Our guest writer Cy had a long talk with Korean-American hip-hop artist FLANNEL ALBERT about his musical journey, being an artist, the struggles of belonging, gender, labels, hip-hop music, and more. Get to know the artist and the man in this in-depth interview.
Albert Joo, who goes by the stage name FLANNEL ALBERT (a subtle nod to Odd Future lyricist Earl Sweatshirt), is quite an interesting and complex figure. Outwardly he portrays himself as someone you could party with, someone you’d want to just chill and have drinks with, perhaps watch Bojack Horseman while eating fries and drinking Angry Orchard. As far as introductions go, he presented much of the same:
“My name’s FLANNEL ALBERT. I guess you could call me a hip-hop artist. I rap, I produce, I sing. I live here in New York. I’m originally from Portland, OR. I’m Korean-American. I spent a little time in high school in Korea. Now I’m making music over here on the East Coast.”
Simple. Honest. Albert presents himself as someone very sure of who he is. Much of that confidence manifests in the way he makes his music and visualizes it in front of a camera. His latest single, “aok,” is testament to that. He’s credited as director of the video, a fact that he actually didn’t fully realize until Director of Photography and Editor Zach Han (“Shout out to Zach Han The Don,” he proclaims) told him as much.
“He was the dude behind the camera, and he was helping out with everything, but in the end he was like, ‘Well, you were the one who was on set. You were the one directing everyone to where they were supposed to be.’ He gave me a lot of creative control, which I’m thankful for.”
Despite that initial hesitancy, despite not being 100 percent certain of the title, Albert isn’t shy about his direction. “I had a vision in place with two of the guys from WH9LE (pronounced “Whole Nine”), Brad (Wastler) and Amara (Onyewuchi). We kinda sat down, we were writing this thing, and then I fine-tuned it. Then based on what was going on during the shoot, I kind of spearheaded everything and made sure everything was in the right place at the right time.”
“aok” is one of those songs that creeps up on you in terms of intent and focus. Even the opening notes are reminiscent of classic NES Legend of Zelda games. The music video plays into that deceptive cheerfulness, our protagonist coming on screen in a Charlie Brown-inspired shirt—which he admits he got the day before Halloween. However, as would become more apparent as we continued our conversation, there’s always something deeper, something thicker emotionally lurking beneath the surface of his songs.
Albert is incredibly honest. One just has to dig a little bit to see what he’s talking about. His video played into that notion. There’s certainly a lot going on: drinking, girls, his homeboys. But narrow your focus a bit. Pay attention to the man at the center of it all. There’s a deep sense of isolation, of a man attempting to work out within himself, even surrounded by all the madness, where he belongs in the grander scheme. Albert has much on his mind, a struggle with both sides of himself to figure out exactly who he is and where he belongs.
It surprises him that I recognize that struggle. “Holy shit! That’s crazy. You hit it right on the head.” But his lyrics have purpose. Though there’s a layer of playfulness, if one simply listens she can decipher much of the fight within. “When I write lyrics,” he goes on to explain, “especially with the more autobiographical songs, I don’t do it always with the notion of knowing that everyone’s going to know what I’m talking about. It is very personal for me.”
“Kindred spirits,” I believe is what they call it. Any introvert who’s ever had to suffer through a party in an attempt to keep probing questions out of their ear knows the feeling of isolation, when all you want is a moment to yourself to figure out if this is really where you want to be, where you should be. It’s a common theme throughout Albert’s music, this desire to find out where one fits.
“Basically [the song]’s really a conversation I have with myself a lot. Who I should be within the hip-hop or music community versus who I am. A lot of times I find myself worrying too much about sounding a certain way or acting a certain way and trying to fit this hip-hop mold, I guess. And it’s just been something that I’ve struggled with, and still to an extent struggle with. But then when the chorus hits,” he continues, his tone brightening just as the coda comes in the song itself, “it’s like we’re gonna make this music, we’re gonna make this money our way, and things are gonna turn out okay as long as we stay true to who we are.
“So very much so, that was the intention with the video as well, especially in that last verse. We really make that isolation apparent. It’s very obvious with the video. That’s not to say that I don’t like having fun or I don’t like all the girls and the friendships and things I’ve made through hip-hop. But it just goes back to me being an introspective person and staying grounded in why I’m doing this shit in the first place.”
