Casey Taylor‘s is deep like the cover of Bluets.
His stage name doesn’t really roll off the tongue. Unlike many of his rap world peers or his predecessors from his home of Pittsburgh — Mac, Wiz, Wopo, Hardo–My Favorite Color is a name that gives you pause. What do you call this guy for short? To the people who know him, it’s Willis (his last name). If you want to rile him up, you can call him by his first name, Anthony, but you do so at your own peril. His laid-back demeanor and deep drawl can flip in an instant, and his entire body changes with it. At the slightest sign of disrespect, the sleepy pop culture nerd becomes a kinetic fury, and freestyled lyrics about making choppers sing in operatic baritones feels like less of a boast and more of a warning.
In the dying gasp of the record-cold winter of 2019, Willis is sitting on the oak and glass display cases of the Social Status fashion boutique in Pittsburgh, where he works a day job. In a perfect world, he’d be spending these hours at home writing, or in the garage of his Pittsburgh production collaborators, One800, while they pluck away at guitars and peck away at drum machines, hoping to find a riff that inspires an avalanche of lyrics.
But this is the music industry in the 21st century, where the pile of money keeps shrinking and traditional avenues to success are disappearing — so Willis spends his days in the boutique to pay his bills.
He’s got an album in the can, high profile management, but no home for it. In 6 months, he’ll be signed to Rostrum Records and it’ll be slated for release in the summer of 2020, but for now, the same all-consuming anxiety that eats at any unproven artist is ever-present. A rap scene that just suffered the tragic loss of both its eminence grise and hottest young star in Mac Miller and Jimmy Wopo, respectively, is looking for its heir apparent. Nobody wants to admit it, but every artist in the city is jockeying for position, and the dread-headed freestyler with the live backing band has the inside track. But an inside track is still an unpaid position, and it costs money to make records. If there’s an upside, at least the day job fuels his other passions: streetwear and fashion. His style is a clash between high fashion and vintage slacker; he went through a phase where he wore nothing but Raf Simons x Stan Smiths, thrifted and torn Pelle Pelle jeans, and old NASCAR or American Thunder shirts from the 90’s.
“Throw that out,” a woman says, tossing an empty cup in his lap. The woman in question is not a customer, per se, but a distant family member of the owner of the shop, who is notorious for only showing up to instigate trouble with employees.
“What the fuck did you just say to me?” Willis retorts, his drawl speeding up; his voice becoming more shrill. His manager tries to calm things down, stepping in to be as lighthearted as possible and suggesting she throw her own trash out. But Willis is already off the deep end. He doesn’t get aggressive with the woman — his restraint owed to a combination of wanting to keep his job and to be mindful of how intimidating his temper can be. His long dreads whip from side to side as his pacing becomes more frantic. His shoulders–normally slumped, nonchalant, unassuming–become rigid, revealing a broad, athletic frame. He balls his hands into fists, cracking his knuckles, trying to create a physical release of anger, an imaginary conversation playing out before he excuses himself to FaceTime a friend and try to relax.
“I could make a call,” he says ominously to the friend on FaceTime. The rest devolves into a rant about the people he knows, the fact that he’d never put his hands on a woman but the women in his family wouldn’t take kindly to disrespect. It’s a series of petty, angry thoughts that seem simultaneously hellbent and noncommittal about revenge. Of course, he never makes the second, more ominous call. It’s unclear whether he ever really considered tagging in the women in his life who would be willing to send a physical message to someone who disrespects him or if it’s just the kind of thing he needs to say to reassure himself. It’s not easy feeling like a stranger in your own hometown.
He moved to Pittsburgh around 13, after his mother decided to take him away from Los Angeles full time. He’d been back and forth between cities for a few years prior. The move was an escape from what his mother saw happening to extended family and the young people around him, namely the trap of gang culture which had already claimed cousins and a brother. There wasn’t much of it to be found in Pittsburgh, and particularly not in the Penn Hills suburb where they moved (the second largest municipality in Allegheny County after Pittsburgh).
