Oddisee Breaks Down His Therapeutic New LP “To What End”

The East Coast emcee takes us through the themes of purpose, decision-making, and vulnerability that brought him back into the studio for his first LP in six years.
Track by Track

Oddisee Breaks Down His Therapeutic New LP To What End

The East Coast emcee takes us through the themes of purpose, decision-making, and vulnerability that brought him back into the studio for his first LP in six years.

Words: Mike LeSuer

January 25, 2023

Like many artists in recent years, Oddisee was in need of a break. This realization didn’t hit the rapper in early 2020 like it did most of his peers, but rather before the pandemic in the wake of his 2017’s house-tinged LP The Iceberg. If it was a mental block that was preventing him from writing, though, why couldn’t he also use that same dead-end mentality to inspire himself?

To What End arrives not as an answer to any of the existential questions of purpose that led Oddisee to therapy in recent years, nor is it necessarily a solution to finding a balance between work life and family life. Instead, the upbeat new LP probes the era of heavy-decision-making the veteran beatsmith and emcee has faced in both of these arenas lately, while opening the conversation up to a wide audience likely facing similar issues. 

Yet in a way, it does also speak to the artist’s sense of purpose, with Oddisee both implicitly and explicitly making it known with the new record that music can be both a major source of meaning in his life and an outlet for expressing that. With To What End’s 16 tracks dancing through various speeds and shades of hip-hop—with the help of a lengthy list of old friends hopping on featured spots—the record hardly succeeds in its initial intention of neutrally examining heady themes, instead betraying Oddisee’s clear enthusiasm at being back on the mic and behind the boards.

With the record out now via Outer Note, you can read Oddisee’s track-by-track breakdown of the project as you stream along below.

1. “The Start of Something”
With several years having passed since my last full-length album, I wanted the introduction to sound cinematic. The instrumental follows classic storytelling. Gradually introducing new moods through layered sound, the instruments showcase a beginning, middle, and end before words were put to it. I wanted to show my time away from music as it was: difficult, beautiful, and with a silver lining.

2. “How Far”
To What End is about why we do what we do as people, and “How Far” we’re willing to go for the answer. This song is probably the most straightforward subject in relation to the album title. So many things I observe in my life seem to be going in extreme opposite directions. The polarization of society has shown just how far people will go to hold onto their ideologies. I made it a point to ask questions as well as give my opinion in the lyrics. My goal is always to make people think, not influence what they think.

3. “Many Hats”
During my hiatus from music, I did a lot of mental exploration: What gets my attention? What brings me joy, and what creates stress? The answer was one and the same: music. I started writing, producing, and recording out of necessity. It earned me a reputation for being self-efficient and prolific. I found myself trying to uphold this reputation at the cost of my well-being. I closely guarded any signs of creative fatigue or self-doubt. What was I if I wasn’t the guy who always had it together? I started getting counseling and gradually became more comfortable not seeing vulnerability as a bad thing. Asking for help is one of the things that made music fun again and not overwhelming.

4. “Already Knew”
Whenever I get into album mode, I always start with the production. One of the most important things to me is how it will translate live. If I was to perform this album in order, this song is the exact energy I’m looking for in this segment of the show. Even though I had my doubts, I rediscovered why I make music and why I’ve been able to have a career. Regardless of the ups and downs, I believe in my work the same as I did when it was just a hobby.

5. “Choices”
I don’t often have guest features on my albums—not because I don’t like to, I simply like to work quickly and not wait on anyone. Needless to say, not having the time to wait was not an excuse on this record. Phonte is one of my favorite emcees of all time. Kay Young’s music has been such an inspiration to me, so putting them together on a track was a dream come true. Phonte recommended the amazing BeMyFiasco for the chorus and I couldn’t have agreed more. Following the theme of the album, “Choices” highlights the choices we have to make and the cause and effect they manifest.

6. “Try Again”
I can’t do an album without funk being represented. Upbeat music makes me feel good, and I wanted to share that feeling with the listener. Looking back to gain insight into the future was something I shied away from until recently. I wanted to champion my mistakes and appreciate them as lessons on this tune. “Try Again” is encouragement to rhythm.