Even already having a bit of a rapport with him (he reached out to me on Twitter one day to give a listen to his music; I’ve been bugging him ever since), Albert knows that his music, his art is meant to have an impact.
“That’s why we do it, right?” he says. “To connect with people. That’s why I do music: to hopefully reach somebody who feels the same way.”
Albert’s music is constantly playing on that idea of duality, challenging listeners to accept and embrace both sides of someone’s personality. “I feel like that describes me as a person,” he says. “Usually I don’t take stuff in life too seriously. But music is definitely something I take serious. I think anybody, regardless of how easygoing they are, they want to be taken seriously as a person in some aspect. With music. I kind of find that outlet. Sometimes I act really easygoing. but sometimes you get pushed around when you’re like that. So music’s that outlet for me. [“aok”] kind of represents that. It sounds happy and it sounds kind of lighthearted, but there is a lot of substance in what I’m trying to say.
“It’s a feeling I always have,” he says when talking about the type of internal conflict that inspired a song like “aok.” ”I think I’m just getting better and better at understanding it and putting it into words.”
Then he presents a song like “Savant” that reveals another facet to this multidimensional man. The song is penetrating, dark. There’s a noticeable and unsubtle griminess to the song, an aspect he first attributes to the song’s producer, Mister Bradley. But again, he makes it clear, there’s so much more to him than wide smiles and Charlie Brown shirts. “I always think of myself as a versatile artist. I don’t want to get bogged down with just one vibe or one sound. I just wanted to write something that you can identify with, something dark and grimy. If you look at the lyrics there are similarities to ‘aok.’ It’s about being underestimated, how I’m on the come-up, and just to be taken seriously basically at the end of it.
“I think that everybody has that aggressive side of them,” he admits. “I’m a happy-go-lucky, goofy person, but you have a side of you that is aggressive and wants to say certain things and get certain things out. I think with a lot of music these days in some artists they just put out one certain vibe. They always sound happy, or they always sound sad, and when they go out of that comfort zone and try to sound different people will say that’s not their style, like, ‘That’s not your vibe. Stick to your lane.’ But humans are complex: I have sad days, I have angry, days, I have happy days. Why shouldn’t I be able to express that through different forms of music? Why can’t the beat be angry-sounding? Why can’t it be grimy-sounding? So that was my take on [‘Savant’]. I can do this, and I can sound really good doing it.”
That understanding of the complexity of human nature has followed Albert throughout his life. His musical journey is typical, in terms of the type of immersion one gets growing up in a Korean-American household. Most of the Korean artists I’ve interviewed have had to follow the same path through classical training. Albert, too, is a classically trained pianist, an aspect of his musical personality he tries to imbue his music with.
“My dad was a guitarist, so he liked Eric Clapton and rock bands, which influenced me in other ways.”
Just as complex as he is as a person, so was his journey to hip-hop.
“I b-boy’d in high school,” he says, and we pause to gush over memories of Battle of the Year and the two biggest crews, Phaze T (France) and Gamblerz (Korea). “When I went to Korea I went to an international school called KIS (Korea International School), and my best friends happened to all break. So naturally I got into it, and I was really into the music. You have a lot of old-school rap like Run DMC, Black Sheep, Big Daddy Kane. But you also had the soul like James Brown. On top of that when I went to college I was in an a cappella group, and we sang a lot of Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson …. So that was kind of where it all came from.”
To add another layer to his musical journey, his first foray into the industry was when he spent that time in Korea. The year was 2008, and he was just in his sophomore year of high school. Between his studies and working on his b-boy skills with his friends, he wrote his first EP, 2011’s “I Can Be Serious Sometimes.” It’s not uncommon for Korean-American artists to go to Korea and stay, opting to grind it out in their native country, then ease themselves back into the Western market. If the success of Jay Park is any indication, it’s a plan that’s yielded great results.
But Albert has always set his sights outside that market, refusing to allow himself to get boxed into the label of “Korean rapper” that’s sort of taken on a life of its own in South Korea. “My ultimate goal is to be the first Korean-American artist that is worldwide. In my old Tinder bio it used to say, ‘Trying to be the Korean Drake.’ It’s funny,” he says, “but it’s true. I want to be at that level. I know Jay Park got signed to Roc Nation, and that’s an awesome first step, but I wouldn’t be lying if I said I wanted to get there first,” he admits, his chuckle wholly unrepentant as he does so. “I want to be the first one with that track record of proven success.”
