Words landing well
Oregon-based Landon Wordswell raps under radar
Before he settled on the stage name Landon Wordswell and moved to the West Coast, Anthony Short was a teenage “battle rapper” based in St. Louis performing under the name Youngs. As Wordswell acknowledged during a recent interview in downtown Chico (also attended by his backing guitarist Tim Hoke), the largely improvised and insult-focused exercise of battle-rapping and the discipline of writing songs each involve entirely different approaches.
“My friend in Chicago said, ‘You should write more, because battle rappers tend to unlearn how to write—battle rappers don’t make good songs,’” Wordswell said. While on-air during a Chicago-area radio show, the same friend urged him to adopt a new moniker, because “Youngs was vague.”
“So, he’s like, ‘Look, man, you just land on words really well. Then he said, ‘Landon Wordswell,’ and that was it.”
Since the ensuing name change, Wordswell has relocated to Eugene, Ore., recruited a full-time touring back-up musician in Hoke, released an album and a mixtape (The Mourning After Pill, and Fountain of Youth II, respectively) via Cult Classic Records, toured Europe, and shared a stage with Gift of Gab of Blackalicious.
And though Wordswell, now 25, remains well below the radar of the national hip-hop scene, touring has provided an opportunity to hone his stage act by figuring out what evokes strong audience responses and incorporating those elements when writing new material. Along the way, he has purposely avoided what has become commonplace during hip-hop performances—rapping alongside a pre-recorded vocal track.
“Entertaining people is a craft; it’s an art,” he said. “I can adjust my voice and bring it to a certain level in order to get the desired response. If [other rappers] don’t do it right, it makes me upset, because it takes a lot of work.
“I failed a lot when I started performing, but I got back on the horse.”
Perhaps the best introduction to his artful, self-contemplative flows, often laid over dreamy instrumental tracks, is the single “Land on Words Well” (featuring DJ FlipFlop) from Fountain of Youth II. The track immediately takes off with: “He wakes up in the morning with the sun as his alarm/ and every day’s a little different because he’s living in the moment” and proceeds to provide a quick (and I mean quick) overview of his first steps in the hip-hop world: “Got into the zone, stopped rockin’ his phone/ started touring all the time, leaving problems at home/ home, home, where the heart is and his soul is alone.”
On “Can’t Change Alone” (featuring Sammy Faze), another standout track (originally recorded when he was 19) on Fountain of Youth II, Wordswell said he drew inspiration from three personal—yet very different—sources: A crumbling relationship with his girlfriend, a desire for companionship on his looming international tour, and a drinking problem that had begun to interfere with his family life. In his verses, Wordswell makes no distinction between the three issues, alluding to them all at once. It’s an ambiguous writing style that leaves the listener with an impression of someone looking for support (“I can’t change alone”), which the rapper seems to be doing within the song itself: “I zone out with my songs and my microphone … I need this microphone.”
“When I was younger, I would go through something significant and I would write,” Wordswell said of his early songs. “Now that I’m older, I’ve started noticing that from a different person’s perspective, [the songs make] no sense.”
Though it wasn’t intentional, the ambiguity and confusion in “Can’t Change Alone” makes the subject matter universally identifiable, evoking emotions a world away from that of gaudy and empty mainstream rap. And thanks to a sparse, head-nodding backdrop and an ultra-catchy “I can’t change alone” refrain sung by Faze, the track is an ear-worm.
Wordswell and Hoke will begin recording their next album this fall, with plans for release by the end of the year. Though Hoke has served only as Wordswell’s stage accompaniment thus far, he will arrange and perform all of the new album’s instrumental work.
“For this next album, [Cult Classic Records] has put a lot of money and promotion into it,” Wordswell said, adding that he and Hoke have plenty of emotional investment tied to the project as well.
“It makes me nervous. If it fails, it’s like, ‘Well, shit.’”