Still Paranoid In The Land of The Free: How P.O.S. Has Reclaimed “Chill” for 2017

Photos by Nate Ryan

“A lot of my politics are just not for… uh, people,” Stef Alexander says with a tentative laugh in the middle of our conversation. “I dunno, I think I feel differently about things than a lot of people.”

Alexander, better recognized as P.O.S., is narrowing in on fifteen years in rap as a conscious, no-holds-barred lyricist, mixing the political and the personal without over-saturating either, so the hesitancy comes as a surprise. I ask for elaboration.

“Y’know that neo-nazi Richard Spencer that was feeling emboldened by our new Trump presidency and got sucker punched in the face for the entire world to see?”

I told Alexander I had spent the previous morning heavily debating which musical re-edit of the now-famous/infamous clip was my favorite. At that moment, it was a three way tie between the one mixing Ceremony’s “Kersed” in, the Neutral Milk Hotel one, and pretty much any one that utilized Metro Boomin’s producer tag decently… so yeah, I had seen it a few times.

“I posted a video on my Instagram of it and now there’s a very heated debate over a) whether people should be sucker-punched and b) whether or not he specifically should’ve been sucker-punched,” he explains.

Among the vast buffet of current events a person could get into a convoluted Facebook argument over that week, Richard Spencer’s face and whether a fist was an appropriate reaction to it seemed to be dividing suburban parents and young progressives alike, so unpacking it with gloves on seemed crucial even for P.O.S. Still, his answer came neatly conversational, delivered with the same raspy confidence that opened an album with, “fuck Bush; that’s all, that’s the end of it” over a decade ago.

“My answer to that is I don’t think people should be sucker-punched, but I do think he should be sucker-punched literally every single day of his life.”

The return of P.O.S. feels serendipitous as large swaths of America are either just recognizing or continually struggling under the weight of our newly demoted “flawed democracy.” For most P.O.S. fans and, assuredly, his inner circle of family and friends, though, they’re just happy he’s here at all.

Alexander’s thrown enough distortion and left-of-center production at his records to avoid a linear path to success, but 2012’s We Don’t Even Live Here felt like the assured breakthrough moment in a career of underground highlights. With singles that married anarchist lyricism with massive production (sample titles: “Fuck Your Stuff”, “Lock-Picks, Knives, Bricks, and Bats”), Here was the closest thing to a “commercial” album for P.O.S., even as its creator knowingly avoided its mainstream potential.

“The biggest single feature I had on it was ‘How We Land’ with Justin Vernon [of Bon Iver]. That was probably the catchiest song on the record, but we didn’t make a video. We didn’t promote that song as a single. I just didn’t push for it… I wasn’t trying to play that game. I’m still just out here making music, dude.”

Even with the reflexive desire to steer Here’s success, Alexander would ultimately have little control over the album’s trajectory. Weeks before his first national tour, P.O.S. cancelled all dates in the wake of finding out that his “garbage” kidneys were failing, prompting a search for a donor. Over the following year, Alexander found a donor, but the typical album promotion cycle had long passed by the time his surgery healed. It would inevitably take five years for a follow-up to Here, but the beginnings of this month’s Chill, dummy began to take shape in the process of healing.

“I don’t think there’s necessarily a ‘first writing session’ ever,” Alexander offers. “I took time aside though, starting trying to write some stuff, and took the best of the best from all those different things I was working on as soon as I was finished writing it. And that’s what ended up lyrically becoming ‘Sleepdrone/Superposition.'”

“Sleepdrone” is Chill’s behemoth closer, a nearly nine minute unpacking of the five years of personal struggle between Here and Chill featuring vocals by Kathleen Hanna, Lizzo, and a few verses by Allan Kingdom. “It’s me having my whole freak out, blacking out, going kinda crazy, and having all these different voices around me,” Alexander adds. “That really does feel real to me. No one is really super ‘featured’ unless you know their voices, in which case you can hear them loud and clear. If you don’t know them though, it’s supposed to feel like everything all at once.”

“Sleepdrone” is exhausting, yet wholly enthralling thanks to P.O.S.’s uncompromising vision and lyrical intensity. For most career artists, it’d be a fan favorite track to occasionally play on tour. For P.O.S., it looked more like a first single for Chill, dummy.

