A chat with Lex The Lexicon Artist about her new album Alter Ego, branching into influential anime, the state of being a Chinese-American artist during the COVID-19/coronavirus pandemic, and also deez nuts. A version of this interview originally appeared at Melancholyball.
Dom/NOC: Hi there. Please introduce yourself, for those who may be unfamiliar or would confuse you with the Superman antagonist!
Lex: I’m LEX the Lexicon Artist. I make cerebral pop-rap for nerds. I actually got my name from a former boss who nicknamed me after Lex Luthor, saying that I had his personality.
What would you really like the nerds to know about your imminent album Alter Ego?
This album is dense, which makes it perfect for nerds, especially word nerds. I encourage you to spend time with it like you would a book, and relate the concepts I explore back to your own life or your favorite TV shows and movies.
One track I really enjoy, and relate to, is “Infosession.” The chorus is catchy and also riffs on the language one is likely to hear in those situations. Do you care to add context about the infosession or the Asian women making up its audience? Do you think racial identity informs the kind of existential reflection one might take away from such sessions?
“Infosession” is a story rooted in reality. It’s a conglomerated average of many career fairs and infosessions I’ve attended over the years while at UC Berkeley, for every kind of company from non-profits to startups to management consulting firms. The lyrics are a fictionalized account of what versions of me might have been thinking sitting in a chair at each of those fairs.
The lines about Asian women were included to make a comment on the bamboo ceiling. Asians are underrepresented in upper management in many industries, such as law and engineering. It’s reinforced by the model minority myth, which typecasts Asians as diligent workers, but not creative or assertive enough for a leadership role; this in turn can prevent them from climbing the ranks.
The narrator’s observation that the infosession room is predominantly Asian women, who face both bamboo and glass ceilings, is a cynical one that wonders how many of them will ever achieve the great heights the presenter is promising them, and whether they’re sacrificing their own dreams to buy into this way of life. The narrator’s view of these prospective employees isn’t positive; in fact, it’s quite condescending and is reflective of her disillusionment with cultural ideals, which she projects negatively onto these people she doesn’t even know. The narrator is unreliable and in the context of the album, she has only started on the path of being jaded. She still believes all people should be like her, so that’s why she can’t relate to those women, and assumes they’re throwing their lives away, when in fact, she’s the one who isn’t sure what to do with her life. Career anxiety stemming from cultural expectations is definitely a driving force in this track.
Couple more cool tracks: “Alter Ego” and “Augmented” both seem built around science-fictionish tropes, i.e. “cloning” and “becoming Wolverine,” at the risk of essentializing. “Now I can finally I U Deez Nuts” is a great refrain, in the infinite-interpretation kind of way, I opine. What’s the thought process on these songs, particularly as they relate to your personal favorite nerd texts/fandoms/genres?
As the title track, “Alter Ego” is kind of the album boiled down to its essence, its root idea: that multiple sides of a person can come together to form a walking contradiction. Going from there, I split that topic down further into two hypotheticals: The first verse asks, “Is there a real me?” to which the answer is “probably not, they’re all real, but some mes may feel more authentic to me than others.” I reference a interesting concept suggested by Neil Patrick Harris’s character in Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog:
Penny: Sometimes people are layered like that. There’s something totally different underneath than what’s on the surface.
Dr. Horrible: And sometimes there’s a third, even deeper level, and that one is the same as the top surface one. Like with pie.
So the layer of identity that I put out everywhere for people to see IS actually the one that’s closest to the deepest, most authentic me, although there are different layers that live in between.
The second verse asks: “If there are multiple mes, what would happen if I separated them?” Specifically I imagined a scenario where I was able to clone myself and endow it with the sentience of one of my egos. What kinds of moral implications are involved? What if I asked her to live a life I didn’t want to live? It’s a similar question to the one Rick and Morty asks in the episode “The ABCs of Beth,” where Beth is given a choice to be her true self, while her clone fulfills her motherly duties for her. Is that ethical? Would Beth or her kids even know the difference? We never find out, and Beth starts to question if she IS the clone. Rick, who suggested the idea, never answers clearly. Well, if Beth IS a clone, would she be upset to learn of her purpose? I imagine she’d react like the Butter Robot.
The entirety of “Augmented” was inspired from the phrase “I U Deez Nuts.” Literally, one day I was just like, “Hmm….I U Deez Nuts.” What does it mean? No one knows.
This song is a relic of the first idea that I had for the album, which was a concept album about a human gradually becoming a cyborg by adding more and more augmentations. I scrapped that, because I couldn’t expand on it, but I intended for it to be a reversal of what Robin Williams’s character goes through in the movie Bicentennial Man. “Augmented” is the first step a fully organic human takes to control and augment their biological functions, by getting a mechanical implant. It’s obviously a pro-birth control anthem that conjures up dystopian images of a Handmaid’s Tale-esque world where reproductive rights are taken away by the government. “Hear their cry as their White Throne is occupied by a tyrant,” is a reference to Trump’s presidency and the fear of what his administration could do to Roe v Wade. And the whole fantastical reimagination of a doctor’s visit as a futuristic nightmare takes after a peer’s song that reimagines riding the subway as a D&D side quest.
As I understand it, anime is a big thing for you. Which songs on Alter Ego are most meant to find their way to an anime OST? What shows or characters influence your artistic approach in terms of mood or lyrics?
I can see “All The Time” in a time travel anime like Steins;Gate, “Famous” for a Perfect Blue-esque idol anime, or maybe “The Real Thing” on a pastoral Japanese train ride in a moody drama. Party Hop might make a good anime opening. I definitely have plans for a novelization of the album, which by some miracle could become its own manga or anime.