7. “Ghetto to Meadow”
I’ve gone through so many styles of production in my career, but I always come back to this style of hip-hop. There’s something about just flowing over a pocket that always stays with me. Freeway is another one of my favorite emcees. His unpredictable rhyme schemes are a big influence on my own rhyme style. I always wanted to do a song with him and pay homage to his flow.

8. “More to Go”
As the first few bars go, I actually “wrote this song on a beach while my kids were asleep.” In observing my daughter and son while on vacation, I started to think about how many different lives I’ve lived. It scared me a bit to ponder how I could have gone down a series of other paths, never knowing the love my family now shares. C.S. Armstrong and I have been trading tracks for a bit, and he mentioned he had a similar song written. I asked him to cut some vocals to the track and the rest was history.

9. “All I Need”
My brother Olivier St. Louis and I are longtime collaborators. I don’t think I’ve ever done an album that doesn’t feature him and my keyboardist, Ralph Real. My band and I are all big fans of yacht rock. We probably listen to The Doobie Brothers and Hall & Oates more than anything else while on tour. This was my attempt at making a yacht rock–influenced hip-hop song. Olivier’s brilliant vocal range and Ralph’s sharp chords really made the vision come true. Lyrically, I wanted to address the emptiness that comes from never being satisfied. 

10. “Bartenders”
Another longtime collaborator and friend is Toine. We go back to the same neighborhood and have always found a way to work with one another. Toine shot the cover for my instrumental album, Rock Creek Park, as well as being my tour documentarian in the past. I played the record when he came to visit and expressed to him that I felt like it was missing a very straightforward rap record. He played me a demo he was working on, produced by our friend and gifted producer, Dunc. It fit my album perfectly and I asked if he’d be willing to part with it and feature on it as well. Dunc sent the stems, added some additional instrumentation to it, and my band drummer, Jon Laine, did an outro. This is the only track on the album I didn’t produce.

11. “Work to Do”
This is one of the earliest recordings I did for this album. It was one of the tracks that made me say “I’m ready to do another album.” I sent the track to my big bro Hezekiah in Philly. Hez played it for Bilal and they co-wrote the chorus sketch I provided. I can’t wait to perform this song live!

12. “People Watching”
I write a lot of my lyrics outside. I use the world around me as inspiration for the subject matter. The idea for the song came not when I hit the streets in search of ideas, but when I was just going about my day-to-day life. I realize now that I’m at the “I hate everything” stage of my life, and I’m very much enjoying it. Passing harmless judgment on strangers is one of my favorite pastimes. I hope that someone comes across me and has some wild opinion about my existence—it’s fun.

13. “Hard to Tell”
I needed this song. When I wrote it, I had one too many people in my life that should have been removed a long time ago. Once I finally had the strength to make the hard choice, it immediately motivated me to want to share my experience with anyone else that may be going through the same thing.

14. “Bogarde”
I wanted to show love to the DC, Maryland, and Virginia area and our rich musical history. One of my favorite DC emcees is Noochie. I took elements of our local music, Go-Go, and mixed them with elements of hip-hop. From our accent to our slang to our rhythms, this track is for the DMV first.

15. “The Way”
Continuing my desire to make music with the live show in mind, this had to be my second-to-last track. After the energy of “Bogarde,” I wanted to bring the pace down just before I get introspective and triumphant on the outro. “The Way” showcases two of my favorite up-and-coming artists, Saint Ezekiel and Haile Supreme. Haile being of Ethiopian descent and Ezekiel being of Nigerian, I wanted this to be a story about transatlantic love. We truly live in a world where you can find love anywhere.

16. “Race”
The discipline, motivation, drive, anxiousness, dreams, and desires—this is what It feels like at times, a race. Defining my course and goals felt like the right way to end the story that is this album. In keeping with the metaphor, I know now that there was never a finish line. I’m willing to keep doing what I love for a living as long as I’m alive.