By Margaret Welsh
Pittsburgh Current Music Editor
When Clara Kent wrote her verse for “Local Celebrity,” the first single from Pittsburgh hip-hop collective Tribe Eternal’s new record, Mysterious Shit, she remembers her collaborators Bilal Abbey and NVSV giving her a look.
“Like, ‘Oh, we goin’ THERE?’” she laughs. “I was just over local rappers. I was like, ‘I’m TIRED of local rappers!”
Anyone listening to the track could tell as much: “Wanna be local celebrity/ selling your soul for a fucking tweet/looking for girls on your IG/ scrollin through her pictures like a fuckin sleaze,” Kent raps. “Do you live to create or to validate?”
Abbey double downs on the next verse: “Local celebrity tweakin’/ fishing for fame for the weekend … fakers you is, you was never involved.”
These are frustrations artists deal with no matter where they are, and NVSV points out that you’ll find “wannabe local celebs” in any city. But “Local Celebrity,” as well as other points on the record — like “Plastic,” a hype trash-talk track which calls out mediocre, inauthentic musicians — deal with things happening in the Pittsburgh hip-hop scene.
“‘Local Celebrity’ for me was … things that I see in my environment,” Kent explains in a phone conversation with NVSV and fellow Tribe Eternal members Abbey and Pharaoh Lum. “People are just out of their mind on different things, different vices, different addictions. They throw their humanity out the window for their ego to be present.
“I’m seeing stuff that people are just going along with, and I can’t stay silent about it,” she says. “I’m just gonna talk my shit.”
NVSV adds, deadpan: “I want Mysterious Shit to hurt feelings.”
It was back in 2014 that Abbey and Lum saw Kent perform her ambient, confessional R&B for the first time.
“As soon we ran into Clara we knew she was — in our words — she was outta here,” Lum recalls. “It was a different type of talent, a different type of feel.” The two rappers already had their own project – The H&T, which is now under the Tribe Eternal Music Group umbrella — and Kent had recently left another group, and was finding her way as a solo artist. But, Lum says, they wanted to start something brand new with Kent. “We wanted to break her in on the ground floor, [not like], oh yeah, you’re joining our band.”
NVSV, who had worked with the other three artists individually, was a natural collaborative partner. For Lum, “it was just a mutual respect with, like, the quality of music that [NVSV] put out, how he carried himself as an artist,” he says. “We’ve collabed with a lot of people, and it’s rare that we have someone who we feel stands in the same air with us.”
Kent adds that, as a collaboration, Mysterious Shit came together naturally. “It wasn’t forced,” she says. “Everything that happened previously, led us to making a project.”
The easy warmth between the artists is clear from the first moments of the album. “It was definitely a team effort,” NVSV says. “In this age of music where everybody just emails beats and verses … we really sat together to make sure this is what we wanted sonically.” It also came together relatively quickly: they had to make the time to make the project happen because NVSV was planning a move to New York City, where he now lives.
“It was something we wanted to do together so we wouldn’t have to email those parts in,” he says.
The Mysterious Shit album art imagines the four artists as comic book characters, joining their individual abilities to create a powerful supergroup. And the project has allowed each to highlight and hone their respective skills.
For NVSV, who usually works on his own, Mysterious Shit — which will be available on all streaming services at midnight on Halloween — was a rare chance to work with artists who were on the same page. “[It] gave me a sense of comradery that you won’t find in any of my other projects,” he says.
Abbey got to lean into his interest in mixing and sound engineering. “This album really gave me the opportunity to mix a bunch of different voices that were doing different things on different songs,” he says. There’s a lot happening on Mysterious Shit: It’s a moody, dynamic record, veering at times into vaporwave, trip-hop, and avant-pop, then taking hard turns into Southern hip-hop and neo-traditional soul. Everyone raps, everyone sings. “I’m an artist,” Abbey says, “but I’m also figuring out how to make everyone’s vision seen and heard.”
Lum took it as an opportunity to sharpen his rhyming and writing skills. “I love rap,” he says, “I love collaboration but I’m also very competitive.” Working in the studio with artists he admires, he had to be on his game. “I feel like we brought the best out of each other in the process.”
For Kent, Mysterious Shit is a big step out of her comfort zone. “Most of the time when people hear me, they hear me singing … this is the first time people are really going to hear me rap. So I was like, ‘They don’t understand, I’m NERVOUS.”
But you’d never know it. Kent brings heat and swagger to her verses, coolly advocating healthy living and a focused mind on “Level Up,” then scorching haters, creeps, and liars on “Clara’s Mad” and “Fool.”
“Bilal, Lum, and NVSV have been rapping for years,” she says. “And I’ve been rapping for years too, but not in an open space like this. This is my Diana Ross moment, of like coming [out of] the curtains with the big hair and the sequenced dress, you know what I mean?”
For any hurt feelings it might inspire, there’s nothing sour about Mysterious Shit. “I ain’t trippin’, I’m listening.” Abbey raps on “Level Up.” “Cause the best thing a wise man did in his whole life was pay attention.” There’s plenty of wisdom and beauty to be found for those who care to hear it.
“A lot of people tip-toe around things,” Kent says. “It’s time for us to be upfront and bold and just say how we feel. Because in jazz, in blues, in soul, even in real deep R&B cuts, they were just talking about their story no matter how personal it was. I kind of miss that in hip-hop locally.”
We have a lot of great artists, she says, but the bar needs to be higher. “The thing that makes hip-hop culture so different from everything else is what is in this record,” she adds. “I really appreciate that all these guys really brought it, and encouraged me to do the same.”