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How a stay in Minneapolis helped Naeem finish 'Startisha' and set aside his Spank Rock persona

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You might know Naeem Juwan’s music even if the name doesn’t sound familiar.

As Spank Rock, the Baltimore-born rapper has been spitting often hilarious, often dirty rhymes over rough-edged electronic beats with his musical partner Amanda Blank since the mid-’00s. But that’s an alter ego you can imagine an artist wanting to shuffle off as he nears 40. And after a recent trip through Minneapolis, en route from his old home of Philadelphia to his new one in Los Angeles, Naeem (as he’s now known) finished the album that allowed him to do just that.

Startisha is a collection of unconventional beauty, moving between musical styles in a manner that’s often surprising but always graceful. Naeem recasts the opening track, the Silver Apples ’60s psychedelic chestnut “You and I,” in a voice idiosyncratically human and expressive. Elsewhere Naeem collaborates with soul eccentric Swamp Dogg, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon (who has named a song after him), stylistically likeminded local Velvet Negroni, and, on a truly filthy track, Blank and Micah James. But maybe the standout cut here is the title track, a wistful, emotionally nuanced look back at a girl Naeem grew up with in Baltimore that’s linked to a melody I haven’t been able to shake since I first heard it.

We spoke with Naeem by phone last week about the new developments in his music, particularly about how his 18-month stay in Minneapolis shaped Startisha and helped him re-imagine the collaborative process.

City Pages: At what point during the recording of this album did you start thinking, “This doesn’t feel like a Spank Rock album, maybe it’s time to use a new name”?

Naeem Juwan: It was at the very end. I was working on the record, especially once I got to Minneapolis, and was deep in the project, and I knew I was moving to L.A. With all the major life changes that were happening pushing me over the edge, I realized I could put this out under a different name. Under my own name.

CP: What sorts of major life changes? Moving?

NJ: Yeah, mostly. I’d been in Philadelphia for like 18 years, and I was supposed to move to Los Angeles, because my boyfriend got a job there. But I didn’t want to live in L.A. at all so I went to Minneapolis instead. I knew that my time was going to be short there—but I planned to be there for six months and turned out to be more like a year and a half! After leaving Philly, this city I had just an extreme connection to, that was just one of my favorite places in the world—it really rocked me, I really felt uprooted. And then getting to Minneapolis and feeling like, “Aw man, I really found my people.” It was crazy; I felt like I was this lost Smurf, that I should have been in this little village my entire life.

CP: What brought you out here in the first place?

NJ: Ryan Olson is the dude who really invited me out, before I moved there, just to play some festivals, some shows. When I got there it was mostly hanging out with Ryan, all the homies in Poliça and Marijuana Deathsquads. When I decided to move, Justin [Vernon] was like, “Yo, the apartment building I’m living in has an opening,” so I moved in there. Justin and his best friends, a trumpet player, Trever [Hagen], and he was on the album too. It was just like the Chipmunks on something, running up and down to each others’ apartments. I came out to finish the album that I’d started in Philly, coming out there to maybe put some final touches on it. That was what the six months was supposed to be for. But then I started making friends and seeing people again. I’d been friends with Har Mar [Superstar] for such a long time, him being there, helping me out—he gave me a mattress! This extremely expensive orthopedic or whatever mattress, it was crazy. Unlike anything I’d ever slept on in my life. I just had so many great homies there that it went from “I’m just gonna take six months to finish this record” to “I think I’m never gonna leave.”

CP: You’ve mentioned Prince as an influence. Can you talk about some of the ways he’s shaped how you work?

NJ: One thing I learned about Prince, he always had his crew, his family around him, like regardless. His band wasn’t changing as drastically as it appeared. He was just using different musicians in different roles at the time. And to me, that just felt really Minneapolis at the core. I was learning a lot working with Ryan. He always had so many friends working on each others’ projects all the time, being supportive of each other. Like, Velvet Negroni’s on the album because he’s just hanging out, and this is somebody where I was obsessed with his first album, really looked up to him a lot, and I feel like he wouldn’t have been there to be a verse on my album if there wasn’t that blueprint of always having friends around.

CP: There’s a retrospective feel to a lot of this album. There’s a lot of looking back. Was that a conscious choice or just a consequence of getting older?

NJ: I set goals for this album, because I feel like I’d lost my way a bit as a songwriter, like I didn’t have the same fire, the feeling that I had something to say. I wanted to make a new album but I didn’t have that young rapper spirit anymore, where you feel like everything you want to say is fucking brilliant. I was setting rules, like “These are what classic songs are. This is what makes a good song a good song.” And it was really about pulling from personal experiences. Half the album is retrospective because for me, all my personal experiences at the time were so boring. I was just sitting around, like doing nothing. I had nothing to pull from really. So I started thinking, “What’s important here? What made you who you are today?” and then I tried to focus on those things. Some things are more recent. A lot of things that were speaking to me and were popping in my head were things that drew me back to my childhood. I wanted it to be personal, so I wanted to think about Baltimore.

CP: You’ve spoken before about the process of becoming comfortable with your singing voice. Who have you listened to and what steps have you taken to ease into that new part of your performance style?

NJ: I had to take one class; they taught me the mechanics of singing, and that got me to the point where I thought I can sing in front of... my engineer now. But I only took one voice lesson. And as I made this album and I wanted to sing more, I was writing songs in other people’s voices, a lot of imitations, and on a lot of the demos, I can hear I’m singing a different way. I want to prevent myself from sounding different on every song, on every album. I was listening to a lot of funny-voiced singers, the kind who don’t feel confident. So like, Andre3000, a big influence—I love Andre’s voice, but I remember seeing how uncomfortable he looked onstage when he had to sing The Love Below songs. Then I go back to Parliament Funkadelic where a lot of the voices are really soulful and brash, not these perfect voices. I go to Leonard Cohen so often, because he was poet who wasn’t supposed to be a singer, but he decided to sing his poetry anyway.