Despite its size, it’s a quiet neighborhood. “We had a yard and everything,” Willis says of his upbringing. “I ain’t seen a yard in person before we moved out there.” While he embraced Pittsburgh and grew to love the city, he suffered the identity tug-of-war common among those who are transplanted into new surroundings that no longer resemble the ones that helped shape them. His defensiveness over it is a key trait: kids in the East End of Pittsburgh, the more traditional “city” kids, would rib him over being a suburban kid. Willis would lash out, reminding them that he came from neighborhoods more notorious than Pittsburgh’s own Hill District — home of the late Jimmy Wopo and one of the few places in the city with a high level of gang activity. The result was a kid stuck between two existences, trying to make nice with his surroundings while still feeling the pull of the family and streets he left behind.
His rise in the city’s scene was abrupt. He’d been rapping since he was 11 years old in some form or fashion, but only began taking his passion seriously enough to record music in 2017. Despite birthing some significant stars over the past decade, the impact of Pittsburgh’s rap scene has been relatively blunted due to scarce resources. A historically racist city, Pittsburgh was found to be one of the worst places to be Black in America in a recent study, and its venues reflected that. Willis, though, was booking shows within just a few months of getting started and getting songs passed through to the few producers and managers in Pittsburgh capable of opening doors.
One of those managers was Quentin Cuff, the former Mac Miller hypeman and associate who began managing artists over the last few years. It was in the Lawrenceville home that Cuff shared with fellow managers Barry Hefner and Zeke Nicholson of Since the 80s, when a local clothing designer played him some music by local artists. A My Favorite Color song came on and Cuff reached out to Willis for an introduction. “We were watching some movie on Netflix I think and after, Q asked me like ‘yo, what is your next step?’” Willis recalls. “I told him that I guess I need a manager or something, but I was still figuring it out, and he’s like ‘motherfucker, I’m right here.’ We just went from there.”
“There’s not many artists like Willis in the scene,” Cuff says about what drew him to My Favorite Color’s music. “Like, there’s a lot of street artists in the scene, but not a lot that have such a diverse sound and range of influences. Two people from completely different worlds showed me his music. Willis is a writer first and foremost, and hip-hop today is about writing to me. As opposed to three years ago where melody was capturing all of hip-hop, people are wanting to hear lyricists.”
“People in Pittsburgh thought I was an industry plant for real,” Willis said about his finding management and success so quickly. “That’s what they would say behind my back.” He pauses to acknowledge and agree that if he was indeed an industry plant, he’d probably be signed to a bigger label. He signed with Pittsburgh-born Rostrum records in late 2019 to release his debut album, Velma, which was released on August 21st.
His reputation changed after Cuff took him on as a client, more doors were opened. Flights to Los Angeles were becoming a monthly occasion to meet with industry A&Rs. Back in Pittsburgh, his process remained the same. Willis views music as a moment, something to be created as a reflection of exactly how he’s feeling at the time of recording it. As such, he’s not much of a perfectionist: he would spend his afternoons and nights in the garage of Cody Maimone, the guitarist and one-third of One800. Within twenty minutes of arriving, Willis was ready to record, and My Favorite Color would step up to the mic. “He’s fast man,” says Jeremy Rosinger, formerly of One800 and a frequent collaborator. “He’s a great freestyler, too, a lot of this stuff is just living in his head.”
His flow alternates between frenetic, emotional outbursts and molasses-thick confidence, part raspy baritone and part kush-fueled West Coast sunset. He’s happy to show off quick, punchy rapping–not quite Twista-level spectacle but more of the accelerated staccato of a J.I.D. or Kendrick Lamar after an espresso. But, his comfort zone comes when he takes his foot off the gas, letting his deep register guide you through a slow, chilly afternoon with nothing to do but drive and think.
As for the backing sound, there’s one very clear comparison that Willis balks at, if only because it makes him a little uncomfortable: the late Mac Miller. Like many who were inspired by him, and even more so for those close to him, his passing is difficult to process and talk about. His connection with Cuff makes it an especially sensitive topic. Still, it’s a tough comparison to avoid, not just because of the geographic connection but in the improvisational, live feeling of his music. “I hate when you listen to some shit and it’s like a backing track and the rapper isn’t even saying all the words,” Willis says. “I want something more organic. That’s what feels real to me.” The Space Migration Sessions / Live From Space era work with The Internet is an obvious influence, when Miller started to expand beyond his work as a rapper and experiment sonically with textured fusion behind his raspy, soulful voice.
