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Musician Johan Lenox debuts symphonically inspired pop album 'WDYWTBWYGU'

Johan Lenox (Courtesy of the artist)
Johan Lenox (Courtesy of the artist)

“No One Gets Me.” “F--- This Town.” “Don’t Be A Loser.” The song titles on Johan Lenox’s debut pop album “WDYWTBWYGU” (out May 13), an acronym of “What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up,” read like journal entries in a high school notebook. “So don’t wait for me/ If I never grow up,” he urges on the poignant album closer “Don’t Wait For Me,” his honeyed, auto-tuned pleas sinking in a brew of 808s and warbled string samples. As the song draws to a close, it becomes saturated in a layer of distortion, the music swallowed up in a chasm, like taking a lit match to a ripped out page from a diary and watching it curl into a flame.

“The whole album is about trying to figure out how to make sense of adulthood,” he tells me on a facetime call from his sunny backyard in Los Angeles. “It’s trying to figure out if all the confusion and depression and anxiety is always a part of growing up.”

Such a rich and nuanced theme is an ideal storyboard for the multifaceted producer. Though “WDYWTBWYGU” is labeled as Lenox’s debut, his work within the industry dates back to the mid-2010s where he found a niche role orchestrating string and vocal arrangements for pop and hip-hop artists, a line of work that would eventually compile an impressive rap sheet of collaborations that includes Finneas, Machine Gun Kelly, Teyana Taylor and Kanye West. Peppered across the album’s 15 tracks are a healthy smattering of orchestral passages and candid voice memos, both aiding his adolescent narrative with a dramatic edge.

The origins of Lenox’s symphonic studies begin at a number of classical music institutions in New England — Winchester Community Music School, Yale, The Tanglewood Music Center (the latter of which is in Lenox, Massachusetts, where he took his stage last name from; you can probably guess where his first name comes from) — where he was without distraction, fully immersed in the world of classical music. It wasn’t until a mind-altering experience with a hip-hop classic that Lenox even wanted to be in that realm, let alone become a pop star.

“Seeing the reaction to [Kanye West’s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’], seeing that people were actively excited about that album, made me think that if Kanye wanted to just write symphonies at this point in his career, people would probably follow him there,” he says. Referencing both West’s “MBDTF” and his 2013 album “Yeezus,” and Travis Scott’s “Astroworld,” Lenox explains how these opuses share an ideology with classical music: The compositions aren’t beholden to set song structures, and the albums play as one large piece with recurring motifs. Lenox’s album proudly presents an anecdotal, cinematic likeness to his influences, West undoubtedly looming largest of all.

Lenox makes these comparisons without hesitation, and it’s because he’s spent the majority of his career — and life — working his way up through various classical music spheres since childhood. His first life-altering experience in music as a kid growing up in the Boston suburb of Winchester was the John Williams score to “Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade.” His parents would take him to see the Boston Pops when John Williams would be a guest conductor at Symphony Hall. “Instead of being exposed to a lot of MTV or some s---, I was going to the symphony,” he says, almost reverently. “Those were the people that looked like rock stars to me.”

Such reverence spurred a critically lauded project co-curated by Lenox in 2016 called “Yeethoven,” a series of live orchestra events in New York and Los Angeles that interwove and compared the work of Kanye West and Beethoven. The Los Angeles Times called it “especially engaging,” and its success opened many doors for his career as a hip-hop orchestrator; Vic Mensa and Kevin George were a few early collaborators.

Somehow, Lenox’s solo music sounds like a culmination of everything he’s ever created, every mashup and collaboration — Beethoven and Kanye West, arrangements for children’s choirs and Ty Dolla $ign. Listening to his previous EPs and production projects in a row is like watching someone train for a championship game, each release flexing a new muscle, each song improving on the weaknesses of the last. While string arrangements are second nature at this point, hip-hop and pop production are a relatively new skill, his singing an even newer skill within that context. “I’m really just someone who tries stuff and puts it out,” he says. “I’ve never been someone who guards my stuff secretly until it’s ready, because it’s never really ready.”

“WDYWTBWYGU” feels as ready as it will ever be. Fully embracing the ennui of adolescence, Lenox arrives fully realized on his debut — his doubt, insecurity, selfishness and apathy shamelessly on display and begging for analysis. On album highlight “You Up?,” the tiptoeing of staccato cellos and sweeping violins beckon Lenox’s sheepish, mumbled refrain, a guest verse from singer Ant Clemons countering the emotional validation Lenox seeks in his hook. In fact, throughout a number of features on the album — one notable verse belongs to Boston’s own Cousin Stizz on “Phases” — Lenox positions his contributors as a counterpoint to his own perspective, giving each song a juicy layer of depth.

“I really wanted to prove with this album that I could write and produce a pop album with big pop songs on it,” he says, and what he’s achieved is that and more. In a world where pop music runs like an oligarchy, where ghostwriters and producers are paid big money to keep things formulaic, Lenox’s abilities and pop identity are a welcome subversive presence; there is an immense power for those who are just as comfortable mapping out Steve Reich movements as they are producing beats for Big Sean.

Ultimately, Lenox is on a vision quest: “I’ve been interested in figuring out ways for classical music to be a force in American pop culture; this is the thing I’m really after in my life,” he says resolutely. It’s fair to say he’s already turned the dial a notch.

Related:

Charley Ruddell Twitter Music Writer
Charley Ruddell is a freelance music critic and contributor for WBUR.

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