Seated among plaques of Madonna, Janet Jackson, and Lil Wayne at Noble Studios in Harlem, the Charlotte-born rapper Mavi tells me about how a chance encounter with Zora Neale Hurston’s You Don’t Know Us Negroes helped change the direction of his life. Earlier this year, he read her essay about High John de Conquerer, often depicted in folklore as a prince turned enslaved person with a glass-half-full sense of humor on his plantation. “He was the personification of laughter on the plantation and amusement at the expense of the slave master,” the 23-year-old rapper explains. “Invoking his spirit meant an analgesic: How laughter stops you from hurting so bad, and also made things that were difficult or were painful seem less enduring.” The character would provide the spark for some of the first lines on Mavi’s aptly titled new album Laughing so Hard, it Hurts. Intro “High John” features the couplet: “Praying they still make love in my size / Sober up and wipe the crust out my eyes.”
Mavi was in need of a balm in the time leading up to the album. He was grieving the loss of his uncle, as well as other family members who’d recently passed. His promising rap career was at a lull after Shango, his would-be sophomore album, got bogged down in red tape never to see the light of day. And he’s spent much of the time settling into an apartment in D.C. with his girlfriend as the couple grapples with the decision to terminate a pregnancy. “I don’t think neither one of us really wanted to do it, but we just kind of assumed we had to do it and we couldn’t tell nobody that’s what we was doing.” He says they still haven’t told their families about it. “I’m ashamed still. It’s not something I would ever see my father doing. My parents had me when they were pretty young.”
The moment epitomized a stage of life where Mavi found himself doing things that he’d once sworn he’d never do. “I realized that growing older, it’s becoming more human every single year through your extremes and through your experiences,” he says. “I’m grateful that I survived all of these lessons that have made me have to interpret the events of my life differently. [It’s] not so much that I maintain an even keel, I got rid of an unrealistic expectation to maintain an even keel or to walk above choppy waters all the time. I just feel everything as it’s meant to be felt. And when you do it, it releases you quicker.”
Born Omavi Minder, Mavi started rapping at age 14 during his freshman year of high school in North Charlotte, honing his craft as a member of the local rap collective Killswitch. He dropped his Beacon and No Roses mixtapes in 2016 and 2017 respectively, a time period where he said “I kept making progress [as a rapper] until the question came up that was like ‘does it make sense to continue doing anything else?’”
Fans of 2019’s breakout Let The Sun Talk, and 2021’s END OF THE EARTH EP are grateful that he made the decision to continue rapping. “Self Love,” a standout from Let The Sun Talk, illustrates Mavi’s breadth of skill. He gently trots along a warm soul sample with enough melody to entice, but not so much to divert from wisdom like, “soul weighted, don’t mistake expatiations for some sadness / strong face, a long race, I’m unafraid to come in last.” In just two bars he’s simultaneously a shrewd technician and a beacon of humility, defying his then-20 years of age.
He carries those gifts over to Laughing so Hard, it Hurts, with a tighter focus on diaristic writing while eschewing double meaning for bare honesty. “One of the things I added to my game for this album in specific was the power of simplification and brevity and straightforwardness,” he says. “I lost some fear along the way of what it would mean for me to say truly how I feel straightforward, unequivocally.”
In late 2019 Mavi linked with Alchemist through their mutual friend Earl Sweatshirt during his first trip to Los Angeles. The producer’s “rap camp” studio is the first place he visited after landing in L.A., where he spent “three or four days” in the studio with Earl and Alchemist “thuggin’ and ordering DoorDash” while staying up all night and listening to rappers like MOP and Roc Marciano.
“He was training me up for real,” Mavi recalls of his time with the legendary producer. “And one night I just turned to that nigga, I was like, ‘Bro, I love to rap.’ And then I had got sleepy and I fell asleep in the chair,” he recalls. Two days later, Alchemist confided that Mavi’s unprovoked affirmation let him know that he would be “the one.” In October of last year, the two dropped “Miracle Baby,” a track from Alchemist’s This Thing Of Ours EP compilation series.
Still, Mavi found himself smacked back into reality when he flew back to attend his last year at Howard University, 10 days after the spring semester began. Mavi, a neuroscience major, missed his chance to enroll in classes. “I tried to go to the advisor like, ‘hey, I know, but I’m a rap nigga. I’m positive. I be saying good stuff about Howard, this, that.’ It was not going,” he recalls. His rap career was on the upswing, but college was on hold. So far, Mavi’s rise has had its share of similar extremes. He was invited as an opener alongside Babyface Ray on Jack Harlow’s Creme De La Creme tour, which he says the Louisville, Kentucky rapper told him was an attempt to channel the energy of the Club Paradise tour, where Drake invited then-upstarts Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky on tour. But while on the road Mavi received news of his uncle’s passing.
Along with grieving his loss, he began to feel the weight of expectations for his sophomore album. “That shit makes you feel really small because the whole point of the tour is for your music and everybody’s like, ‘you can’t get another tour if you don’t have an album,’” he says. ”That’s what everybody was telling me, so I felt a lot of external pressure to make an album.” In 2020, he announced that Shango would be his next album, which he had crafted during the height of the post-George Floyd and Breonna Taylor uprisings. “I wrote it in the midst of a state of unrest and instability. And I was coming into my 21st year at the same time. So it was a very angry, aggressive, volatile, and masculine album.”
Shango was in the final stages of production with a cover, a track list, and merch already complete, but then Mavi ran into a series of snags, including sample clearance issues that ultimately kept the album from being released. During our conversation, he gestures to a pile of black Shango sweatshirts sitting in a box in his studio. Shirts that could have been shipped all over the world are instead a mountainous reminder of what could have been. “One day people will hear [Shango],” he resolves. “Whatever way I can get it for people to hear it, they’ll hear it. It’s really good music.”
He calls Laughing so Hard, it Hurts a “sister album” to Shango, except with a “distinguishably more feminine” vibe. Over the course of 16-tracks, produced by indie producers Dylvinci, Monte Booker, and Wulf Morpheus, listeners are enveloped in his search for solace amid cruelly abrupt endings. “I had bad experiences with drugs,” he admits. “I promised myself I wouldn’t let none of my family members do that and it ended up happening to a few of my family members. [It’s also a reflection on] letting elders pass without having the full transparent conversation…it’s about me accepting that the forces that govern everybody’s life govern my life. And them bitches could throw me around like it could throw anybody else around.”
When Mavi first caught the spark to write what would eventually become the final product, he describes having an overflow of emotions, becoming so focused on the thoughts spilling out of his mind that he wrote many of the songs in quick succession, without any production. During such sessions, he’d memorize his flows and record them on voice memos until he eventually found the right beats to record over. “Most songs that I write in my career [are written without beats], especially Let the Sun Talk and END OF THE EARTH. Because I be really inspired when it’s time to write.”
Mavi shows that even if we can’t make sense of the world, we can make sense of how we reconcile with it. “I’ll try as little as possible to sell the myth of my own exceptionalism because selling the myth of your own exceptionalism is low-key like an ego defense,” he says. “It prevents anybody from trying to be you. I want everybody to try to be me. I want everybody to try to follow their dreams like how I follow my dreams without hurting nobody, without taking from nobody, without harming nobody.”