“I’m impatient as fuck,” Illy tells me, looking ahead to his three-date east coast tour next week. Come Friday, his fifth album in Two Degrees is finally seeing release and straight off the back, the Melbourne rapper will be sharing it with fans on stages in his hometown, Sydney and Brisbane.
“With the album coming out when it does, obviously we can’t do a big album tour over the New Year period,” he explains. “I didn’t want to wait until next year to play shows with this album; it’s exciting. I haven’t played a venue the size of Howler in Melbourne in…even with the Long Story Short launch, that was at The Corner, which is double the size of Howler – I suppose it’s been eight or nine years. These shows are going to be awesome. It’s really cool to be playing the week of release; these aren’t shows I’ve done in years, so they’re going to be unique and really fun. ”
Since 2013’s Cinematic, fans would have picked up Illy continuing to dabble in other genres outside the traditional hip-hop mould. A focus on vocal melody and an exploration of pop and more electronic-rooted production reared its head and quite evidently, it was a creative move that fans and industry twigged to. Moving forward with Two Degrees, Illy’s taken the momentum Cinematic spurred and has continued to dive right into the new and unfamiliar.
“I definitely was aware that if you take that [different] direction, there’s inevitable consequences,” he admits. “Not necessarily negative, but if you take a direction, there’s going to be a certain reaction to that. I mean, everyone says ‘pop’ like it’s a dirty word and I think pop, done well, is extremely difficult to do. I’m getting better at it, I think I’m much better at it now than when I was with Cinematic.”
“It’s a tricky one,” he continues. “Pop is not easy to do, it takes a lot of skill; I feel like I’m at my best point, creatively, than I’ve ever been at. That’s because I’ve taken my own lane and this album, there’s pop, there’s electronic music, there’s hip-hop – it borrows from a lot of different genres but I love that it sounds, front to back, like an Illy record, but it doesn’t necessarily fit in a genre. I’m really proud of that fact because it’s not easy to do.”
Already, we’ve seen this new direction play out with current radio hits in the Vera Blue link up “Papercuts” and “Catch-22”, featuring Anne-Marie. The results have begun to show for themselves too, with “Papercuts” only recently being certified Double Platinum and scoring a round of ARIA nominations, including “Best Male”, “Song of the Year” and “Best Pop Release”. Illy addresses criticism that may coming his way with the release of the singles thus far and with the release of Two Degrees, firmly positioning the album up there as the best work he’s made.
“In hindsight, because “Papercuts” has been so insanely and unexpectedly successful, everyone’s like, ‘Well that’s a no-brainer – of course you’d go with that [first]’.” he says. “When I first sent you the track and we spoke about it, putting it out as the first single [I wanted] it to word people up to the fact that it was going to be a different album and to expect something different – at the time, that was actually a really risky move. “Catch-22” would’ve been a much safer option, some of the other tracks would’ve been much safer.”
“I think a lot of the criticism isn’t really properly informed and I don’t think there’s a lot of consideration that’s gone into what’s being said; it’s easy to say that, because it’s a pop song or because it’s a big song, that it’s playing the safe route. It’s far from it. I’m really interested to see what the reaction is; I genuinely think this is the best album I’ve made. I’m interested to see what fans and people who have supported my music in a broader sense think of it; I hope they like it and I think they will.”
So we know that Two Degrees is coming packed with a side of Illy longtime fans probably haven’t seen before. But how has the final result matched up with any initial visions Illy had for the record? If Cinematic was any type of blueprint for what Two Degrees was to become, how has it mirrored the writer and artist Illy has seen himself develop into?
“Going into the album, the ultimate aim was to pick up where Cinematic left off in terms of the songwriting and the sound,” he says. “But the album has definitely changed quite a lot from the initial first round of demos. The direction has definitely changed a little but ultimately, it’s achieved what I wanted it to achieve. I’m in a really good place with it now because all the heavy lifting is done but when you’re right in the middle of it all, there is a lot of anxiety and doubt. You have to go through that to get to the good stuff.”
“Even on Long Story Short there was melody,” he remembers. “[But] I was very new to it. I was still basically in the underground hip-hop scene; I was playing a few gigs a week, still doing open mics. I had just recently stopped doing open mics and just recently stopped being a hype man – I was all new to it. Even then, there was melody and I think it took me getting a bit more of a profile, getting a bit more known and supported, to have the confidence to try these new things.”
““Heard It All” was the first time that I really went for it, singing-wise. That was a big song, the second Gold single I had. On a throwback hip-hop album, to have a Gold single on that album was a big deal; that was me singing on it. That carried into Cinematic and “Tightrope”’s success is what really gave me the ability and the confidence to make this album. It is a process and it’s been a long process to get there, but definitely, Cinematic ties into this. It’s a real clear progression and it makes sense.”
Taking aim at a new year ahead of shows and no doubt, more new sounds on the way, Illy’s confident of where Two Degrees is set to settle and sit alongside the rest of his catalogue, that much is clear. On the live front, he’s continued to grow into one of the country’s most popular hip-hop artists, especially as crowds on the Groovin’ The Moo tour and Splendour in the Grass dictated this year, and it’s this constant support that keeps spirits up.
“I believed in it enough that it never really fucked with me.” he comments, doing away with any apprehension making this album could have brought. “As I have with the majority of my career, I care what people think, particularly people who support my music. I don’t really have patience or time for the people who don’t support my music or don’t like it because what’s the point of worrying about them?”
“I’m very, very lucky in the way that I’m supported.” he says. “I’ve always been supported by people within the hip hop scene; some of them maybe don’t fuck with it anymore, but I’ve always had support from inside the scene and then particularly from outside. I think the make up of the crowds at a lot of my shows is different than a lot of other crowds with similar sorts of music; I’m really lucky to be in that position.”
Two Degrees is released on Friday, November 11th via Warner Music Australia. Illy performs in Brisbane (Woolly Mammoth) on November 15th, Sydney (Oxford Art Factory) on November 16th and in Melbourne (Howler) on November 17th – all shows are sold out.
Image by Amanda De Simone.