“My manager can love this or hate this, but instead of seeking out big features from big people that could help me get a little bigger, I was most inspired hanging out with people that I look up to personally,” he affirms, citing Busdriver and Open Mike Eagle as big influencers to Chill’s sound. “A lot of the future of my city are people I think are dope that don’t necessarily have reach anywhere else. My friend Monty [aka Moncelas Boston] is on two tracks and he doesn’t even do social media. Nobody knows who he is and he’s certainly not going to help me promote.”

Photo by Corwin Wickersham

Early reviews frame Chill as a return to form of sorts, opening with his signature blasts of distortion on “Born A Snake” and gleefully shaking off the hiatus with industrial production (“Bully”, “Lanes”), wonky trap beats (“Pieces/Ruins”), and lush, slower experiments on songs like “Thieves/Kings” and “Faded” (which quietly boasts an uncredited Justin Vernon feature.)

At the same time, there’s equal commentary on Chill being P.O.S.’s most personal affair, even though politics are never far from reach on any of his records. Case in point: a line like “Some of y’all thought racism was over cause the President was black” on second single “Wearing A Bear” continues to reveal painful relevance since its release last summer, but Alexander remains humble when asked about the line predating Ta-Nehisi Coates’ similarly titled write-up in The Atlantic and the November election.

“I don’t know if I can ever honestly drop an ‘I told you so’ in such a direct way without feeling like a jerk myself. It’s always more like ‘we told you so,’” he corrects. “I feel like I’m emboldened to say a lot more of the things I say because I know that I have a strong population behind me that feels the same way.”

Even with his community behind him and the confidence to record a deeply personal record in a couple friends’ houses instead of big budget studios, the return of P.O.S. comes with a presumed elephant in the room in regards to his contemporaries.

Comparisons to acts like Death Grips have existed for years now, but fellow underground rap figureheads El-P and Killer Mike joined forces in 2013 with an album of politically charged anthems delivered with a shit-eating grin similar to P.O.S.’s approach on Here the year before. Run The Jewels made the duo unlikely celebrities off of that formula in the years since, but Alexander is pretty decisive when it comes to comparisons.

“I don’t care,” he responds with a throaty laugh. “There’s enough fans out there for everyone. There’s also a lot of shit I will simply not ever say ‘yes’ to. I’ve never gotten tons of critical hype… Pitchfork always writes pretty nice about my records, but then gives them a lower rating, so I don’t know why Death Grips would garner more critical joy than, y’know, my Never Better record. I can’t really think about it anymore in my life.”

Alexander is clearly the kind of artist and person that accepts the past and remains future focused, especially around his son, who has begun to step out on his own as a rapper under the name Hard_R.

“When I was rapping as a teenager, all I was saying was dumb shit. He’s already smarter than that and he’s seventeen,” Alexander proudly notes. “When I told him the song [he’s on] was going to make the record… [he said] he doesn’t even necessarily want to be involved in the whole album cycle. He’s not trying to come up under me; he’s trying to do his own shit, which I respect. I told him the only thing you can do to get out from under me though is to be way, way better than me.”

By large, “the personal record” feels vague in describing Chill, dummy when “the self-improvement record” is truly a better signifier. Alexander has very little trouble discussing the things that keep him afloat in today’s political climate (“It was hard to feel anything but deep hope and pride seeing [the Women’s March]”) and more of his self-proclaimed “different” political beliefs (“There’s always been these white skinhead groups that are anti-racist and go out to these obscure events where Nazis march to beat them up. The mainstream that doesn’t care about those skinheads is also the mainstream that isn’t thinking about anti-racist action.”) It took until the end of our conversation though for a succinct reflection on the album at hand.

“I really needed this record. I wasn’t intending to make such a personal record. I definitely wasn’t intending on making such a slow, pretty record. But I guess that’s what needed to come out… y’know, there it is. And there’s more coming through.”

Chill, dummy is out now via Doomtree. P.O.S. will be performing tomorrow night at The Sinclair with Transit22 and Ceschi Ramos. For more information/tickets, check the event page here.