Mood-wise, I was inspired by the anime Death Parade, which is a short and somber contemplation of the afterlife. Its opening theme is very upbeat but contrasts most of the show, which is very introspective and philosophical. I wanted to recreate that deceptive effect by releasing the very sanguine “Party Hop” as the first single. Also, the Death Parade color palette is mostly violets and purples, which imparts a melancholy tone to the series. Using color-sound synesthesia, I took after that palette for many of the songs: The Redesign is mauve, Infosession is more of a lavender, Party Hop is lilac, Famous is indigo, and Disappointment is magenta.
Lyrically, it’s partially influenced by the big-picture themes explored in the manga/anime Mob Psycho 100: the search for meaning in life, the desire to feel special, the importance of community, the pettiness of egocentrism, the neuroses of romance, and, of course, the surface identity versus the true inner self. That show and this album also have parallels in their psychedelic overtones, which likely has something to do with how ONE and I came to similar conclusions. MP100 is one of the most emotionally mature anime I’ve ever watched. It really changed my values.
A couple of direct references to anime: Death Note in “Question”, and Steins;Gate in “Retcon Artist.” The line in “Question” is just a hashtag rap bar, but I think it’s pretty clever: “I’ve been smoking all the Ls, Light Yagami.”
A lot of guest contributors on this album, would you like to comment about the collaborations?
Every collaborator fit their role perfectly! Here are some notables:
Schaffer really brought out the good in Alter Ego. My favorite thing about his verse was that he spends 16 bars not saying anything personal about himself. His thesis is, “You’ll never know the true me,” but a 16-bar emotional wall is more revealing than anything. It took the song from okay to great.
Chris Songco is crazy multi-talented, we’ve been great friends for years, and I love working with him on stuff because we have a lot of creative similarities. He made me the beat for “Famous” as a birthday gift, and it’s hardly changed from its first draft because he nailed the sound I was looking for. “Disappointment” is also a great example of how he kills it on beatmaking, songwriting, singing, AND rapping.
Working with Klopfenpop on “Party Hop” was a blast because he’s such a detail-oriented producer and knows worlds about instruments, obscure sound effects and foley, and all kinds of audio magic. A basic songwriter’s demo from me turned into a full-fledged bop with him playing most instruments and looping in D&D Sluggers for lead guitar and vocals. It was such a satisfying process and I feel like he brought out the best of the songwriting in both “Party Hop” and “Artist Anthem.”
Mikal kHill executed the moody production on “Self Care” to make it even more depressing. He contributed a lot to the particularly dark notes of the album. He played all of the guitar and bass for “Retcon Artist,” which was a track I was super unsure about, that turned out really effective because of the instrumentation.
I have to give a shoutout to Cecil of Nocore Music, who mixed and mastered the album, and Doug of Sweet Tea Studio, who tracked the vocals. They both did a lot more than that behind the scenes, including giving directions and suggestions, and sometimes augmenting the beats by adding new elements.
One word. “Narcissism.” What comes to mind?
Sadly and depressingly, it’s Donald’s leathery orange face. But I also think of people who will never in their lives admit that they are wrong about something. Who will always blame someone else for their mistakes. Which includes but isn’t limited to Donald.
Do you have thoughts about the COVID-19/coronavirus pandemic, as an artist who both performs live and also makes stuff that can be enjoyed in total seclusion? Have you noted incidents of prejudice against Chinese and Asian people, related to the unprecedented postponements of everything?
I have tons of thoughts! This is affecting my year (and everyone else’s) more than I could’ve ever imagined.
I was in Taiwan in January and things had just started popping off in China. People in Asia were worried but the West seemed to have this invincibility complex, seemingly believing it would never get to them. So I started feeling the effects of virus-related stress earlier than most Americans. But flash forward to today, and Taiwan has one of the lowest case counts out of any country. Hell, it would be safer to be in Taipei than in New York right now. At the time I’m writing this, things are changing by the day. Businesses are shut down. All public gatherings are cancelled. Most people are under self-isolation. I’m 7 days in. All my live shows are cancelled. I miss performing live, because it’s the part I enjoy the most. And I’m sad I’m losing the momentum and opportunity to promote this album in a live context. But I am still glad that the internet offers me a way to connect to the world, and that this recorded album is something people can enjoy in the safety of their homes. I actually think people may find comfort in hearing their anxious thoughts reflected through the album in this uncertain time.
Yeah, it’s hard to watch Trump scapegoating Asians by calling it “Chinese Virus.” That’s the part I hate most. It’s obviously intentional, it’s a dogwhistle, he denies that it’s racist but it absolutely is and will incite hate. Violent hate crimes and physical assault towards Asians are already happening. I do kind of fear for my safety once we are allowed to go outdoors. But I feel hopeful that most people are not mind-numbingly dumb Fox News bigots. I still think most people see that racism against Asians is wrong. We all need to speak out against it.
I’m not sure about the festivals; this will be a really trying time for the entire industry I work in, not just the artists, but also the promoters and supporting staff in bars, venues, and festival grounds. Live performance is the main way indie artists (and signed artists) make money, and this could change that landscape forever; we have no idea how to predict what will happen next. I find solace in the fact that I’m not going through it alone. My favorite artists are suffering too, but we’ll get through this.
If you wanted to retcon any part of this interview to elaborate on a thing, which you absitively get to do, what would it be?
I wish I knew more about Wolverine so I could see how he’d I U Deez Nuts.