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With ‘Portraits,’ Michigan’s self-loathing lyricist turns a critical lens on himself, confronts the wealthy and shows love for his cat

“I hate the way you stress

The way you overeat

I hate the way you can’t get out of bed and oversleep

I hate the way you worry

I hate the way you smile

with those big rabbit teeth you haven’t brushed in a while.”

Chris Orrick raps those lines over a lonesome, jazzy sax sample on the opening track of his new album, Portraits, out May 4. The lyrics sound like they could be a goofy, low-key diss track, in the great tradition of rappers mocking their rivals. But the title of the track is “Self-Portrait.” It’s a song about depression.

Hip-hop’s typical mode is braggadocio and self-assertion; rappers tend to rhyme about how awesome they are, a la Kanye West declaring, “I Am a God.” In contrast, Orrick traffics in his own anxiety and sadness. One of the most affecting tracks on the album, “Mom,” is about his mother, who died of alcoholism-related complications when he was 19. “And now that you’ve been gone for a decade/It’s still hard not to cry on my best days,” he say. He goes on to wish he could talk to her about his cat, Pistachio, who she never got to meet.

“I think that from the absolute beginning of me writing, even when I was young, 12 or 13, when I was trying to figure out how to write and rap, I was always more inspired by sadness and depression,” Orrick said.

He first started writing after his father had a falling out with his grandfather, who owned the house in the Detroit suburbs where they were staying. The family moved to the small town of Howell, Michigan, and Orrick’s interest in rap blossomed into obsession—especially artists who focused inward.

“I just gravitated towards more emotive music, and I wanted to make music like that,” Orrick says. “My favorite shit was DMX. I joke with friends about him being the first emo rapper.”

Orrick began performing seriously after he graduated from Michigan State in 2010. He’s signed to indie label Mello Music, and he’s toured in Europe and been interviewed by Sway on MTV. But his previous album, 2017’s Instinctive Drowning, didn’t sell as well as he’d hoped, and his last couple of tours hit logistical snags and ended up being cancelled. He still works with his father delivering food to restaurants in the Detroit area to make extra cash.

In the last song on the album, “What Happens Next?”, Orrick imagines himself through the eyes of the people he interacts with every day—the liquor store clerk who sells him way too much gin, the people who watch him make deliveries with his dad. “I heard he’s almost 30 and still working for his dad/cause the music isn’t working … and shouldn’t he be famous/not working on a truck for less than minimum wage.”

“My favorite shit was DMX. I joke with friends about him being the first emo rapper.”

A white, working-class rapper talking about depression and failure in the current political climate seems like a message that might appeal to middle-Americans wearing MAGA caps. And in fact Chris Orrick’s rap moniker used to be Red Pill—a reference to the Matrix which has been co-opted by Mens’ Rights Activists (MRA’s), who blame women and feminists for emasculating or oppressing men. Orrick actually ditched the name because he didn’t want to be a dogwhistle to misogynist trolls and racists. (“Speaking of sad masturbation/losers on computers giving me a bad reputation,” he raps.) And while Orrick knows people who supported Trump, he says he’s mostly tried to cut them out of his life.

“It’s very strange to me to see people that have worked their whole lives supporting a dude who literally has an apartment in New York made of gold,” he told me. During the financial crisis, his father lost his job; his girlfriend’s family lost their home. “I can’t figure out what part of a working-class person, what part of a person that grew up knowing that—I don’t know what Trump’s appeal is to them. Unless it’s about the fact that there was a black man running the country. I think this is the white response to that, and that’s terrifying.”

Orrick isn’t a stranger to anger and resentment. “Jealous of the Sun” produced by Onra, couples a deep ominous beat with a call to arms against the wealthy. “Fuck that. They want war give ’em war/where’s the guns at?/They want more/give em more/where the funds at?/They got the power/we got the numbers/live by it then you die by the sword,” he spits.  

But for the most part, Orrick’s sadness isn’t expressed as rage, but as solidarity. On “Stories,” producer Bruce Wain lays down a reflective piano sample while Orrick, a la Johnny Cash, raps about going shopping on Sunday morning. “Everybody else is up at church/and these poor motherfuckers gotta work,” he says. “They’re busy stocking from the night before/cleaning up the vomit from the night before.” Then he spends a verse talking about a worker who just got engaged, and how he congratulates her before leaving. That’s the whole narrative.

“Not every story has a point/Not every question is a choice,” Orrick concludes.

But the point of “Stories” isn’t in some narrative climax. It’s speaking to and caring about other people, imagining the burden of their poor wages and aching feet. “Self-Portrait” may be about Orrick himself, but his feelings of self-alienation and self-disgust resonate with everyone.

“Somehow your features get distorted/your head’s small and your eyes look enormous/you know the inside of you’s gorgeous/but on the outside it gets morbid,” he raps.  

You’re a twisted thing, but somebody sees you. On Portraits, self-hatred hurts, but it can also feel a lot like love.

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