Don’t think too hard. It might kill you ㋛
Four years ago in New York, Florida-born, Georgia-raised multidisciplinary artist Santangelo Williams stared at his ceiling, thinking about everyday interactions as ripples of things falling apart. Teens cropping homeless people out of selfies, Pepsi solving* police brutality, notes from an incarcerated father, the cans of beans he relied on to keep his stomach at bay. At that time, he was already deep in the crafting of an album called Freelancer, a witty, disgruntled, horny takedown of the mercenary design work he relied on to pay rent and keep his music ambitions alive.
The talent underlying those ambitions was clear as day to a modest but impassioned group of friends, supporters, and other artists, be it Brockhampton members, Raveena, or Roy Blair. It’s hard to listen to “Like Flies,” an early Santangelo release, and keep your eyes dry. (Santangelo’s visual portfolio runs deep, as is the nature of talented sell swords without health insurance: special assignments for Noname, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Tyler Mitchell; soul-crushing corporate sacrifices; haunting paintings of skinless characters who look like they’d devour George Condo’s Dark Fantasy ensemble without blinking).
Freelancer never saw the light in its initial stage. Life happened. 9-to-5s ate at Santangelo’s bandwidth. Love played games with his heart. He couldn’t pay for dinners with a few million streams and The State of Things dared anyone with open eyes to resist the siren calls of fatalism. But slipping from the belly of the beast to its intestines put Santangelo face-to-face with the rot. “Freelancer” didn’t do such carnage justice. Sketches, demos, and verses piled up as months turned into years. When COVID pulled an unprecedented shutdown, Williams had a chance to make sense of his accrual and realized the Freelancer concept had grown up. He needed a new title, a new format, and a supporting cast. Enter AdWorld.
Santangelo’s bank account had three digits and a decimal point after the first when AdWorld went live last month. The online experience combines meta-narratives with 3D collectibles that unlock a custom character builder. Participants become citizens and shape what happens to rival heist crews in a dystopian environment—part text-based GTA, part collaborative design space, part short film, all run through a community Discord. 21st century Sci-Fi. 100% Satire 100% Sincere.
This AdWorld virtuality will soon house an album of the same title—aka Freelancer, final form—and creating both nearly bled Santangelo dry. He worked with a small, dedicated team, including Art Director Pedro Bello, righthand man / “the world’s greatest DJ” Francis Brady, Anthony Salazar, and Noel (Sound Design) to create the game, which generated nearly $1M in 48 hours. Santangelo, for the first time in his life, had real money to eat whenever he wanted and reinvest in himself. With 1000s of collectors acting as co-writers in the narrative Santangelo created, the vision is bigger than ever.
AdWorld the album takes headshots at data monopolies while carving out enough time on the side for carnal desires. “Bliss,” the leadoff AdWorld single, sounds like a self-loathing anthem recorded over Scizor destroying an OP-1, the sort of thing mutant rats might rave to in Brooklyn sewers, and it hits hard: “Close my eyes / check for jobs / ain’t no jobs / pray to God.”
Santangelo catches his breath on the equally memorable followup release, “Haptics,” which pairs mocking self-care advice (“Pick the perfect filter for your face”), sound-bender Quiet Luke’s harmonies, and R&B melodies from artist / producer / future Pixar director Zack Villere with interstellar synthwork. At its core, the project is both a desperate and inspiring reminder to keep pushing. “Great Gran fight for land / I got to keep fighting on,” he raps on “Jheez.” It takes a considerable dose of willful ignorance to not self-destruct. Santangelo alternates between looking at the wreckage through his fingers and screaming “fire” in a burning building. In either case, the repeat button is difficult to ignore.
In 2020, when we all knew we had a pandemic on our hands but didn’t quite grasp what we were really in for, Santangelo and I traded emails and published the results. In that interview, he reflected on how he could hack—a website, a design, a song, the social dynamics of a classroom based on desk placement—because he could see something for what it was. He insisted at the time that our conversation was an ad, just like everything else. We reconvened in 2022 to think far too hard about far too much.
What’s the origin story of AdWorld?
