Remaking R&B in Serpentwithfeet’s Image

His music, much like the man, requires an audience unconfined by expectation of what is supposed to be.

Photo: Courtesy of
Photo: Courtesy of
Photo: Courtesy of

During one particularly hellish February weather week for most of the country, Los Angeles hovers just above 70 degrees. No breeze, the sky a cloudless shade of aqua. The stillness is broken only by the sounds of city wildlife: chirping, squirrels in motion, people boxing on the nearby Poinsettia Park basketball court that’s been turned into a makeshift gym. It’s the exact kind of picturesque day, long before the pandemic, that once sent serpentwithfeet reaching for his pen to write the lyrics to a song he’d eventually call “Dawn,” a 34-second interlude from his new album, DEACON, arriving this week.

“I remember waking up around five or 5:30 [a.m.], making my tea, and taking a quick little hike in the morning and seeing the hummingbirds and seeing the lizards do their little push-ups or whatever they do,” he recalls, audibly smiling through his plain black mask. Three years ago, he’d recently moved from New York City to California and had been holding off on writing new music until the change of scenery hit him. The levity. The ease. The calm of L.A. in contrast to the bustle of Brooklyn. “Dawn” isn’t even ten words, but it captures the transition in hymnlike meditation. “Whoa, what a mornin’,” it goes, “when stars begin to fall.” The final word splinters into a regal multipart harmony that lays bare the 32-year-old’s church-rearing and classical training. The song reimagines one of his favorite spirituals, “My Lord, What a Morning,” and its lush arrangement — how the harmonies layer to create a chorus of himself — is vintage serpentwithfeet, the earthly and the divine present at once.

A singer-songwriter who grew up in Baltimore before making his way to Philly and New York and then the West Coast, serpent has a way of illuminating and embracing duality. Around 2016, as he began to attract more fans and more press following the release of his Blisters EP that year, led by piano-driven single “flickering,” the inverted-pentacle tattoo that sits above his right eyebrow was a constant topic of conversation. (At the time, his aesthetic also centered around a shaved head and large septum ring. These days, his look is more nondescript for his standards: cozy basics, the locs he’s since grown out tucked under a hat, the giant DEACON tattoo on his neck that predated the album.) It seemed at odds with his choirboy background, much the way his sexuality seemed at odds with an institution that has historically been unwelcoming. (Though, as he correctly points out, “the church would be lacking if it didn’t have the gays.”) Then there was the question of genre and how to define a sound that owes as much to R&B as it does gospel, that subsumes tradition as it deconstructs it. His music, much like the man, requires an audience unconfined by expectation of what is supposed to be, rewarding most those who are willing to simply let things be what they are.

In 2018, he released his debut album, soil, plunging headfirst into the messiness of love and mining for beauty even in loss. The lyrics articulated heartbreak and healing with a self-awareness and an emotionality that honored the confusion, pain, and melodrama of the road between the two. Infernal and celestial in turns, the empty spaces of the beats only made room for ghosts of exes and claustrophobic feelings. “I always say: If you date men, I apologize — because we got a lot of learning to do,” serpent admits. To quote one lyric, it was a pageant of grief, and it rarely let up. Despite its terranean name, soil was, in many ways, fire; he wanted DEACON to be air. To soothe the spirit of the work, he wrote about the ecstasy of being seen by another and the warm comforts of their body weight, about patient love and growing old together. He carefully tended to each song, wrapping them in swaths of reverb, using delay, and stacking vocals so that they might become reveries; Janet Jackson and 2004’s Damita Jo were a conscious presence throughout the process. “That album is so crazy. What she was able to do — there’s just something about when you work with these open jazz chords and tight harmonies. You get a certain vibe,” he says, noting how both DEACON’s “Old & Fine” and “Hyacinth” use those techniques to achieve that breezy, gossamer quality. “It feels like when you hear wind chimes,” he says.

Born Josiah Wise, serpent grew up in the church the way so many Black millennials did, not just on Sundays but on several other days of the week, too. His mother was a choir director, his father a clergyman, and serpent a member of the choir, which meant committing to at least a few Saturdays for rehearsals, Wednesdays for midweek service, not to mention special occasions like New Year’s Eve. He never really knew a life without the church until one day, after he had gone to Philly to attend the University of the Arts, it just fell out of routine. No fanfare nor real premeditation. He just kind of stopped going once he realized waking up three hours later and getting breakfast from his neighborhood café suited him better.

