On a crisp and cool evening on Nov. 5, Chicagoans were glued to their TVs and social media, counting votes with their chosen journalists in anticipation of Joe Biden becoming the President-elect of the United States. 

Meanwhile, in the Pilsen neighborhood, R&B singer theMIND lounged in his lush backyard garden oasis, escaping the craziness of the times to reflect on his new upcoming album Don’t Let It Go To Your Head. The sounds of 90s East Coast gangster rap blared from his neighbor’s windows as the sun set. He lit a couple of candles to brighten the garden table as we discussed the state of Chicago R&B.

theMIND, born Zarif Wilder, exists at a time when Chicago’s R&B isn’t attracting the same widespread attention as it did in the 1990s and 2000s. Hometown stars such as Jeremih, Jamila Woods and BJ The Chicago Kid each picked up the torch of the city’s storied legacy from the era of Donell Jones, Syleena Johnson, Jennifer Hudson, Carl Thomas and disgraced R&B icon R. Kelly. 

But unlike Chicago’s thriving hip-hop scene, which allows multiple rappers from various subgenres to be popular at the same time, R&B is pigeonholed. Today, fewer singers are able to break out into the mainstream, and there’s minimal R&B coverage from music journalism outlets. There are a couple of reasons for that, theMIND says. The first being that rappers tend to solely collaborate with the most popular singer of the time rather than build sounds organically.

“I think everything is rooted [in] being the ‘now’ name,” theMIND, 31, explains. “Who’s THAT guy right now versus what I try to do, which is to pick voices and textures.”  And his textures are what’s so unique about his best collaborations. theMIND uses his voice as a supporting instrument to bring out or match the emotion of the instrumentals, whether it’s the pain in his voice on Jamila Woods’s “Sun Ra” (2019) or the dreary vibes of G Herbo’s “Remember” (2015).

theMIND lounging in Pilsen his backyard on Nov. 5, 2020. Photo by ANF Chicago // The TRiiBE

Secondly, theMIND says, R&B on a national scale isn’t as digestible as hip-hop by the mainstream masses, which tend to be white audiences and white music journalists, due to its context. 

Since the days of slavery, Black Americans created melodies, harmonies, and rhymes laced with metaphors and language to deliver messages of encouragement, warning, freedom and pain to their peers. This tradition has been a part of Black music from the folk song “Follow The Drinking Gourd” to the late King Von’s “Crazy Story” in 2019.

“And with R&B and hip-hop, we have lingo that only we get. It’s supposed to be like that. It’s not for you,” theMIND says. “If someone is from the outside looking in, and they’re trying to fully understand it, [they] can’t unless [they] understand the history of why I’m doing what I’m doing.”

theMIND’s been working hard to show the full extent of his versatility as an artist since appearing on former Cinematic Music Group labelmate G Herbo’s Ballin Like I’m Kobe mixtape back in 2015 and dropping his first full-length album, Summer Camp, in 2016. Now, after struggling through a bad label deal, and nearly having his passion for music extinguished by a treacherous industry, he’s ready to tell an all too relatable story with his long awaited album, Don’t Let It Go To Your Head, slated for release on Nov. 13.

Don’t Let It Go To Your Head is a loose narrative about love’s complex relationship to wealth and poverty, and whether love can survive the two. The album also tackles the psychological weight of being broke; a struggle that’s all too timely with the crippling effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on all creatives.

Photo by ANF Chicago // The TRiiBE
Photo by ANF Chicago // The TRiiBE

We’re all trying to figure it out,” theMIND says. “I want people to look at me and be like, he’s trying, and that’s it. I think as Black human beings, we’re trying in this pandemic.”

Songs like the lead singles, “Gemini Sh*t” and “Free Trial,” are led by a jazzy, yet melancholy and dreamy soundscape, matching the 2020 mood of hopelessness while trying to make the most out of bad situations. Essentially, the album is an 11-track vent session: “Craig” is one song that reveals the frustration and fear that comes with crippling finances. By theMIND’s account, the track is a double reference to the 1995 film Friday’s character Craig reminding Smokey to take Big Worm’s violent threats seriously, and a situation theMIND dealt with as a teenager living in foster care. One of his friends was nearly struck by lightning after playing in a bad thunderstorm.

“Being a Black person existing in these yet-to-be United States, some people have profited off the pain of their brothers and sisters. I don’t want to do that, but I do want to make sure that people understand the struggle between the two,” he says.

It’s a struggle that theMIND has been dealing with on many levels. He initially debated whether to sell Don’t Let It Go To Your Head or release it for free. Weighing on his mind was that fact that so many people, including his fans, can’t afford to make ends meet because they’ve lost their jobs and so much more during the pandemic. 

Then he looked at his own circumstances and understood that he, like many other creatives, were in the same situation as everyone else. He asked himself,  “How do we make this work?” He had many honest conversations with close friends and collaborators, such as Jamila Woods. 

“She said, ‘If people don’t have it, the people aren’t going to try to break their backs and pay for your tape. People are going to do what they can.’ And I just wanted to find a way to say that to people,” theMIND says. “I just want to motivate people. And if that inspiration comes with a few dollars, I’m cool, let’s go. I’m tired of being broke.”

In 2016, theMIND hit a personal breaking point. He was working at Trunk Club to feed himself and keep the lights on while he made music in his off time. At the time, “$3,000 Advice,” his song with Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins, was in rotation. And his record with G Herbo was being played over the speakers at the factory during his shift. But as he worked on the album, he was fighting to leave Cinematic because it was not the ideal situation. They didn’t know how to turn him into a bigger artist, he says.

“I was looking around at all my contemporaries and peers, like, why are they there and why am I here?” he says. “And then, looking at the business and how I was handling myself, I was walking around with sharks and not acting like one.”

The sharks he’s referring to are the record labels and executives. theMIND said Cinematic kept negotiations and his career on ice until 2018 when his lawyers were able to get him out of his contract with a termination clause. He’s releasing Don’t Let It Go To Your Head independently.

“I was trying to get out of my deal and they weren’t. It just got ugly for a second,” he says. “I think the music industry itself is a monster. In the video ‘Free Trial,’ it’s me being beaten up and I feel like that. This game will fuck you up.”

theMIND’s initial plans to get into acting and embark on a solo tour fell through this year because of the pandemic, but he’s been able to use this time reflect on a few important life lessons during the pandemic.

Photo by ANF Chicago // The TRiiBE
Photo by ANF Chicago // The TRiiBE

“The one thing [the pandemic] did teach me that I thought I already knew is patience. Your time will come when it’s supposed to come and it’s like, keep working. Keep your head down and keep running. It’ll find a way to work out,” he says.

Still, with Don’t Let It Go To Your Head, he wants his audience— of all genders and colors — to know that he’s trying to figure things out just like everyone else. Beyond that, theMIND wants listeners to see that his talents go beyond features, hooks and skits on collaborative tracks. He’s the total package.

“Allow me to show you the full range of my artistry,” he explains. “If you only heard me do a speaking part then just give me a shot to do a chorus. If you’ve heard me do a chorus, hear me doing a verse. If you’ve heard that, hear the songs now. This is the culmination of that.”

is a freelance writer for The TRiiBE.