Midwest Neverland is a breakthrough.
Not exclusively in the artistic sense – like when an album crosses genres and breaks through the listeners’ preconceived notions. Instead, this project illustrates Willis’s personal and emotional breakthrough in real-time.
Lyrical content aside, the actual mixing and production of this project is phenomenal. Each track is as playable as the one before it – an essential piece of any cohesive album in the age of curated shuffle playlists. As I’ll always say, this marks the continued growth for the artist-of-all-trades. Yes, today’s Soundcloud culture breeds universal independence of all art forms; however, Willis’s ability to write, record, produce, mix, and master his own projects is unmatched by many other musicians of the same latitude.
Mostly created in a Chicago bedroom, the album represents Willis’s coming of age. At the height of its creation, Willis was recovering from a tough breakup – both with his girl and with the hometown that he often dreams about in his early tracks. In fact, while in Chicago Willis originally created another unreleased album – Kill Them All. He’ll be the first to tell you – “that album was super angry and dark. I was channeling my sadness into an angry place.” Midwest Neverland is Willis’s opportunity to cope with his own issues head on, while also rejoicing in his ability to recoup from one of his darkest moments.
As Willis so simply puts it, “The writing process wasn’t any different from before, but the sounds were inspired by completely different sets of emotions. I was going to therapy while I created this album and it made me more emotionally intelligent.” I love that he’s able to associate his “emotional intelligence” with his ability to create an artistic masterpiece. It presumes that once you accept and love your vulnerability, the creative juices are able to flow more freely.
In the rapper’s previous projects, standout tracks like The Misfit highlighted Willis’s struggle to advance in his own city despite his success with listeners elsewhere. The city that made him somehow forgot about him. Nonetheless, in the intro track to Midwest Neverland, Will proudly touts that he’s “more than just a misfit.”Within the first 30 seconds of the album, he’s establishing that the previous Will is no longer here. When The Fire Starts is the final moment in which Willis destroys any ounce of resentfulness for missed opportunities and reignites his hopeful confidence as an artist.
I was going to therapy while I created this album and it made me more emotionally intelligent.
On Armor, the listener is a fly on the wall as the optimistic and more self-aware Willis argues with his past bitterness. The track is a musical representation of many artists’ constant battle between masculinity and perfect honesty in artistry. The back-and-forth is a hip-hop concept that dates back to the early days of rap, but is only properly executed by those with a deep enough understanding of their own vulnerability in lyricism.
Then you have Half Alive – a catchy, bass-heavy single that could easily transform into a mainstream radio hit. On a deeper level, this song is an ode to Willis’s struggle between staying positive, and falling into the pits of depression that he experienced in the early writing days of the project. The Sirius Blvck feature was a no-brainer – another Midwest-bred rapper with a rhyming cadence unique of today’s class of musicians. “I made the beat for that one in Chicago, then I laid the hook. I was trying to find a song to add Sirius Blvck and that one fit. Once I started putting out positive energy and became more collaborative, everything changed for me. It’s not just about music, it’s about relationships.”
Willis’s opportunity to thrive in the Midwest creative scene isn’t solely based on his talent. If it was, he’d be bigger by now. It’s also driven by collaboration. “I dropped my sense of competition and realized that everyone in this community is a piece of the ecosystem. My energy has changed and now I’m taking time to share ideas, shake hands, and thrive with everyone else.”
It’s not just about music, it’s about relationships.
There’s enough ambiguity throughout the project that you’re not 100% sure whether this tough breakup was with a person or with Willis’s own connection to his hometown of Indianapolis. Neverland alludes to a physical relationship; however, there are moments where hard feelings of being the Misfit in District 9 can apply.
This is purposeful.
“I consider making albums like making movies. I’m obsessed with film – I love Christopher Nolan, the guy who created Inception. I want my music to allow you to decide the meaning for yourself. I want it to be just ambiguous enough for you to make your own meaning – but it leaves it at a point where you’re not quite comfortable. There’s still things to solve for. You think you’re listening to an album about one thing, and then you get to the outro track and it makes you rethink everything!”
The best part about Willis’s ignition into the spotlight is its relevance to the masses. Anyone can relate to the messages shared in Midwest Neverland – whether dark, challenging, or uplifting.
Midwest Neverland is an emotional breakthrough. But not just for the man behind the songwriting.
All photos were taken by James Oakland.
Listen to Midwest Neverland on all streaming platforms, including Apple Music and Spotify.
Watch the official visual for When The Fire Starts.