One might assume a contentious relationship between the church and serpent, who wasn’t out during his time there, but he speaks fondly of the church that raised him, of family and friends, of comfort, of a second home. The decision to leave it behind was more organic personal evolution than explicit rejection; he still carries some of its lessons with him. “There was this sense of ceremony, that the way you come up to give the announcements is important, the way that you greet people is important. Everything deserves pomp and circumstance. I love that about Black people,” he says. “That is something very particular to Black church. There’s a certain elegance I want to take with me. Even when I have big dinner parties, I want there to be a certain — there is a dress code. It’s my house, and you can wear slippers, but you need to wear gold ones. I just love that idea that everything is important.” Likewise, everyone has a role to play in the church; from the pulpit to the sanctuary, each individual is as necessary as the next.

For DEACON, serpent homed in on its namesake, looking even beyond the church walls to fictional characters like Hollywood and Prosper from the OWN series Queen Sugar and Overton from the classic sitcom Living Single. All three are Black men who offer themselves as anchors in their support of main characters. He notes how the former “hold the community together and have so much composure” and how the latter “was fixing everybody’s everything and always offering his aphorisms or colloquialisms to help aid.” He juxtaposes the stoicism of the deacon with the excitability of those around him. The congregation may shout or cut a step, and the preacher may peacock a bit to animate the sermon; release can often look like entropy to the untrained eye. But it is the deacon who remains steady, tending to those who need support like a shepherd to his flock. Having spent his past few projects engaged in a kind of emotional exorcism, this is the space serpent wanted to inhabit.

“There’s a sense of composure, how self-possessed they are. How if brother Jimmy has been out of church because he had surgery, the deacons are going to go see him. If there’s a little kid who has issues with tutoring, the deacon is going to go see that person,” he says. “Their generosity, being abundant but also never going above a level six, not raising their voice — I was interested in: What is that energy, and how can I put that into sonic form for myself? How do I borrow some of that calm? How do I harness some of that breeze and put it into my world?”

R&B became the solution. Contrary to popular old-school opinion, he sees it not as a genre bound by a specific set of rules and limitations but as a framework — a prism, a way of seeing and being. “When we think about the rain, we make that joke of singing in the rain and ripping your tank top. That is looking at the world through an R&B lens, weather through an R&B lens.” But DEACON’s take is free of the histrionics of heartbreak in an era when the most popular records traffic in the variety of ways relationships can exist in disarray. It’s also explicit about loving Black men — by an artist who himself is a Black man — even as the genre, like society, remains slow to decenter heteronormative romance as the standard.

Even his choice in collaborators suggests a manner of creating that is unbound to music industry infrastructure. On paper, there’s worlds between the production duo Take a Daytrip (responsible for Sheck Wes’s riotous “Mo Bamba” and Lil Nas X’s buoyant “Panini”) and serpent. Yet on “Sailors’ Superstition,” they find a middle ground that forges new territory for them all. Similarly, his appearances on last year’s Ty Dolla $ign and Ellie Goulding albums were in equal service of their respective song’s visions and in furtherance of his own. His presence on any song, no matter the style, doesn’t maraud the space but rather facilitates its expansion. The tenuous lines between indie and mainstream, or between any combination of genres, blur. He shows up in the room of every track confident of what he’ll bring to it.

He says that now, in his 30s, platonic love has helped to teach him self-love by way of friends who have made space for him by making space for themselves. That’s how a song like “Fellowship,” the album’s radiant closer, comes to be. “When I was a teenager, I remember not knowing if I was ever going to be able to be honest about who I am. Am I ever going to be able to not wear this mask?” he recalls. “I knew how not to say too much, not to do too much. I knew how to hide. I was really good at it, but there is a very particular kind of dance you have to do, and I just wasn’t interested in that anymore.”

Humans have a habit of making prisons of things intended to free them: religion, genre, identity, love. None of that feels true of serpentwithfeet, who treats would-be barriers like bridges. He spent the earlier parts of his career trying to learn how to “give [him]self permission” to express himself honestly. Aging and relocation allowed him the grace to do it. “Living here, laughing a lot — making time to laugh — all those things bled into this project,” he reflects. “I feel like I’m taking lower deeper breaths now.”

Remaking R&B in Serpentwithfeet’s Image