On a recent humid summer evening on bustling Newbury Street, I walked up the cement steps of an anonymous building and pulled on the heavy wooden door. It was locked, making for the latest covert Cliff Notez operation I’d experienced in a week. Days before, the Boston all-around artist and emcee hosted an exclusive listening party for his new project, Why the Wild Things Are, with all the musicians featured on the album in the house. Like that event, this meetup was hidden from plain view, with all attendees having to sign nondisclosure agreements to guarantee discretion.
Notez, at a slender 6’4” with big thin-lensed glasses, met me at the door. Inside, about 20 of his friends and co-creators, men and women, black and white, stood and sat and chatted openly over cups of Jim Beam, eager to absorb the album. Notez kindly asked the group to avoid photographing the cover art or recording any sounds on Snapchat without his permission.
It’s been two years since the Dorchester filmmaker, photographer, writer, and musician dropped his 2017 debut, When the Sidewalk Ends, a 60-minute, politically driven album covering the realities of black mental health, racism, and oppression. It’s his own testament and ode to another childhood favorite, Shel Silverstein’s popular poem, “Where the Sidewalk Ends.”
“I wanted to take that art, flip it on its head, and see what it would look like with my world,” Notez said. “We had this idea of, ‘when the sidewalk ends,’ changing that question and thinking about what happens for a black person. It’s not where it ends we’re worried about, we always know it’s [gun violence, mental health, discrimination] that’s going to happen.”
Obligations like his master’s program at Northeastern, working multiple jobs—ranging from bouncing at a club, to being a research assistant for Boston University, to starting his media brand Hip Story—resulted in the lengthy five years that it took to complete his debut.
“When I finished [When the Sidewalk Ends] and looked back at it I was like, Oh! You might have to go to therapy, bruh,” Notez recalled with some laughter. “That realization was terrifying, ’cause after all these years of basketball and school and music and relationships, I never had the time where I was like, You exist. This is you. That album really felt like a portrait of where I was. Although I was proud of the music that I created when I looked at the overall vision of it, I was like, Damn, you’ve been through some shit. You’re about to tell everybody this? The first time you’re out and you’re about to tell everyone this? This is a lot. Might as well run away and hide. So that’s where I was at most of it.
“I just wanted to create something for that specific moment. … It was a realization that I was alone. I talk about quarter-life crisis on ‘Good Riddance’ and I was definitely having one,” Notez said. “I’m having all this good stuff happening to me, but on the inside I’m literally falling apart.”
In the meantime, there have been acknowledgments aplenty. Notez brought home the title of Best New Artist at the Boston Music Awards last December, and was also named Boston Magazine’s Best Musician this year (Ed. note: And of course also appeared on the cover of DigBoston]. His short film, Vitiligo, was the grand prize winner at the March on Washington Film Festival in 2017.
“It got more and more real each time,” he said. “It’s like, all right, I got some friendships that’s failing, OK that’s normal, you lose friends all the time, then your seven-year relationship ends, all right, then your brother dies. Then it’s like what happens, happens. … A lot of the album was inspired by not only my experiences but my experiences with my brother as well.”
A temporary salvation came in the form of a residency at MASS MoCa last year, where Notez was able to “get away” and focus on his sophomore album. Among others, he invited fellow artists including Forté and Mint Green to feature, but in the end, 90% of the work, including mixing and mastering—and even the cover art—was done by Notez himself.
Notez floated around the black, polished wooden floors, beaming his wide smile at the diverse guests and filling the room with his loud, distinguishable laughter. His black, white, and crimson kicks had him resembling a Celtics recruit, but the tiny pink flower hanging over his ear spoke to his artistry. His ash-gray T-shirt read, “sluggish, stupid, lazy, and unconcerned,” an interpolation of Frank Ocean’s “Be Yourself,” on which Ocean’s mother leaves a voicemail advising self-care and self-acceptance. It’s a message that Notez is practicing himself amongst the intense adversity he faced while completing Why the Wild Things Are.
When the final faint sound of the album whispered through the single standing speaker, all the hands and fingers in the spacious room clapped and snapped in amazement. As for Notez, he was all joy and excitement through the shower of thank-yous and daps from his supporters, his dreads swaying as he chuckled. The consensus around Why the Wild Things Are: It’s nothing short of well crafted.
“After my first album, it was very much about pain. I think Oompa tweeted, ‘Who are you without your trauma.’ That’s an important question, it’s important to name that, but it’s also important to know how we’re getting past that. I’m still learning about it, but on this album, it’s a very important next step. You name what’s wrong, then you start to figure how to own that and then eventually how to fix it up.”
CLIFF NOTEZ’S WHY THE WILD THINGS ARE ALBUM RELEASE CELEBRATION. FRI 9.13 AT 9PM. OBERON, 2 ARROW ST., CAMBRIDGE. MORE INFO AND TIXX AT AMERICANREPERTORYTHEATER.ORG.
(You can also stop by Newbury Comics Harvard Square on Tues 9.10 from 7-9pm to meet Cliff Notez and be among the first to hear his new record.)