I think some of the writing goes back to 2013. Conceptually, a lot of it started under a different project name, Freelancer. A friend and I were talking about how graphic designers are propaganda machines for different companies. You make a living creating these symbols and advertisements for others. In college, it felt like I was lost in this system just exporting really confused, lost people. One day, when I was working retail, Tyler [Mitchell] visited me and we started riffing on the name “AdWorld,” me making music and him doing all the visuals, him being one of the premier content machines in the world for global brands. Tyler wants to make art and he needs to make money. Even if the photograph is taken for a trillion-dollar company, he’s still managing to create worlds for people.
You can kid yourself and say you’re above commerce, but there are always economic parameters.
There’s a school of musicians, not quite the backpack era but immediately post that, like Kendrick Lamar, and they were the apex of, “I have something to say and this is my world view on this thing.” I think we’ve moved beyond that because it’s so apparent to everyone now. Even my own traditional American down-home family are now questioning things. Artists don’t need to be condescending anymore because we all know how fucked it is. Let’s get over the fact that we’re here.
Where else do you see those cracks showing?
Questioning the security our government provides. Questioning the American ideal that being “blessed” is financial. It’s feeling stuck. The idea of “making it out” isn’t real. Those who do become these mythological folklore characters used to justify others’ shitty situations. And many people still say, “Fuck it, I’ll get my own bag,” and that’s where we’re at. I think people are thinking about themselves, their own family or their own race or their own things. “We’re all in this together” isn’t true.
YouTube recently served me an ad for the new Chance The Rapper song, and that sent me back to Acid Rap. I was investigating why I still gave him a pass, despite everything since that project, and ultimately I felt like it was brave of him to be happy. The content or context of the songs on Acid Rap were often sad, but it was happy, weird, kind of obnoxious music. At a time when everything was so cool and stonered out. He was like Nickelodeon. He supplied something no one else was able to at that time. I’ll always give him a chance because of that trust. Artist lives are long.
There’s an urge to hypothesize and debate about when people peak, when people fell off, and it sucks. I’ve done it too.
I’m convinced people who talk like that haven’t made music. Or haven’t lived. It’s possible to recognize someone is no longer an adolescent, but still has the talent to do something great. They may be in a weird stretch and express it in a way that doesn’t hit for you.
In AdWorld, everything is crumbling, or seems to be. You’re shredding sounds, screaming, mixing lyrics. We’ve watched different institutions co-opt or pay lip service to various solidarity movements to shut them down. How does the music connect to the world you see around you?
I think there’s two movements happening right now, perpendicular to each other: one post-Gamer Gate, where you get this crazy talk as a test of community belonging, and one post-Trayvon Martin—a liberal arts college awakening. The resistance that spawned from the latter allowed mostly middle class Black people and people of color to materialize their position in the world. Monetize it. And invert power dynamics in ways that I don’t think anyone at the time was thinking about for the long-term.
For context, when I was at Ithaca College, I was involved in protesting, on the bullhorn, organizing constantly, leading the charge against the campus police. At the time, it felt so real, until you realize months after that there’s photos taken of us and they show up on the school website, and then you remember why you signed up for the school, because of those photos on the website, and you start to realize that the rage was harnessed by a larger institution to profit off of and expand their audience and fan base or their constituency. Meanwhile, I’m paying to be there, even with scholarships. They’re still hitting me up for money.
On AdWorld, you have lines like “I feel like a cyborg, why lord,” and you have lines about sex and love. How did your relationships influence the album?
I have a big inferiority complex in a lot of ways when it comes to relationships. There’s a lack of confidence on my end, but a big part of that also comes down to not having money, not being able to eat, or having to work all the time. The loss of that time adds up in terms of not understanding how to navigate a certain situation, or simply not having as much time to build trust with someone. Being with someone of the same sex, thankfully for a lot of people, it’s okay now, but I still experienced a lot of homophobic shit and have a shame embedded in me because of the way I was raised in a super religious family. Not seeing long-standing relationships in my family, not seeing people get married, watching my dad go to prison or aunt and uncles being killed. All these ways a system ripples into our personal lives. It connects in that way.