Amid all this, his tenure as an indie artist in Korea, his classical training, there was always hip-hop.
“Even way before that, when I first got into hip-hop I was just a big Kanye head in terms of the beats. I loved those sped-up soul samples, and that’s what got me into hip-hop and what I’ll always be in love with.”
This journey to and through hip-hop is apparent in a song like “The Get Down.” He makes use of the Kanye-produced Lil Wayne song “Let the Beat Build,” which samples Eddie Kendricks’ classic “Day by Day.” I’m always just shocked when anyone not black, to be honest, has an affinity for music from that era of ’70s funk and soul, music I grew up around myself.
“Since I was young I’ve always wanted to rap to that beat, so that was kind of my opportunity. I came up with that line, ‘FLANNEL ALBERT on a Wayne classic. Avoiding L’s like an Asian accent.’ That’s what made me make the song. I just thought that line is so dope, and the song kind of wrote itself from there.”
We talk throughout our conversation about the complexity of humans, about how we’re all different. But even in our differences, there are aspects of us that are the same. That similarity is never more apparent than that aforementioned introduction to music through the classical. The leap from Tchaikovsky to Kanye, however, is more quantum than hop, skip, and jump. Many tout the unique style of it, the “edginess” of hip-hop’s look that first fascinated these classically trained artists. A valid point, but for Albert, the transition was a little less straightforward.
“One of my favorite movies of all time because it’s so music-driven is School of Rock. There was that Asian kid (Lawrence) who played piano, and he didn’t think he was cool, but Jack Black was like, ‘Dude, you are cool.’ Then he started playing rock piano. I was in a church band at the time, worship band, and I had a friend who was like, ‘You can play too. You can do it.’ And that’s how I slowly got into playing popular music. I first started as a singer-songwriter, did a lot of singing of pop songs. Then I think what really got me into hip-hop was the lyricism of it. Just how clever you could be fascinated me. I think even if I didn’t have a musical background the sheer wordplay and expressiveness of the words would’ve got me anyway.”
Again, we come back to the one truth that pervades the interview: People are complex. Albert takes a moment to acknowledge the roots of hip-hop, what it means culturally and just how important that history is. “[Hip-hop] comes from a place where people are marginalized and feel like they don’t have a voice. That’s the whole point of it, to let them have a voice. I definitely identify with that as well. It goes back to the whole ‘people don’t take me seriously enough.’ So it was kind of those three things: the jump from classical music to popular music through School of Rock, the lyricism and how creative you can be with your expressions, and just using it as a voice that I previously didn’t think I had.
“I’m definitely one to say regardless of how far you deviate from the initial style of what hip-hop sounded like you should never forget where hip-hop came from and what it stands for. I think that’s always important, and it’s always important to champion that ideal when you’re writing hip-hop music.”
His depth fascinates me. There’s certainly a man with great wisdom nestled within this rapper. He thinks very deeply, not just about himself, but how everything around him affects and molds him into who he is. Indeed, just as his veritable musical inspiration, Kanye West, Albert’s one who really delves deeper into the soul of hip-hop. It also shapes much of his own production. Adding to the classical training, there’s always something of the melodic in his brand of hip-hop, something we’re getting back to sonically in the genre.
“I’m one of those guys where I like everything. It’s not just the music. It’s also lyrically. I can just find things that I like about everything. But I think what drives me to the melodic side is because I started out doing the singer-songwriter thing, I’ve always just liked melody. For a while when I first started rapping, I was scared to incorporate those melodies. That’s kind of what I talk about in ‘aok.’ There’s a line: ‘I need to cut back on the singing so they call me “hood.”’ Like if I wanna be a hip-hop artist, I can’t sing. That’s something I used to say to myself, which is completely ridiculous now, but I thought I had to sound a certain way.
“But people have sort of paved the way for me, and it’s like, ‘This is okay.’ It was Kanye with 808s & Heartbreak, when they started doing the singing, I was like, ‘Oh shit! I don’t have to be scared of who I am or where my musical backgrounds are from.’ That was the best of both worlds. I could put in the melodies that I learned as a ‘pop artist,’ and set them to the lyrics that were so personally expressive to me. That’s just who I am, and the reason why I make a lot of melodic hip-hop is because now I’m not afraid to be myself as an artist. I think it’s really starting to shape my sound.”
