A Minnesota winter, an acoustic guitar and a piano do not form the typical setting to create a groundbreaking hip-hop album. But 10 years ago, a rabbi's two sons gathered some friends and some Miles Davis LPs to do just that. Alopecia, the second album by underground hip-hop/indie rock band Why?, celebrated its decade anniversary this year. And as so, they're touring the US, performing their equal-parts danceable and depressive flagship recording.
Alopecia serves as the sarcastic yet sentimental journal of Why? frontman Yoni Wolf set to tape. The tracks deal with all manner of his experiences circa 2008: losing money in a shell game, pondering suicide, throwing up behind Whole Foods, falling in love and breaking up, etc. What makes the album special is Wolf's lyrical wit combined with decidedly non-hip-hop instrumentation.
"I remember making the demos and listening to them on my Walkman while walking around Oakland, thinking 'Oh yeah, I really like these,'" Wolf said. "But when we were actually recording the album, I was nervous that we weren't getting good stuff."
Wolf said his brother and bandmate, Josiah, had to reassure him the music they were recording was worthwhile.
"So no, I didn't think I'd be doing a 10-year anniversary tour for the album." Wolf said.
Despite the quirky humor, nearly every song on the album deals with grief, loss or death, including lines like: "We lifted the body from the water like a gown," "Faking suicide for applause in the food courts of malls," and "Even though I haven't seen you in years, yours is a funeral I'd fly to from anywhere."
Wolf says he is now in a better place than when he wrote the lyrics for Alopecia, and as so, performing the songs live aren't as difficult as they once were.
"It's not at risk of making me spiral back down," Wolf said. "Five years ago it might have happened, but there's enough distance now."
Even with the dark and anxious lyrics, Alopecia takes a humorous view of many of life's difficulties, and even contains some outright gorgeous passages about love: "I'm lucky to be under the same sky that held the exhale from your first breath / Like a ring on a pillow of clouds" or "You're the only proper noun I need." However, Wolf says the person he wrote these love songs about has since moved from his life.
"We still care deeply about each other," Wolf said. "In fact, I'm gonna see her later on this tour. We're still friends, just not every-day friends."
That same style of personal observations Wolf has sung about on-stage for over a decade now. But even then, he isn't tired of singing them.
"It's a little weird," Wolf said, "But this tour is a celebration of a piece of work, after all. It's a throwback to a different time and a different place and a different me."
Alopecia is filled with introspection. The talk-rapping could be awkward, but Wolf wields his voice and insights powerfully, and manages to make it fit. The jangly pianos, indie rock drums and crystal-clear rap-observations make Why? sound unlike any other band out there. The album received acclaim upon release, and in the ten years since, some albums have even followed in its style, no matter how deliberately obscure.
"It's weird for me to say, but yeah, I've heard some things influenced from what I've done." Wolf said. "But that's how all art works. I've had some artists come up to me and tell me my work influenced them. Then they went off and got famous, and I stay in my own little half-famous world. But that's how it is, and at least I was part of the fabric."