"I just wanna give everything I have."
A.I. The Anomaly’s name might strike you as inaccessible, but the 32-year-old rapper has an overwhelmingly welcoming soul. Born and based in Buffalo, New York, A.I.’s music communes with Christ as much as it communes with her own pain, as much as it is a shedding of fear and pursuit of vulnerability.
Her latest album, BLNKNVS, released May 31, is a meditation on becoming your own darkness and finding your release through your passions. A.I.’s work is masterful and holistic. Her raps bowl over your emotions, but her delivery lays delicately. There is balance and there is empathy to her work, all of which leads to shock when we learn of her creative background riddled with strife.
“I have to start with writing,” A.I. tells me over the phone, her voice basking in a brightness. “Growing up I had to go to counseling—I was labeled a ‘failure to thrive’ and ‘emotionally handicapped’. During that time, I didn’t know how to express my emotions. One of the counselors gave me a paper and pencil and told me to write down my feelings, I must have been around six.”
A.I. discovered she could escape into writing, first into the lives of characters, and then as a space to confront and mourn the loss of her mother when she reached her 20s. It was on her earlier 2019 album, Sever Threads, that A.I. let go of her bad habits, the weight of her traumas, and stood in her own light. Creating art that touches lives, she tells me, is her passion and her purpose; her saving grace and her motivator.
“If I’m not vulnerable in telling my story, then I’m doing a disservice to the world,” she says. “We don’t even have to go as far as the world. I do a disservice to that young girl that’s walking down the street. I’m doing a disservice to the kid that attends the school that I was kicked out of. These young people—and adults, too—they need to see me.”
Beyond her life and the lives of others, A.I. also knows her legacy: “I gave it everything that I have. That I didn’t allow for labels to stop me. That I created a space in which I developed a ceiling and like I tell my son and my daughter: Let my ceiling be your floor.”
There is strength and power in her words, and that same power translates to our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, which follows below.
DJBooth: When did you first fall in love with music?
A.I. The Anomaly: I have to start with writing. My background is: I lost my biological mother when I was three. She died from an overdose. Me, my sister, and my brother were placed in foster care even before that due to her neglect. Growing up I had to go to counseling—I was labeled a “failure to thrive” and “emotionally handicapped.” During that time, I didn’t know how to express my emotions. One of the counselors gave me paper and pencil and told me to write down my feelings. I must have been around six.
I don’t know what it was, but I felt I could create stories through my words and I could hide behind the characters I created. When I realized writing could be my safe haven, I fell in love with it. That developed into stories, poems, and I fell in love with hip-hop in my teenage years. It took time.
Having overcome so much, how essential was music to your healing and finding your path in your adult life?
Music has always been my remedy. I always had this overarching issue that was tearing at me, and I realized that it was not understanding how to mourn my mother. I didn’t mourn my mother until I was in my 20s, and it was because of music I was able to shed this skin, shed this weight. I was able to have a relationship with my mother through music; I was able to ask her questions. Of course, those answers weren’t given to me, because she’s gone, but I was able to express myself through music. As an adult, in my 30s now, Sever Threads was my severing those habits that occurred because of not mourning my mother at a young age.
Your openness must give strength to your fans. How important is it to you to give back with your music?
It’s very important, and it calls for a vulnerability I was not ready for at a certain point. Like I said, I was young writing stories. I wrote about characters and I hid behind those characters. It was about me, but I wouldn’t say “This story is about me,” because I was still holding on to these secrets.
If I’m not vulnerable in telling my story, then I’m doing a disservice to the world. We don’t even have to go as far as the world. I do a disservice to that young girl that’s walking down the street. I’m doing a disservice to the kid that attends the school that I was kicked out of. These young people—and adults, too—they need to see me. That means I need to step outside of myself and share these stories. I have to do this. I have to. This is my life.
Could you walk me through the process of coming into your vulnerability?
At this point, for BLNKNVS, it’s not difficult for me. That shredding of fear of vulnerability happened during Sever Threads. At this point, it’s no holds barred. The process of me writing any given topic is that I listen to the beat, I date the instrumental, I take time to hear every single part of it, I reflect on what’s happening in my surroundings, and I speak my truth. I spill that paint onto the canvas, and I go all in. I give it everything I have.
How do you keep from being weighed down by your past traumas?
It’s my faith. I read the Bible and it has a lot of encouraging standards. Me giving my life to Christ, that has a lot to do with it. Me understanding my purpose has a lot to do with it, too. When you start to understand why you were placed here, and you get it, and you start to understand what your passion is and you walk within that passion…
You have no choice but to go all in. Why else am I here? Some people may look at what happened to them at a young age like: Why would my mother choose drugs? Why would my mother choose to do that? Why did she have to leave us? These questions that I asked myself when I was younger, in a dark space. I even have a letter that I wrote when I was younger saying I had no purpose to be here. I tried to take my life at 10, 11. I was in such a dark space. But now, when I look back, I’m grateful. When you start to realize your potential, realize your passion, that’s what drives me every day. This is what I’m here for.
Talk to me about BLNKNVS.
I view life as a blank canvas. Sometimes, like in my situation, people painted all over my canvas. I literally was labeled a “failure to thrive” due to my mother’s addiction to drugs while I was in her womb. Due to that label, or that paint, I began to believe that painting. I began to look at me in the mirror and believe that that is what I’m supposed to become.
But through the process of development, whether that’s my faith in God or the community that surrounded me, whether that’s the programs I was involved in, all of these different things made me change my perspective. It allowed me to realize that this is my canvas, and I’m the artist. I can use the things that are in my life, whatever my experiences are, and I can use that to paint a different portrait.
What’s the most important story you told on this record?
Man, there’s so many on there! It’s the idea we’re living in darkness and we’re blaming other people, and we’re not looking at ourselves. On that last track on the project, "Oubliette," that almost satanic sound of my own voice is a reflection of me looking in the mirror, finding out that I could be holding myself back. That’s what I’ve done a lot in my life, and I haven’t been able to release from that. So it’s like, what can release you?
You seem to be very methodical, so as a final question: What do you want your legacy to be?
Hmm. That I gave it everything I have. That I didn’t allow for labels to stop me. That I developed a ceiling and like I tell my son and my daughter: Let my ceiling be your floor. I just wanna give everything I have. I want people to see a reflection of what I want everyone to do: Use your life, use your story, and hope that it ignites change.