McKinley Dixon spent much of his childhood on the move. Born in Annapolis, Maryland in 1995, he shuttled back and forth between the DMV and Jamaica, Queens, and it was those singular New York experiences that really inspired him. He felt a kinship with the borough, a place that wasn’t quite home but felt more like it; the faces there looked like his in a way that just wasn’t true of Maryland. “It gave me kind of this sense of longing that really jump started my thinking about escapism through music,” he says.
The idea of longing and escape is central to his music, especially his forthcoming project, the ambitious Beloved! Paradise! Jazz?!, named after the trilogy of novels from Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, the writer Dixon has described as “the greatest rapper ever.” Morrison’s novels looked into American history to locate eruptions of longing and escape with the beautiful sweep and precision of her prose. That’s the energy Dixon tries to channel on this album.
“The work of McKinley Dixon has always felt generous to me, as a listener, or how it operates as a portal,” the poet and critic Hanif Abdurraqib observed. “A window into a life that is decidedly not your life, but could maybe not be far off from your life, depending on where you’re from, what you know, what you haven’t let go of. It could be close to a life you’ve touched, or a life you’ve missed or longed for.”
Dixon was raised in a household led by his mother, who worked a double-shift job, and he found himself rising at 5:30 every morning too. “She really taught me a sense of discipline,” he recalls, “and how if you want something for yourself, you have to go get it.”
Musically his household was defined by “artists whose first name was Mary,” including Mary J. Blige and gospel duo Mary Mary. Discovering Outkast was formative for Dixon, deepening his love for hip-hop while he also grew curious about the more theatrical rock of groups of the day, bands like My Chemical Romance and Panic! At The Disco that his Maryland friends introduced him to. “Those groups also helped me with my sense of longing, since their music reflected a sense of longing,” he says. Eventually he channeled these competing influences into a debut EP he released in 2013, while attending college in Richmond, Virginia.
With time, his music became his primary means of self-expression, whether discussing Blackness or his own relationship with healing. Across his next releases—Who Taught You To Hate Yourself? (2016) and The Importance Of Self Belief (2018), his style evolved and his confidence grew, especially when it came to live instrumentation. His 2021 debut album For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her was a game changer, as Dixon set his sights on heartache and grief. “I was making these really dense and chaotic songs, stuffing whatever thought I had into five and a half minutes,” Dixon says of that project. Beloved! Paradise! Jazz?! is an attempt at channeling different impulses.
“With this one, I thought, ‘What if I tried to keep that intensity and same denseness with shorter, catchier songs?,’” he says. After an introduction from Abdurraqib, in which he reads from Morrison’s 1992 novel of friendship and Harlem, Jazz, Dixon gives the listener “Sun, I Rise.” Rapping over crystalline lines from a harp, Dixon plays with the tone of his voice, sometimes rapping low and sometimes soaring to the top of his diaphragm. His lyrics are allusive, literary—and unmistakably hip-hop. It’s a statement of ability, an inventory of skills. “I wanted to tell this story of a boy who’s sort of a mixture of Icarus and King Midas,” Dixon says. Guest vocalist Angélica Garcia gives the stand-out single another layer of depth with her pure delivery.
Elsewhere on the album he addresses restlessness and gun violence (“Run, Run, Run”), the impossible grief of losing a friend (“Tyler, Forever”), and the loneliness of talent (“Dedicated to Tar Feather”). Like the conductor of an orchestra, Dixon organizes a fleet of live instrumentation across these songs, from keys to strings to gentle bass. “I really tried to write beautiful words with every song,” Dixon says, a feat that is commensurate with the beauty of the music and subject matter.
The album closes with the title track, perhaps the most gorgeous moment on the project. Doing nothing more than singing an excerpt from Morrison’s bibliography, Ms. Jaylin Brown creates a hook that is indescribable in its feeling, despite consisting of just three words. Dixon’s imagery—teeth, astral bodies, hands holding each other—is achingly tender.
Sometimes rough and other times delicate, Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!? is a journey into the psyche of McKinley Dixon, with all of the attendant peaks and valleys. “I’m aiming for making my stories accessible,” he says, “while also still keeping it to the heart of what I love.”