We're watching the sea lions when Antwon begins to get sad. It's a pleasant Wednesday afternoon at the San Francisco Zoo, and the larger and more rotund of the two sea lions is out by the side of his enclosure's little pool, wriggling in the sun, looking like someone who went to bed with a belly full of Mexican food. He shakes his blubbery coat around one way, and then another, irritated. “Damn, that's me when I'm asleep,” says Antwon, watching intently. The large and somewhat rotund San Jose rapper had been jokey and easygoing all afternoon, but now he is quiet.
“I'm sad,” he finally mutters, mostly to himself. “I'm sad from the zoo. That's why I stay at my house. I don't get depressed if I stay at my house.”
Another pause, and he corrects himself.
“Oh, yeah I do. All the time.”
If you listen to Antwon's music, as rap fans around the country increasingly do, you may find it not entirely surprising that there is a well of melancholy deep within this 27-year-old. His music is not sad, exactly — in direct light, it is debauched, fierce, and sometimes triumphant. But it's also more than a little terrifying, and that's part of what makes it so compelling. You sense that Antwon is bellowing at full-gale strength the lurid details of his seemingly endless sexual encounters because he feels that he might die at any moment. This is not your standard, I-could-get-hit-by-a-bus-today awareness, but a leaden certainty that the end is coming soon and will be partially self-incurred. Death because Antwon doesn't expect anything better from life. Death as a punishment — and a just one — for how he lives. Which is decadently.
One of Antwon's 2013 singles is called “Dying in the Pussy,” and it equates good sex with the big end. “It's like I died in that maaafuckin' pussy,” goes the refrain over a slow, dreadful vamp, and a few lines will give you a feel for what Antwon's music can be like:
Lay down on that bed
Got my hands over your throat
Kegels workin' for your pussy, girl
'Cause the pussy get soaked
Utterly frank, five steps past excessive, and also heavily portentous: This is Antwon. But if sex is about bragging for many rappers, it serves a somewhat different purpose in Antwon's music. Here it's a kind of existential cataloguing, a tallying of the moments and the feelings as they come and pass. Antwon grew up playing in punk and hardcore bands, so the emo mode of confessional lyric-writing comes naturally to him. The explicitness oddly makes him seem more vulnerable, too. “I just try to explain emotions involved with sexual feelings,” he says. “It's just being very open to sex, which scares people sometimes. I'm not trying to be a misogynist.”
This bellowing, invincible Antwon — the side that rhymes carelessly about “pussy juice” — is contradicted by a heartbroken, doomed-feeling, sea lion-watching side of Antwon, whose lyrical tone is markedly different. “Loser,” off his new album, is basically a two-minute monologue of grief:
I used to have a heart it once was filled with love
I used to know someone who told me we was one
Reality set in, now lonely there ever was
Could find somebody at this moment, I don't give a fuck
Chasing sex and cheating death to fill the void left by love isn't a new theme in music, of course, but it is a powerful one. “The Doors insisted that love was sex and sex was death and therein lay salvation,” wrote Joan Didion of the lustful and doomed L.A. band. But in Antwon's music, there is no salvation. The weed and the women never quite add up to a way of forgetting that we are sad, lonely animals writhing uncomfortably in a stupid little world.
Antwon has been looking forward to the kangaroos all day. As he takes them in, amid flurries of young children, he talks, in casual profanity, about his life: Born Antonio Williams in Florida to a black father and a Filipino mother. Moved to California to be close to family. His father left; they are not in touch. At 9, Antwon discovered he had a half sister. He lived with his grandmother and now lives with his mother in the South Bay. He was kicked out of high school “'cause I didn't do work,” but his continuation school bought him a guitar, which he learned how to play. He liked Green Day and Blink-182, was always into rap. He played in a bunch of local punk and then hardcore bands, tried rapping, but gave up. “I didn't think I could be a rapper,” he says. “I didn't see rappers who looked like me.” Eventually, he tried again.
One of those tries was the mixtape Fantasy Beds, whose undeniable strength helped turn Antwon into a local underground celebrity. And this week, after several mixtapes of increasing quality, Antwon releases his debut album, Heavy Hearted in Doldrums. Its very existence is a vindication of sorts: proof that there is room in rap for a confessional ex-punk rocker with a taste for explicit rhymes and emotional frankness — plus tons and tons of doom. “I don't think any of the songs are even that dark,” says Antwon of the new album, though it's not clear whether he's serious, or what his standards of darkness are. “They're pretty happy-sounding, maybe.” (They are not.)
Heavy Hearted in Doldrums is, however, filled with some of the best beats Antwon has ever rhymed over: a mechanical funk workout courtesy of local wizard Matrixxman on “Cold Tears,” and a boom-bap victory lap from Walsh — who produced Antwon's breakthrough track “Helicopter” — on “Mr. Intercontinental,” one of the album's most buoyant moments.
Lyrically, there is no lack of explicit sex-obsessed Antwon, nor of heartbroken, sea-lion-watching Antwon, in the new songs. But in person, after a couple of hours at the zoo, he seems markedly removed from either of the characters he plays: just a soft-spoken, funny dude with a keen intelligence. Walking out of the zoo after an afternoon of chasing peacocks and marveling at kangaroos, you could forget how he comes off in his music, how libidinous, how dangerous, how doomed. Is he really on probation, as he alluded to in one song?
Yes, for graffiti.
And, um, is his life really as full of reckless blowjobs and hard drugs as his lyrics suggest?
He gets quiet, almost shy, as we walk toward the exit.
“Probably,” he says, a note of levity in his voice. “Sometimes. When there's kangaroos and shit.”