The master of everything (and nothing at all)
Esquire
November 2002
v138 i5 p156(4)
Wil S. Hylton

You are something like nothing else. That has always been clear not least of all to yourself. When you look in the mirror, you see huge blue saucer eyes, empty and blinking on a wide-open face, a flat face almost without eyebrows. You see soft, downy cheeks and bulbous, crimson, just-punched lips. In the morning, at the black upright piano in your dining room, by the seven-foot windows overlooking L.A.'s inky Silver Lake reservoir, you hunch over the keys and blink, and your big lips smirk at the rising sun. You smirk because you have played all night. You have played the night into day. You have always been able to play away time. You are thirty-two years old now, but you could pass for half that. 

You stand and stare out the window. You are alone in your jeans. Your skeleton shoulders and bony chest make a ghostly silhouette in the new light. Your waist is smaller than some men's biceps. You are the size of a teenage girl without breasts. Your hair is an unruly knot of yellow (you call it a "Jewfro"), and your stump of a chin slides down your narrowing neck into the collar of your too-tight T-shirt. Your body cants forward, knobby knees akimbo. Your dangling arms are thin and crooked with too many elbows. Your hands are almost larger than your head. You have Frisbee palms and pipe-cleaner fingers that are gnarled from playing. Your skin is spotty and splotchy and red from no sleep. The music has come and gone. 

The music has always traveled in unpredictable orbits around you. You play what you hear, not the other way around. You play because it's there and because you can. Because in silence, you hear sound. Notes and lyrics tumble into your mind like memories. When they come, you open your head and receive them. You do not think about what the words mean. You just say what you see. What you see is true. What you see is somehow you. "Neptune's lips taste like fermented wine / Perfumed blokes on the Ginza line / Running buck wild like a concubine / Whose mother never had held her hand / Brief encounters in Mercedes-Benz / Wearing hepatitis contact lens / Bed and breakfast getaway weekends / with Sports Illustrated moms." 

You wrote that. You have written some of everything. You have written country music and indie rock. You have done hip-hop and R&B. You have danced across stages in a cowboy hat and tassels, with your thin white arms and legs wriggling in breakdance. You have crooned love ballads and shouted punk anthems. You have no genre. You have gained a mastery of everything, yet you are the master of nothing. The last song on your last album, a soaring falsetto funk called "Debra," could have been made by Prince if Prince had a sense of humor. Your sense of humor is evolving. It is important to you. It is elusive, though. You have been accused of being ironic. You have doubts about that. To you, the word ironic has wrong implications. It suggests that you are poking fun at other artists and genres. You are not. You are having fun. There is a difference. 

When things began, you had less fun. That was your fault. You had an obsession with detail that dragged you toward the sell-serious. You were consumed by the first album, Mellow Gold. Every song had to be essential and distinct. You wanted desperately to show your range. You included an indie rock groove called "Blackhole," but you also tossed ha a busted old blues sound on "Whiskeyclone, Hotel City" and an industrial-punk mix on "Sweet Sunshine." You rapped on "Loser." You flaunted your versatility like a gold tooth. You played the instruments, produced the album yourself, and recorded it in your friends' houses. You were obsessed. The weight of the thing was oppressive. 

But that was a decade ago, and things are different now. Now your career is reinforced by three Grammys, and the success brings out something playful in you. The last album was a show of that. It was a flex of your creative license. Because you had snatched up two Grammys with the 1996 album Odelay, another for the soft-channeling Mutations in 1998, and by 1999 critics had begun to swoon and write your future for you. They said your music was becoming more refined with each album, less experimental and inaccessible, more personal and intimate. They predicted that you were just one album away from the slow, delicate masterpiece that would define you. And hearing that, you wanted to smack somebody. You knew that you were going in no such linear direction. In fact, what you really wanted to do at the time, what struck you best personally and intimately at the moment, was the need to blow off some steam and get in the studio and just have fun. And so you did that instead of making another slow, delicate album. You made a funky album with horns mad cymbals and your voice in soprano, and you  called the whole thing Midnite Vultures. The critics didn't know what to make of that. Many of your fans didn't, either. Nobody called that album intimate, but you knew that it was. It was all about abandoning the expectations of others. What could be more intimate than that? 