It’s an interesting thing to admit openly, the fear of adding melody and beauty to one’s sound. It brings up a topic that very few are wont to explore: the issue of toxic masculinity. It’s something that’s a bit pervasive in my culture, and also has left its mark in many aspects of hip-hop. Though Albert does take care to weave his messages in meticulously, if one pays attention, they can hear the question, the niggling voice in the back of Albert’s mind telling him not to do certain things. There’s no mistaking the subtlety, but even in subtext there’s a noticeable battle: ‘Should I cross this line? Is it hip-hop enough?’ which can translate into: ‘Is this manly enough?’
“It’s something I think about a lot and put into a lot of songs I haven’t released,” he says.
“I’ve always been on the shorter side, I’ve always been a smaller kid. I think that was part of me wanting that voice. That’s why I chose hip-hop. Not necessarily because it was aggressive, but at least how and where I grew up, it was seen as manly. And I thought maybe people will take me seriously, and that’s part of the reason why I started rapping. I haven’t really studied up on where [the misogyny] comes from, but I think there is always this element of braggadocio in rapping and in hip-hop, even in other forms of hip-hop, like b-boy battling. It’s like I’m proving my worth over this other person. I think sometimes that naturally gravitates toward ‘I’m more manly than you, I am more of a man than you,’ and that automatically connects to what society’s perceived notion of masculinity is. And a lot of times it can be misogyny unfortunately.
“I’m lucky to have been educated and told otherwise, that being a man is really just being yourself, being a considerate person, caring about others. It’s still possible to be confident in yourself, and you can do it without putting other people down and obviously putting an entire gender down. That’s where it comes from.”
He pauses for a moment, gauging the conversation and where to take it next. In that heartbeat it’s as if he comes to a solid decision. He’s going to reveal something about himself, and the fact that he’s not afraid to do so endears him to me just that much more. “Something I probably haven’t told anybody,” he says, another second of hesitation as he digs for a memory. “Before I did the music thing I actually had a YouTube channel while I was in Korea. Sometimes I would post stuff me of singing, but other times I would just post stuff of me just trying to be funny.
“I had a video, I was probably a sophomore or junior in high school. It was like ‘Why are guys in Korean boy bands so effeminate? Why are they so girly?’ I was like ‘There’s a problem with that.’ I was trying to poke fun at it. And all these K-pop fans were actually really generous and nice about explaining to me that, ‘Hey, there’s a different view of masculinity in this different culture.’
“When they said that it made me think, ‘Oh my god. This is what I’ve been struggling with. My whole life I haven’t felt like a man by Western standards, but that’s just those standards.’ That was very eye-opening for me: Just because something doesn’t fit your standard of masculinity doesn’t meant that it’s wrong. And I think and hope that that worldview becomes more common as hip-hop goes on.”
Another layer, another brushstroke to add to the already multifaceted landscape of this man. These are all parts of his artistry, these deeper elements where he opens himself up, allowing listeners to hear how he puzzles himself out of those bits of insecurity that still linger around the edges. Albert’s desire to approach his music earnestly, without trying to preach about certain toxic aspects of society is what gives his music, his very persona so much depth. Yes, he addresses hypermasculinity, one’s insecurities with himself. But he does so not to make a point, but to better understand himself, and perhaps to find a way to heal some wounds left over from those earlier days of doubting himself.
“I’m talking about this stuff because it’s something I’ve struggled with. It’s just me getting those things out, and hopefully somebody else has something to say about it and we can have a discourse about it.”
It goes back to that dichotomy of self, two sides of the proverbial same coin. Even in title, ‘YEAH, no.’ makes a bold statement—at once being enthusiastic about everything, but then sinking down in oneself when the adrenaline fades. Though it’s not something he can initially pinpoint (“I feel like you’re my psychiatrist now,” he jokes), he does reach within to unpack certain moments of being let down even in times of triumph.
