear vision of the standard she wanted to meet and the confidence that she could reach it and knew the substantial effort it would take to progress from hobby to career. The decision came down to figuring out if that was the challenge she wanted to take on. If it wasn’t music, it would have been something else.
Brandon: How did you feel about that transition from making music as a hobby to something you felt like you could make a career out of?
Brittney: Around the same time, when I realized that I wanted to take it seriously, it was like, ‘Okay, if I want to take this seriously, then I need to be making money.’ That’s when everything kind of shifted for me as far as business-wise. Like, okay, I got to get more serious. I gotta get my stuff copyrighted. It was just a lot of things that I hadn’t done yet that I knew I needed to do soon.
That’s a big step. Suddenly it’s not just a hobby anymore. You’re investing stuff into it that you can’t get back if it doesn’t go well. Was that kind of scary?
Yes and no. I just feel like, not that I couldn’t fail, but if I put my all into it, I don’t really see how I could. So it was more so if I was going to say yes or not. I wasn’t really like, ‘Oh, man is this gonna work out?’ I didn’t really feel like it couldn’t. It was just like, this is a lot of work. Am I up to it?
On the album, you talk about how your fans have this great confidence in you. Does that sort of contrast with the confidence that you’ve had in yourself?
Yeah, like in the beginning, people would always really support me like, ‘Oh, man, you got this!’ and I… just like, the feelings were different. I’m just like, oh, okay, thanks for the support. But, you know, [the same feeling] wasn’t there for me.
How did that feel to hear other people big-up you on something you’re not 100% sure of yet yourself?
It doesn’t really happen so much now, but early in the beginning, it would just break my brain, ’cause I’m just like, ‘Okay, are they telling the truth [laughs]? How truthful are they being? Are they just trying to be supportive because they’re my friends?’ It’s just something that I had to learn. I had to boost my own confidence, you know? Not rely on other people.
Brittney Carter (right) and Olive Blu (left)
As I Am: A snapshot of an artist
You can’t get this far by fittin’ in / Over the years developed thicker skin / Everybody got an opinion but don’t let ‘em in / Keep my distance, you see me choosin’ and it’s real specific / My peers wilin’, peer pressure I could never get it” – Brittney Carter, “Cold As Us”
It was a long road to this album. Brittney Carter wasn’t born with some kind of destiny to release music or a path of certainty to follow. She worked for it. She studied it. She executed it. She made the decision to pursue a dream, and not even a spontaneous one but a calculated decision driven as much by realism as by passion. There were wrong turns and roadblocks, and not just the kind that adds suspense to a tale of success, but real obstacles to overcome — both internal and external. She earned confidence from her peers, but even more so, reinforced her own belief through commitment to her vision.
As I Am is an independent debut driven by the poetry in Carter’s internal dialogue. In this case, the creation of the art holds as much power as the representation of it. While decades of self-discovery went into the project, the album is not the culmination of what made the moment but a snapshot of it. Even in the act of taking the picture and shaking the polaroid, the gears keep turning, and the mirror she holds to herself continues to be reshaped by life yet lived.
Brandon: How did you know it was the right time to put a complete project out there?
Brittney: Prior to me deciding, I was working on a different body of work, but I put a lot of pressure on myself, so it didn’t meet up to my standard. I just scrapped them, and that was like perfect timing. That’s when I was emailing with Scud One. Once I listened to the joints he sent me… I’m like, ‘this will be a perfect sounding project.’ I didn’t really have any subject matter or anything in mind; I was just like, okay, these are the joints that I want to write to.
So how did you settle on the title for the album?
Man, not until maybe a month or so before I dropped [laughs]. I had a few… I wish I could remember some of them. Somewhere, there’s a note with a whole bunch of different titles on them. I think I finally came up with As I Am because it kind of means these [songs] are like a peek of inside who I am.
How do you feel now that it’s been put out and you’ve had a little bit of space from the release?
It feels good! I was so stressed about dropping it or how people would perceive it, and now that it’s out, people love it [laughs]. So now it’s more so I feel like I’m learning a lot business-wise and how I want the next rollout to be. You know how I want to conduct my videos for the next time. For me, it’s a cool learning experience.
What kind of things were you stressing about?
Just the reception, of course. I think all artists want to create great music. I felt like it was great, you know what I mean? But it’s like, ‘What are other people going to think?’ I believed in it, but a part of me was like, ‘I want everyone else to hear and feel like what I’m feeling when I was creating.’
It’s interesting to me that on a shorter album where you’ve said so much, there’s still a couple of skits and that instrumental interlude and then “Running,” where it’s all Olive [Blu]. What was the thought process behind wanting the album to feel like a radio show?
The radio skit thing came because growing up I listened to so much of the radio and hearing that on other albums that I grew up with, it just felt right. Also the instrumentation — that’s what inspired me to do it. Scud One’s instrumentation is crazy. So that’s kind of what I heard when I was listening to it. I know that skits can either make or break or project, but it was definitely something that, like, if these don’t work, I was going to just scrap them. Also, to show a bit of my sense of humor, because I joke a lot. I know the topics and the content were pretty serious, but also to show there’s a different side of me but, this is the side you’re getting right now.
If fans take away one thing about you from the album, what do you hope that is?
I’m a lover of music, and I hope people can hear that. Not so much just hip hop in general, which is another reason why I had Olive [Blu] just have that whole song. I actually have another version of that song [“Running”] where I’m actually on it, but it sounded so right with just her vocals, and I was just like, ‘I gotta let her have this. This is hers. This is her song now.’
You mentioned that you’ve learned a lot from this album and from this release about business and how to do an album rollout. So what is the next step for Brittany Carter?
More music. I don’t plan on dropping another project anytime soon [though]. I feel like I need to experience new things, you know what I mean? I’m not making the same thing over again. I’ve learned that, because this is my first project, it was like, not that I held myself back, but I wasn’t sure what I was capable of creatively. This was all a very new thing for me. I learned a lot about just being in the studio and how I record, like my process, because I had never been in the studio this much. So I learned a lot creatively, but right now, I’m just working on music with friends. Just, you know, just keeping my pen going. Whether it’s me journaling or me working on the music. Whatever the case is, I’m just putting more thought into how I want my next project to be.
Brittney Carter Opening for Jay Rock at The Concord in Chicago, IL (Sept. 14, 2018)