Watsky is, he hopes, leading a trend of hip-hop artists crossing over to poetry and the reverse.
That’s essentially what George Watsky did when he moved from spoken word to rap a decade, delivering his poems over beats and musical backing.
“It’s starting to really happen now,” he said. “Where it’s really happening is in Chicago. ... I wish there were more rappers writing poems and putting them out as poems. Chance the Rapper, everything he’s doing has a lot of poetry in it. He came out of the Youth Poetry Movement of Chicago. So did No Name. It’s all these kids who aren’t kids anymore taking out into the world.”
Watsky, who’s now 32, started doing slam poetry when he was 15 and, in 2006, was the Youth Speaks Grand Slam Poetry Champion and the Brave New Voices International Poetry Slam Champion.
In 2011, Watsky, his stage name, broke through in hip-hop when the video for “Pale Kid Raps Fast” went viral and he built on that success via appearances in the Epic Battles of History YouTube series.
He’s now made five albums and four EPs and penned a New York Times bestseller with his collection of essays “How To Ruin Everything.”
All of the writing, he said, comes from the same place, but has to be expressed differently.
“Everything you do is a different form,” Watsky said. “Spoken word doesn’t have rules in the form. But it has conventions. For me, it’s kind of half-way between writing an essay and writing a song.
“I think the audience absorbs the material very differently too -- at least at the shows I do. The spoken word shows the audience is sitting down. They’ll laugh and clap, but it’s a loud kind of quiet. At a music show, the way I do my show, it’s a rock show. The people are up and know the words already. It’s about energy and people, when they hear the song they want to hear, sing along. The spoken word is more of a theatrical situation.”
Watsky, who is working on a poetry project that will either turn up in book form or as a recording, has included a spoken piece on his last two albums, including “COMPLAINT,” the album he released last month.
Darker and more personal than his previous releases, “COMPLAINT” doesn’t have the overtly socio-political elements that have driven Watsky’s poetic lyrics. But he said that content is there, hidden, so to speak, in the album’s detailing of an up-and-down love story.
“I was in therapy this last year after years of putting it off,” he said. “One of the themes of it was embracing my shadow side. Everyone has one. ... That’s what the album is really about, trying to look at yourself as a complete human and trying to look at the parts of yourself you might not like seeing and figuring yourself out.
“This is a relationship-driven album in a lot of ways. It’s using the relationship to talk about the stuff that’s played in my other albums. My last album was pretty explicitly political. The social issues and politics are in there, but they’re in the relationship songs ... The last song on the album is about a relationship of mine. But it’s about negotiating a relationship in the #MeToo era.”
“COMPLAINT” is also a more music-rooted recording, with Watsky singing as well as rapping.
“I was trying to work at being a more complete songwriter on this album,” he said. “I did a lot of melodic writing for this. I rap on the tunes. But I wanted to see if I could carry the album myself. I like it when rappers sing on their album. I like nontraditional voices.”
Watsky now has taken “COMPLAINT” on the road and is set for a stop at the Bourbon Theatre Saturday.
“It’s interesting what songs people are gravitating to -- the songs that rock out." One of those, “Feels Alright,” is like a Rage Against the Machine song, he said. “I wish it was a Rage Against the Machine song, that’s what I was going for it. It’s going to be a real high-energy show. It’ll be a chance for my band to flex a little.”
That’s right, Watsky is touring with a full band that includes drums, bass, a backing vocalist, guitar and on some shows, keyboard and trumpet.
“I’m really concentrating this year on having a highwire live show,” he said. “All the folks in my band are kick-ass musicians, trained in jazz for the most part. I think the rapper/DJ format is great and has an important role to play. But for me, I’m out here with the band. I like collaboration and building energy.
“It gives you more opportunity for spontaneity. With a DJ, it’s being pumped through the house and it sounds great, but you can’t change it on the fly. Especially when you’re playing with jazz musicians, you’re going to be changing it.”
Watsky, who’s made previous local appearances, was eager for Lincolnites to hear the band and his new music.
“Shout out to the Cornhuskers,” he said. “I’m looking forward to coming back.”