words • Jake Krez
video • Joseph Lu
Twelve hours before the release of his first project, #MeloDramatics, Chicago rapper MFN Melo couldn’t be more chill.
“Honestly, I was more nervous two weeks before the project came out,” the Lawndale native said as he settled into a chair in a west loop music studio last Sunday. “Now I just want to get it out to people and see the reactions.”
If anything, the 28-year-old member of the city’s well-known PIVOT Gang collective lives up to his name, exuding a distinctly laid-back vibe in just about any room he enters. While cool on the outside, he’s dealt with a lot while approaching his debut full-length. When it comes to first albums or early projects the word growth is often tossed around. Crafting a thoughtful full-length, especially today, is a journey for any artist that is sure to reveal some new thought and ideas along the way. For MFN Melo though, his initial offering is a somewhat off-the-cuff collection that finds him comfortably settling into himself on record.
To be sure, he couldn’t be in better company for such an experience. He’s taken notes as close friends Saba and Joseph Chilliams crept into the limelight of the city and beyond over the last couple of years. For anyone familiar with the music the collective has become known for though, it’s the perfect periphery for someone approaching their first foray into a full-length. This is because the fellow Austin natives represent a sort of inclusive, relatable, if less-assured realism that has come to characterize their nook of the bountiful Chicago Renaissance. Whereas Saba emerged as a shy kid trying to break out of his shell via raps on 2013’s GETComfortable and the following summer’s breakthrough, ComfortZone, his cousin, Chilliams, bided his time, emerging as an endlessly secure, multifaceted artist able to tackle wide-ranging subject matter on this year’s debut, Henry Church. Both have made distinct waves with their initial projects, rejecting the modern-day cliche of dropping projects haphazardly in favor of fully-involved pieces of work. For his part, Melo falls somewhere between the two Pivot members who have preceded him. Saba has been known for tightly-wound themes on his albums, Chilliams similarly, but with a distinct punchiness to his rhymes. Melo meanwhile, true to his name, is letting his flow.
“I don’t really have a thick theme, I’m not a thick-themer,” he said laughing. “I just let shit happen, that’s kind of how the project has taken so long, because I let things happen. I may be in my head about it a little bit, but I’m not going to hound the situation or put out music or an album just to say I did it.”
While he may be consciously eschewing obvious thematics that have served his comrades, his debut follows a sort of inner narrative that’s manifested itself within Melo over the course of the last few years.
“I think the name describes it pretty well, Melodramatics, its an actual play on the word. I am extremely mellow, to a fault sometimes but if you hang around me long enough I’ll get dramatic on you. I like that word, I just found it in the dictionary like four or five years ago and I just wrote it out and been going with that theme ever since then,” he explained.“It’s evolved since then as I have. A lot of things change with music, with my place within the music, and with my place within life.”
Having released a steady stream of singles and collaborations with a long list of local artists and producers, Melo is far from a new name around Chicago. Having released enough work to build a solid reputation across the city, fans have long been waiting for a proper collection. While it’s finally here, it didn’t come without being able to lean on those around while exploring the different routes to do so.
“When stuff got to points where I was like ‘what am I doing right now, where do I go from here’ or ‘I’ve reached a dry spell, how do I get out of this, what is next’. And they’ve never really had the exact answer, but just talking to them, being able to talk to someone who’s going through this or been through this is hella helpful. I’m grateful for them in the position that I’ve been put in,” said Melo, reminiscing on the years-long lead-up. “ I’ve made it mostly with Sab, he produced about 90% of the project, I recorded most of it in his basement. So a lot of the process he was there for. He chimed in when he felt right but he also just let me do my thing. He wasn’t looking at it as ‘I do this, I did this, you should do it like this’. He was more like ‘what do you think? I’ll give you my opinion but what do you think?’ I appreciate that.”
The years leading up to MeloDramatics unveiling offered MFN Melo with plenty to adjust and deal with. In 2015 he began taking care of his newborn nephew, a task he admittedly was less than prepared for, but which served as a necessary learning experience. This year, as he was preparing to gear up for the release of the project again, his close friend and fellow PIVOT member John Walt was murdered in a stabbing on the near west side of the city after an argument on the Green Line. The confluence of life and death over the course of the project’s creation seem to serve as a backdrop for the sort of important realizations he’s encountered throughout that time, and the music reflects those lessons to a degree.
“My momma took that on herself but she workin so she basically took that up on myself (laughs). I was with it, well I wasn’t at first I’m not gonna lie, at first I was like man c’mon I have a whole life, things are gearing up and life is moving. I’ve always been able to keep myself out of trouble but can you make sure this person grows up properly, it’s a task. I wasn’t ready for that at all at first. Over time though, we’ve grown together.”
Walt’s passing in February of this year was a shock both for his cousins, Saba and Chilliams as well close friends like Melo, resident DJ Squeak and the who city’s scene as a whole. On November 25, the group of close friends verging on familial ties hosts ‘John Walt Day’ at House of Blues with proceeds going towards the newly-established John Walt Foundation which brings resources to Chicago students pursuing a variety of artistic endeavors. While his passing certainly hit Melo and the rest in a significant way, it also allowed them to realize the love the city had for their music and the appreciation they had for their fallen friend and relative that served to push them forward with a renewed vigor.
“Just people sharing their stories about him, seeing all the lives he affected, knowing it wasn’t just us going through this pain, that shit was tremendous for all of us,” said Melo. “Naturally we were in a really dark place and were trying to stay to each other but even being around each other we could tell we were off in the distance. But that all really helped just seeing all the love and appreciation that he had garnered, knowing that it wasn’t just us, so that we could get through this with people.I don’t feel like I’m out as much as I’d like to be because I’m still dealing with that and sometimes I just don’t need to be around people and want to chill by myself. But knowing other people are really there for you helps, it helps to get you out of that funk and I really appreciate that.”
At a memorial service in his honor a couple weeks after his passing, one of Walt’s aunts stood up from her folding chair at Young Chicago Authors in Wicker Park. With the PIVOT contingent standing in the front of the shoulder-to-shoulder room, she looked at them with an intensity, delivering an enthusiastic, if sombering message: “John loved you all and loved what you all do. With him gone, y’all need to make this happen, you all got to make it for him and we’re all here behind you, make us proud.” Nodding back with tears welling in their eyes, the teammates took note of the sentiment.
“He just affected all of us a lot. In our lives outside of music Walt was one of my closest friends. But me and Walt was real close and we had a lot of similarities in music and in life so that was one of my best friends and Joe and Sab, that’s their cousin, Squeak and Walt was like best friends too, we were all close. So you feel obligated to make it. Not even just that, just knowing the work he was putting in and what he was trying to do, we’d be petty to do anything else but strive at an all time high right now.”
Heading into the last few months of 2017, no one can say that PIVOT hasn’t held of their end of the bargain since that somber February evening. In the time since, Saba has emerged as one of the most-recognized acts this side of Chance, Joseph released his critically-acclaimed debut full-length, Henry Church and, with the unveiling of MeloDramatics, Melo has taken the first steps to proving he belongs in the same conversation as his longtime friends.
“It’s a process, it’s taught me a lot about life let alone music, just knowing that you have to keep working, it’ll all pan out eventually. Just keep your head down, keep working,” said MFN Melo. “It seemed like I was doing everything but working on it but that time was good, that time allowed me to evaluate a lot. So just knowing that the process is very important. I’m going to look back on that and always feel very appreciative of the headaches I’ve gained through that because I know that I shouldn’t have had a headache, just gotta keep going.”