“Part of it could be just having Korean parents. Obviously they wanted the best for me, and in their eyes that’s having a good job, having a stable future. I remember in college, I was an econ[omics] and music double major. I decided to write my thesis in composition. I spent all this time writing these pieces. I’d put a lot of work into them, and I thought they sounded really good. I thought that when my mom came to watch like okay, maybe she’ll see this and be like, ‘Hey, I think you should pursue music.’ Maybe that would be my ticket to finally get that approval.
“It didn’t really work out that way. She was like, ‘Okay, you’ve done your music. Now let’s focus on law school, let’s focus on getting your life back on track.’ That was really hurtful for me. My mom and I have had conversations about it since then, and I know that it comes from a good place. But sometimes it’s hard to be really enthusiastic and passionate and sure about something and have your family not really involved in it. I know that’s not something that’s only specific to me. I know it happens with anybody who’s trying to pursue their art or their passion, and I know a lot of people who pursue their art and passion don’t really have family around in other aspects of their life. So I do feel blessed. But I think that has encouraged me to work harder because I know just enthusiasm and showing that, ‘Hey, I wanna do music’ isn’t enough. I’ve gotta show those results on paper, and hopefully my parents or anybody else will see that I am taking it seriously.”
It’s a sentiment that’s pervasive within almost every medium of the artist community: acceptance from the ones we care about the most. Having conversations with another artist (Bobby Choy, known as Big Phony), the question comes up: ‘Why do we do it? How do we keep going?’ The long and short of it is: ‘What else are we going to do? What else is going to call to us the way our craft does?’
Albert agrees. “That really is part of it. I mean, I do want to make a living off of this obviously in the end. Ideally I want the mansion and wanna be going on tour and all that, but ultimately it is always …. There’s nothing else that gets me. I said it before in an Insta[gram] story: Making a good song or hearing good music can change the course of your day. There’s nothing quite like it, and that’s why I do what I do. The fact that I can connect to people through my music and the fact that people fuck with it, are genuinely listening to it, that’s an added bonus. And there’s just so much music does for me I can’t really ever stop.”
It just won’t let you go. So what do you tell someone aspiring to be an artist? Since art has been a thing, and since there have been people around to give their opinions about it, humans have always had the urge to create … something. To put magic into the world. But the reality is, it can be a depressing business. Speaking from someone who has had to struggle with acceptance (from others, and of self), what advice do you give them?
“I have two answers. First: don’t just say you wanna do it. You gotta put in the work. This is what’s worked for me, and not everybody has to work this way. It differs from artist to artist. But I had to manage both the artist side of me and the business side of me. That means doing the shit like emailing people that run Spotify playlists. That’s one thing my 9-to-5 job taught me, how to email people and how to network with people. It’s simple stuff like planning my Instagram posts so I have a steady stream of content. Every waking moment, music and who I am, I’m planning it. It’s always on my mind not just the music. It’s almost psychotic. It’s always in the back of my mind. And you gotta commit that much time to it, because that’s how you get people to respond to you. People aren’t gonna care about your music if they don’t know how to get to it. I can write the best song in the world, but if I’m not actively trying to shop it around nobody’s gonna hear it.
“When people talk about how hard it is, I think people automatically assume the hard part is writing good music and writing good stuff. No. The hard part is all the other shit that comes with it because that’s the discouraging, boring part.
“The less blunt thing is you’re gonna go through highs and lows. I just got out of a totally shitty writer’s block about a week ago. After a while you know that when you’re in a lull you’re eventually gonna get out of it again. It just cycles. But don’t scare yourself too much when you feel like you’re in a lull. Take some time. Go take a walk. Go watch a TV show. Do something to get your mind off things. And live the rest of your life like you’re allowed to do that once in a while.”
The future is bright for this artist, this young man who is so determined to make his art mean something. I take Albert Joo as someone who while giving much of himself to music and to the public, he’s unravelling the tightest knots of himself to discover more of who he is underneath. While fans can look forward to more collaborations, more great music, and more shows outside of New York, more pertinent on the horizon are more brushstrokes, more lines of poetry and hip-hop (always hip-hop) to flesh out this portrait of a Korean man. FLANNEL ALBERT is one complex facet of this rapper. You’ll have to turn the page to find out more about Albert Joo, the man.
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About the Writer: Cy is a digital journalist and blog writer specializing in reviews of music and film across a broad range of genres. Wherever there’s electricity, food and a good Wi-fi connection is where she makes her home. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.