If you drove past your old high school tonight, what would you want to do? Text a memory to a friend? Scrawl a message for a teacher on the chalkboard in their empty classroom Just kick in a window, any window? And if you did one of those things or all of them would it make you feel different?
This ball of confused thoughts, remembrances, and wishes captures the feeling of Johan Lenox’s debut album WDYWTBWYGU. The project is animated by skeptical nostalgia for growing up in some unidyllic suburb, while simultaneously staring down an uncertain future. It’s a fully realized announcement of a new talent, an artist who isn’t reaching for pop punk or some other bygone sound to articulate generational angst but blazing a different path altogether. His songs are stately and hyper contemporary, as likely to deploy sweeping woodwinds and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus as they are trap drum programming.
There are well known stories about young people made into pop stars, molded by a parent or some other authority figure from an early age until they’re ready for the world’s stage. This is not one of those stories. Lenox approaches pop with the curiosity and perspective of a true outsider. Trained in classical music through his teens and into his twenties, he was born Stephen Feigenbaum near Boston. (The Lenox in his name refers to the Massachusetts town that hosts the annual Tanglewood summer classical festival.) Immersed in a sonic tradition that is diametrically opposed to popular music, he became an expert in his craft, winning Young Composer awards and studying under a Pulitzer Prize winner until a tab of acid and a Kanye West album expanded his sense of what was possible. Hearing My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy for the first time opened a door somewhere in Lenox’s brain, which leads directly to his approach as an artist today. His scale is epic and his instruments are centuries old; he writes orchestral arrangements and then manipulates those sounds digitally to create something uncanny that’s undeniably pop. Just listen to “U Up?,” the first single from WDYWTBWYGU, which begins with pizzicato string plucks not sampled from some other source but created by Lenox and then Lenox’s languid vocals join, bemoaning romantic insecurity in today’s parlance.
“What I admire about pop music is that you can’t fake it,” Lenox says. “Millions of people have to like the song as a song for it to be a hit.” That’s the difference between true popular success and something that takes up digital space via hype. And so Lenox is a student of the smash from across eras, as quick to reference a Guys and Dolls number as he is a Khalid hook. The hook is the backbone of popular song and WDYWTBWYGU does not want for stickiness. “Get My Shit Together” has one of the most indelible choruses of the year, the kind that’s absorbed in one listen, that you want to sing along to in your car alone, loudly. It’s also a showcase for Lenox’s skill as a lyricist, sketching intimate scenes with economical language: “Home late, guess I left the stove on/Good god, what the fuck have I become?/Dead plants, glad I didn’t get a dog.” And those are just the opening lines. Lenox’s dark humor gives depth to his musings about aging and wondering if he’ll ever be an adult in the way previous generations allowed for.
Further complicating Lenox’s lyrics are his guest features, which often contradict or at least offer a counterpoint to the indecision and malaise he expresses. On “Get My Shit Together,” Atlanta’s Thouxanbanfauni raps a measured verse about being underestimated and persevering; his opening line describes just getting out of jail, a stark alternative to worrying about browning succulents and possible dog ownership. Lenox explains that they talked about the song before recording; “I think he did one of the most philosophical verses he’s ever done,” he says. WDYWTBWYGU offers no answers to the questions it poses. What does success look like in the face of a crumbling world, when the sky is on fire and the economy is, to put it buntly, kinda fucked? Is the storybook adult life the house, the nuclear family even satisfying? And what if you can’t even sort out your issues enough to get there (as Lenox wryly puts it on “I’m a Mess,” “I’m a mess, but I do it with a little finesse...I uber home and I’m feeling blessed”)? What’s it mean to feel too old as an 11th grader and too young in your late twenties?
The strings on “No One Gets Me,” featuring Atlanta trap crooner RMR, sound smeared, like they’re melting, as the song offers up one of the few straight forward moments of sweetness on the record. Friends drift apart, life can feel listless and repetitive, but a strong romance can be enough to build a world around: “No one really gets me but you,” Johan sings, “so fuck the rest of them.” Lenox says that, “RMR has one of my favorite voices and I wanted him to be screaming at the top of his lungs. I did this massive key change and put the piano under him so he could get in the space to do that.
Johan Lenox is a genuinely prodigious artist and he makes his music with intention. The result is an album that’s achingly poignant, but with a sharp edge that keeps the listener guessing where it might go next. Lenox is fully in control, steering the listener through a complex soundscape that resists easy categorization. The only reasonable conclusion is that he’s up next.