Beloved. Jazz. Paradise. It’s the Holy Trinity that encapsulated the late Toni Morrison’s three-book series.The works were a combination of raw emotions and social commentary, so powerful that musicianMcKinley Dixon marked those three words as the definitive transformative moment in his career. The result is Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!? (City Slang Records), an album that not only pours from every emotion that flows through Dixon, but touches on multiple genres as he details the Black experience in a brutally (and beautifully) honest way.
Born in Annapolis, Maryland, McKinley spent the greater part of his youth traveling back and forth from the DMV to Jamaica, Queens. “My formative years were spent in Annapolis, but most of the moments that have inspired me, came from Queens,” he explains. Dixon felt a kinship to the New York City borough, mainly in the way that the neighborhood kids looked like he did; the same couldn’t be said in Maryland. “It gave me kind of this sense of longing that really jumpstarted my thinking about escapism through music.”Raised in a household led by his mother who worked a double-shift job, he found himself rising at 5:30 every morning at the behest of his mother. “She really taught me a sense of discipline and how if you want something for yourself, you have to go get it.”
Musically, his household was only filled by “artists whose first name was Mary,” including the Queen ofHip-Hop Soul Mary J. Blige and Gospel duo Mary Mary. Discovering Outkast became serendipitous forDixon, as he gravitated towards Hip-Hop while also being drawn to the theatrical Rock of groups like MyChemical Romance and Panic! At The Disco through his friends in Maryland. “Those groups also helped me with my sense of longing, since their music reflected a sense of longing,” he recounts.
By 2013, he was bound for college in Richmond, Virginia and had begun to make music, finding a sense of camaraderie in the New York underground Hip-Hop scene and the Jazz community in Richmond. That same year he released a small debut EP, which roughly incorporated the gritty elements he loved about Hip-Hop mixed with the cinematic sensibilities of the Rock music that inspired him. Over time, his music became his vessel for self-expression, whether discussing the Black experience or his own relationship with healing. Projects like 2016’s Who Taught You To Hate Yourself? and 2018’s The Importance Of SelfBelief showed a gradual evolution in McKinley Dixon’s style, particularly in his utilization of instrumentation.
His 2021 debut album For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her was a game changer, as Dixon tackled his relationship with heartache and grief. He’s upped the ante with Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?, a project that at its core shows Dixon in a whole new era of his life, set to the backdrop of Toni Morrison who he describes as “the greatest rapper ever.” His mood has changed, as well as his song structure.
“With For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her, I was making these really dense and chaotic songs, stuffing whatever thought I had into five and a half minutes,” he explains. “With this one, I thought, ‘What ifI tried to keep that intensity and same denseness in a shorter, more catchier song?’” Songs like the semi-autobiographical “Sun, I Rise” weave infectious bars amidst a smooth flow that still paints a strong picture. “I wanted to tell this story of a boy who’s sort of a mixture of Icarus and King Midas,” he expresses. “He is now coming off this really big high that came out of trauma, but you can put them on anybody in his situation.” The track pairs live drums with keys, as Dixon’s storytelling is flanked by the melodies of vocalist Angelica Garcia.
Other songs like “Tyler, Forever” unpack his complex grief of losing his best friend Tyler to murder years back. Tyler has remained a common thread in Dixon’s work, only here he seeks a sense of closure to the pain. “I really tried to write beautiful beautiful words with every song,” he explains.
At times rough and other times delicate, Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!? is a journey into the psyche ofMcKinley Dixon, with all of the peaks and valleys. “I’m aiming for making my stories accessible,” he advises, “while also still keeping it to the heart of what I love.”
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