You put everything you had to create AdWorld, both the album and the virtual experience, with shimmering pendants that unlock a character builder. You took world-building literally. When it sold out, what crossed your mind?
I’m afraid I’m going to lose the money. I went really neurotic and separated it all in different places, and budgeted everything out, calculating what I’d need for rent and food for the year and pulled that out so I wouldn’t touch the rest. I want to feel good and treat myself but there’s so much work to do. I haven’t had time to get a car, which would be nice now that I’m in LA, but the car market’s fucked, the housing market’s fucked.
I’ve never felt security before, since I was a child. Since my parents split up and my dad went to jail, I’ve basically lived paycheck to paycheck since then, whether it’s with my mom or by myself, and now that I have money saved, it feels good, but I know it can be easily lost.
I have friends who are struggling right now, whether it’s with gambling… A lot of my friends were struggling with their gambling. It’s scary, because there’s so many amazing ways for you to waste and lose everything extremely fast. The world is set up for me to fall into one of those holes, and I’m so afraid that while trying to dodge three of them, I’ll fall into another one backing up. My mom’s been helpful, but there’s no one in my family who I can really talk to about working with this kind of money.
What did it take to reach that point of being release-ready?
I was eating once a day. Borrowing money from friends, usually to pay back other friends I had borrowed money from. Couch surfing for months. Not being able to buy a flight back to New York from LA so just staying here. I just knew I had to see this through.
The album itself is like sprinting across collapsing asphalt in some moments just breakneck pacing—and drifting through an underworld during others. Sometimes you’ll jump from a slow jam to race car mode out of nowhere. Are there bits and pieces of AdWorld you can point to and think, “How the hell did we pull this off?”
Aside from the journalistic focus, sequencing was what I wanted to really get right. Everything I’ve done before had a uniform sound, but that’s not the same thing. It felt good to play an active role in the production. My first album, I didn’t produce anything, and the producer would say a line that meant the world to me sounded lame, and it wasn’t in my hands so it’d get scrapped. Sometimes you need to listen to that feedback. Sometimes you know you have something special, and if someone else doesn’t like it, it’s not for them.
I want to re-record some things. Making the album during peak COVID, without resources, there’s room to get cleaner takes, but you can’t over-edit yourself either. The circumstances are imprinted into that WAV file. “Through The Wire” wouldn’t be as good if Kanye’s jaw was intact. I’m also proud because I know my voice on this album is mine. Sometimes on songs from A Jaded Attempt at Something Iconic, I feel like I was cosplaying when I listen back to that, even though I still love so many of those songs. “Like Flies” from that album still stands out. I played that on the piano and sang it live, straight through.
The more you listen, the more these little details emerge. That goes a long way with sequencing. Even the singles.
[Co-producer] Quiet Luke and I buried so many sound bites in there. Probably 50 clips or samples or field elements we kept. Website chimes, notifications, sirens, World War II alarms, fashion show gaffes. I wanted it to sound like the end of the world, just cascading. We tried to think about different moments in history where people probably thought, “This is it.” We also just had fun messing with things. We deep-fried the drum beat on “Bliss.” The vocal sample there is from the Discord during the Wall Street Bets madness. It was like the digital equivalent of trading floor sounds. Frank calls it a demonic prison, the spirit of the internet is spooky. It was thousands of voices, screaming, saying slurs.
Working on Quiet Luke’s album, 21st Century Blue, you and him would spend long hours digging through archives, going to libraries, trying to assemble a language for that body of work. It seemed like an incredibly dedicated research process.
That’s really how we work. We’ll send each other countless screenshots of things and sort of build this reference library together in real time. But it isn’t a song or artwork, it’s a plastic cup on the side of the road that’s crumpled a certain way, or an American Express logo at an airport. Then you reverse engineer it and ask, “Okay, what is this airport branding referring to? What was their inspiration?” Alec [Quiet Luke] loves history and he’s helpful for grounding what we are doing today with what’s happened before. We’ll really invent our own vernacular during the album-making process. Like “neo-feudalism.” Sometimes we’ll see something and just say “feud,” and that bookmarks it into both of our brains.