While comparisons between Miller (or Wiz, or Wopo) are inevitable for any rapper emerging from Pittsburgh, Willis’ work as My Favorite Color is distinct. You can hear the distillation of influence in the sound and the subject matter. Like Miller, My Favorite Color songs have an obsession with death and personal failings, the lonesomeness and pain of individuals trying to figure out why they’re in so much pain while surrounded by happiness. But it’s hardly 1:1, and the pain in Willis’ music is that of someone who never felt like he had a home or sense of community, constantly pulled between his Los Angeles and Pittsburgh identities.
It’s pretty explicit on his lead single, “Funeral,” where he imagines the attendees of his imaginary wake. He imagines his father thinking about the other siblings he lost, his producers realizing they’d lost more than a collaborator (“took six feet to see it’s deeper than the music”). It feels intentionally over-the-top, a blunt instrument to drive home the themes of family guilt, emotional distance, and self-destruction with a tearful smirk. But, listen throughout his debut album and it’s the more subtle cues that give you visibility into Willis’ preoccupation with death. Beyond the references to suicide, you hear the hurt of a man who is constantly scaring his mother with his sullen attitude and depression, or alienating himself from his girlfriend (model Tamia Blue) with his fear of intimacy. He’s trying to rap his way out of it. Some days are more successful than others.
On the album’s third track, the standout “Still,” angry bars lamenting death’s procrastination in claiming My Favorite Color is interrupted by a recording of a phone conversation, with the man on the other end of the line describing a horrific crime. The voice is that of his brother, his father’s son, who the family was unable to successfully move to Pittsburgh with them in 2010. His brother is currently awaiting felony sentencing in an open court case.
Willis at least gets to see his brother now, but he’s not sure he recognizes him. In late 2019, when it became clear he was outgrowing his opportunities in Pittsburgh, he and Tamia loaded the car and drove across the country to the city he was born in with whatever could fit in the back of a Nissan. Willis sold off most of his sneakers to help cover the cost, investing a small portion of the money into a Human Made rug that he could give to Tamia as a housewarming gift for whatever apartment they ended up settling on. One of the perks was being close to extended family, and being able to visit his brother in prison. The few times he’s been able to bring himself to see him, though, he barely sees traces of the person he loved and admired, small portions of personality and humor that weren’t stolen from him by the streets.
It’s just one of a few things that have sullied an otherwise joyous return to the coast he missed while landlocked in the rapidly gentrifying Pittsburgh. The pandemic hit shortly after arrival, and he spends most of his time inside playing 2K or outside going for runs to get rid of the belly that made him self-conscious while hidden under oversized vintage shirts. He’s throwing himself into anything he can to try and stave off the bad thoughts for as long as possible, a challenge for all of us but particularly those, like Willis, who have struggled with depression even when the world wasn’t on fire.
“I should be happy,” he says when asked about what he’s looking forward to once his major label debut is officially out into the world. “Like, is this success? I don’t know what to think of as successful…it’s funny, because I hear the album now and it feels dated to me because it was just like a whole different struggle I was rapping about when I made it. Some of that is still in me, I think, like I still don’t feel like I’ve made it or something, but I know my new shit is going to have a different vibe based on how I’m feeling now.”
Conversations about his future almost always loop back around to his past; what he misses, what he wishes he still had, what he struggles to reconcile with the friends he’s made and lost since leaving the city where he spent his teenage years. He misses Pittsburgh, deeper than just the lamentations of someone who is still adjusting to a new lifestyle. He misses the garage and the euphoric rush when all the chaos is appropriately harnessed and channeled into a song that leaves he and his collaborators with butterflies.
But what he misses goes beyond geography. It’s not just about being in Western Pennsylvania or the western side of the country. It’s about home. His mother who raised him and kept him out of trouble. His father, who he offers begrudging respect but still feels disconnected from. His brother slowly losing his sense of self with no hope of release in this life or the next. Velma is his first attempt to create a sense of connection that feels a little bit more like home, letting us in on the intimate feelings and thoughts typically reserved for those closest to us. Regardless of whether he breaks big or the album blows up, hopefully it helps him feel like he finally has one.