Music

Anna Wise: How Kendrick Lamar’s Favorite Backup Singer Is Making Her Voice Heard

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Like 99.9 percent of Americans, Anna Wise first heard the Kendrick Lamar track “PRIDE” when the Compton-bred rapper surprised fans with the unannounced drop of DAMN last month. The difference is that Anna Wise wrote the thing. A 27-year-old, Brooklyn-based singer, Wise had been collaborating with Lamar since the rapper’s commercial breakthrough over five years ago. But when it came to DAMN, their schedules didn’t seem to jibe. “Every time he was in New York I was out of town, and vice versa for Kendrick when I was in Los Angeles,” says Wise. “I was not involved in the process [with DAMN] like I was with To Pimp a Butterfly or good kid, m.A.A.d city or untitled unmastered. This time I knew nothing at all.”

Wise got her break in 2011, when a rising Lamar discovered her singing with Sonnymoon, her atmospheric r&b duo with Dane Orr, via YouTube. Before she knew it, Wise was singing on “Real,” from good kid, m.A.A.d city, Lamar’s rapturously received breakout LP, and then on every subsequent record he has made, including 2015’s “These Walls,” which won a Grammy for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration. But with Kendrick’s DAMN sessions in the can, it looked as though the streak was coming to an end. Or at least that’s what Wise thought until she heard “PRIDE,” which she wrote with fellow Kendrick collaborator Steve Lacy last year. “I didn’t know if my song was gonna be on it,” Wise says. “It was all a big fun mystery.”

If she was caught off guard, Wise had a good excuse. When DAMN debuted, she was occupied with a project of her own, editing the video for the feminist empowerment anthem “Stacking That Paper,” off her February album, The Feminine: Act II. The video stars Mercy Wise, Anna’s sister, a trans woman who moved to New York nine months ago and became a fetish wrestler. In the clip, Mercy trains, lifts weights, writhes around in American currency, and, yes, triumphantly defeats opponents in a basement wrestling match backlit by ultraviolet LED screens. By choosing to highlight how Mercy thrives rather than how she struggles, every aspect of “Paper” is a triumphant fuck-you to a political environment even more horrifying than usual for the marginalized.

“I feel like every day I am learning about some new problem,” says Wise.
“It seems like, especially with white women, we choose the cause of feminism and then we ignore the people who need it, the people who need to be uplifted. Trans people, people of color.”

You can count on one hand the number of Grammy winners with a positive portrayal of sex work in their oeuvre. But on The Feminine — a solo project she began writing in 2012 — Wise’s freewheeling humanism and guileless melodic sense only make her politics more biting and direct. “I am writing about ‘the feminine’ right now, but that’s not where my focus is completely,” adds Wise. “I’m trying to work in all the causes I’m aware of.”

Of course, between the release of The Feminine: Act I last fall and this spring’s Act II, a certain Cheeto-tinged kleptocrat took office, changing the political calculus of the whole project. Where Act I was “a more visceral response to misogyny and the patriarchy,” on Act II Wise sought to create “an emotional atmosphere for anyone
facing the pressures of marginalization to just fit in and feel comfortable. Something where people could more just lose themselves in the music.” So the opener, “Coconuts,” has a swelling, fluid feel, and funky highlight “Some Mistakes” (as in “I don’t mind making some mistakes/When I know it’s all for the best”) bears a things-happen-for-a-reason message similar to — of all things — Garth Brooks’s “Unanswered Prayers.”

“I’m working on one more shorter project and one very long project right now,” says Wise, who just set out on a string of dates across the country in support of Act II. “I realized that a shorter project is very good for when you’re on the train to get to wherever you’re going. But when we were on tour, I really want that hour-and-a-half-long album to play, to get me through that however many miles it is. A road trip album. Short projects are very city. Long projects are very country.”

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