How cynical are you about about “web3”? You executed an ambitious idea and used that sphere of the internet, and NFTs as a format, despite their divisiveness.
I think it’s important to be able to recognize what’s happening in the world and use it to communicate something. As I kept working on AdWorld the album and felt desperate, as I watched things fall apart along with everyone else, and saw people in my life go broke or gamble or have issues with drugs, it felt right to use a medium that for so many people represents desperation. There’s something so weirdly honest about the crypto thing, when so much of ‘normal’ creative capital is about masking the intention.
Everyone has their best intentions but also trying to get on this playlist or monetize that aspect of themselves. It’s refreshing to see something where people are like, “I’m struggling and need to pay rent,” or, “this is a scam,” or in some cases, “This is actually interesting.” I think the criticisms are also misguided in that they let us point at one thing and feel better for calling out its environmental impact while we continue to rely on and use and enjoy other things that are just as bad if not worse. And as an artist, I do want to have autonomy.
Do I believe it’s worse to release an album using Ethereum, rather than engage with an age-old institution that’s fucked so many people and created tons of plastic because they were all technology companies before they were record companies? I don’t know. At the end of the day I’m most excited to create a world that lives on its own.
Web3 is like a mirror for the world in a lot of ways. It’s lampooned, but it also exists because things were so bad. It’s almost like the Spiderman meme. Some days it feels like a horrible place, other times it feels beautiful, and the answer is it’s probably both. It’s letting people imagine different ways of doing things, and that yields the whole spectrum.
There’s no Luddite-style solution. There are people building things, everywhere, with no regard for the consequences. Then there are people building things, everywhere, who have the courage to look at what they’re doing and question it, to check themselves. Are you building with intent or are you not? And what moral compass is guiding that intent?
Where are you looking to reinvest the AdWorld money?
Refining the album a bit before the release, which will hopefully be in the middle of summer. We’re going to do some really fun installations, bringing our world into the physical world. Like buying Dance Dance Revolution machines, loading them with AdWorld songs and friends’ songs, bringing in dancers for that. I was doing research on how to get that done and it’s pretty easy. There’s a strong Dance Dance Revolution community for programming them.
How do you see the community that has an interest beyond just the financial value of what they’ve purchased to be a part of it?
You’re basically living in the AdWorld movie as long as you have your character, which you unlocked by buying a Samskara pendant. So we have a narrative planned out that anyone who owns this card, almost like a Sims key, can shape the outcome. The goal is to take this sort of community-run script to create the AdWorld short film and take it to Sundance. We’re very influenced by Summer Wars, an animated film that came out at the start of the social media boom, where socials in this place called Oz are intertwined with the world government. You clock into your jobs through your Oz account. Agricultural systems run on it. The AdWorld video game is a priority, too.
You really used the release as an interactive crowdfund. I think back to the public Google Doc you made for A Jaded Attempt At Something Iconic, where you encouraged people to participate in the direction of the rollout. This was six years ago, before it was cool to do things like that. Now you have this sort of open narrative. What draws you to that method of executing ideas?
I think of it as a two-step thing. My writing, my music, that’s me as an artist. It’s me figuring out my life and how I want it to change, working through that. Then there’s me thinking about distributing those findings or those situations. Opening that up acknowledges the truth, or what I see as the truth, which is that from that point forward it isn’t in my hands, and to pretend otherwise isn’t in line with what actually happens to released art.
It’s like that movie Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, where this filmmaker hires actors to be in a film, then he hires a camera crew to shoot them. Normal. Then he hires another camera crew to shoot the original crew, and doesn’t tell the original crew. Then he hires a third crew and so on. New stories emerge as a result.
I also think open source is important because people need to see the process, how things happen, so it’s not so magical. You do a disservice to people trying to make everything clean and hide the wires because then people think you got on a playlist because your music is great, but it’s really because your manager went to high school with so and so.
Do you have any parting words for people who hire freelancers?
Pay people on time, if not early. And give people space to be themselves creatively, otherwise why are you hiring them. Let them work. You get genuinely new work if you let people just create, uninhibited.
Santangelo’s ‘AdWorld’ album is expected this summer.