And now, perhaps to throw them off again, you have returned to the slow, delicate sound of Mutations. But more so. This time, you have built on it. This time, it's even softer and more pacific, almost a translucent sound. And the critics are calling it intimate again. You don't protest. You smile. You understand. They missed it last time; they will miss it now. 

You were raised to understand that critics miss the essential things. They missed your grandfather entirely, and his work was seminal. Look around you. Look at your house. His art is everywhere, collages of busty, nude women. The shapes are rough but evocative, made of things like Hershey's candy-bar wrappers. Your grandfather was a fan of the Hershey company because it did not advertise much. He used its wrappers often in his collages. It was his trademark. His other trademark was pushing pianos off rooftops. He did that often, too. He called it performance art. He called it "Yoko Ono Piano Drop." Yoko Ono was his friend. So was Lou Reed. So was Andy Warhol. Your grandfather found Warhol after the shooting. People at Warhol's Factory embraced and understood your grandfather, but most other people didn't. When he finally found a gallery that appreciated him, in Germany in the 1980s, he moved to Cologne and lived there until he died in 1995. But he left his mark behind on you. Your music is your collage. You have pasted together a spectrum of sounds. 

His work on your walls is an homage, from your art to his. His collages are just about the only things on your walls. They are just about the only noticeable things in your home. Everything else is stark and scabby and impersonal. There is very little sign that anyone lives there, let alone someone like you. There is a plain olive-green sofa adrift on the hardwood floor of your living room, and there is an orange easy chair squatting alone nearby, with a small blue shag carpet in between. There is temporary shelving by the window, with books and records on it--books like the collected illustrations of George Grosz, and records like Stevie Wonder's Innervisions. There is a big white refrigerator with a picture of a typewriter stuck to the front; leftover platters of vegetables are inside. There is a 
breakfast nook and a worn tile bathroom with old-fashioned, semifunctional faucetry. There is very little stuff to show for your success. 

You do not have a fancy stereo, and you do not use the stereo that you have. You play your Al Green and your Rolling Stones albums not on vinyl but on your Mac laptop, trickling through small plastic speakers. You are not concerned with high-fidelity sound. You are, in fact, unconcerned with it. This lack of concern is deliberate and thought-out. It is the result of a petit epiphany you experienced while waiting for a stage to be set a few years ago. The construction workers on the job were jamming to a small, shabby radio with shitty speakers, and you noticed that they did not mind or even notice the crackle and fuzz. Something crystallized for you in that. You realized that sound quality is a luxury that rarely  surfaces in real life. You realized that in real life, music usually arrives through a filter of ambient noise. Maybe a faucet is running. Maybe you're in the car, or on a busy street. Maybe the music is droning through the walls of your neighbor's apartment. It doesn't matter what kind of interference you get--just that there will be interference most of the time, something between your ears and the speakers to annul the precision of the recording. It was then that you came up with the Other Room Test. Before you can release a new album, you have to give it the ORT: play it on a boom box and listen from another room, letting the sound enter your ears sideways and distorted. Lately, you have been playing the new album that way. You like the new album that way. The new album sounds like the desert. It's dry and dusty, and it crackles with the tension of emptiness. It has no name yet, but that will come. You are still waiting for the right words, the right picture to enter your mind. You are culling it, calling for it, but so far, no luck. You have considered Golden Years. That's the name of a song on the album. But you have a thing about eponymous songs and albums. The thing is that you don't like them. And so you're stuck. The tour starts in a few weeks. You'll need a name by then. 

By then, you will have packed up your laptop (with all your music inside) and your instruments and your clothes and your copies of the new album, and you will have traveled to Seattle for the first show in your two-man acoustic tour. The clothes, especially, will be important. You are going to be a folk singer for a while. And so you will leave behind the sequined, urban cowboy getups and giant sunglasses that you wore during the funk-album period, and you will have flannel shirts and jeans with you instead. You will wear low-top Converse sneakers. You have many pairs of Converse sneakers now in many different colors. You have enough scarves to fill a duffel bag. You have T-shirts ,and bracelets and watches. You are ready fur the next thing. You are ready to travel. You are ready to leave the empty house and the collages of naked women, ready to walk away from the black upright piano and step outside unto the winding street of your evolving image. You are ready for the next sea change.