Maségo plays by his own rules
Multi-instrumentalist begets ‘trap house jazz’
Maségo slipped into a silk button-down to go with his vibrant Vivienne Westwood pants and velvet Gucci sandals. It was his second sold-out show of the night at U Street Music Hall. He waited a second, letting his TrapHouseJazz Band take the stage, before sauntering over to play the instantly recognizable saxophone riff from his hit “Tadow.” The crowd, which began lining up on U Street before he had finished his soundcheck six hours earlier, broke into a roar.
The Jamaican-born artist calls himself a “musical actor,” and his live show makes that clear. At the mic, he’s a singer, a womanizer, a standup comic, a freestyle beatmaker and a dancer — almost all at the same time.
Before performing “Wifeable,” he inspired an audience-wide swoon as he pondered aloud the possibility of his future wife being at the show. On “Sego Hotline,” he spelled out why he should be any woman’s number one choice — “My text messages ain’t green baby!” — in reference to the longstanding Android vs. iPhone debate. He broke into a smoothly choreographed two-step with his backup dancers while his band played the outro to “Queen Tings.”
When he became thirsty in the middle of it all, he stopped to hydrate, then got the audience to sing along to a song he made up on the spot about drinking water.
His show days, he says, are when he’s at his “cockiest.” And it makes sense.
Between the rabid crowd and the backstage guests — which included GoldLink, his Grammynominated “creative brother,” and Xavier Omar, another occasional collaborator — he’s a far cry from the days when he’d host parties and jam sessions in his dorm at Old Dominion University in Norfolk.
The multi-instrumentalist (he says he plays 16 instruments at the last count) is having the most successful year of his budding career. His debut album, “Lady Lady,” came out in September to overwhelmingly positive reviews. He’s on a headlining tour across North America and seems to be inching closer and closer to a mainstream breakthrough.
That the 25-year-old has no formal music education — save for “YouTube University,” as he calls it — makes his ascent even more notable. He can’t read music (and has no plans to learn) and recalled being denied a scholarship to Old Dominion because of his dearth of music theory knowledge.
Without a technical education, he’s guided himself by trying to strike a sonic balance between “ignorance and elegance,” a mission inspired by the countless jam sessions he had with shipyard workers and neighborhood guys growing up in Newport News, Va. Those sessions birthed his TrapHouseJazz sound, a concept he describes as a mash-up of two genres — jazz and trap music — that represent Southern black culture but rarely intermingle.
“When I don’t know all the rules, I just break them all,” he says. “And it becomes like a higher level of music because of that.”
His ignorance, or indifference, to the rules, has shaped his career.
He once downloaded a couple of songs from Soulection, a popular music collective, then played saxophone over them and posted them online with the misleading title, “Soulection x Masego,” in the hope that the public would think it was a collaboration. The track has since been deleted, but soon after it went up, Soulection’s cofounder Joe Kay reached out and booked Maségo to perform in Los Angeles.
He met Sounwave, the Grammy-winning producer behind Kendrick Lamar’s biggest hits, after unknowingly flirting with his girlfriend on Instagram. As part of his old Instagram series, “Arbitrary Sax,” Maségo says he would freestyle on his saxophone then dedicate the video to a woman he would find on the app’s Explore page, for Woman Crush Wednesday. One of the women was Sounwave’s girlfriend.
“So I get this, like threatening call, and he’s like, ‘Oh, you making songs about my girl, huh?’ But he was cool, he just invited me to the studio and really took me under his wing for a while,” Maségo says.
Sounwave ultimately produced the title track for “Lady Lady.”
Up until his latest project, Maségo’s freewheeling, whimsical style of creating and performing had come to define him.
“If you put me on a track, you kind of don’t know what I’m going to do,” he says. “You know there’s going to be saxophone, probably. And I mean, there’s going to be some very like, haunting harmonies. But everything else is just however I’m feeling that day.”
“Tadow,” his most popular song, was recorded with Parisian artist French Kiwi Juice in one take in just eight minutes. The video has more than 60 million views on YouTube and features Maségo moving through a music studio in Paris, effortlessly switching between playing the saxophone, drums and piano, while recording his vocals on a loop station. The “Pink Polo EP,” his breakout 2015 project, was recorded with Dallas-based producer Medasin in just a week.
For “Lady Lady,” however, he took a step away from his TrapHouseJazz sound toward something more mature, a shift aided by his collaborations with Kojo, a Nigerian producer Maségo met in Los Angeles, who ended up executive-producing the project.
The album, Maségo says, marked the first time he’d ever taken time to rewrite his verses.
“If I really wanted to, I could just drop something every day,” he said. “But I felt like for this particular project, I wanted to just think every single bit of it through even more, where like for years you could just feel all the layers.”
Plus: “I’m going to have to perform these songs a million times — I better love it.”
To Maségo, “Lady Lady” is a “conversation about modern relations” and is inspired by his relationships with women. It explores an inherent contradiction within himself — the desire to find an everlasting love, which he sings about on the ode to his future wedding day, “Black Love,” and the ego and temptation that come with fame, as detailed on “Lavish Lullaby.”
“I’m still figuring out exactly what fits with my life,” he says.
Sitting in his room at D.C.’s Eaton Hotel ahead of his back-toback sets, and in between the incessant refreshing of his Instagram direct messages, Maségo seemed to understand the need for balance when it comes to overindulging his ego.
“To be able to be at the level that I perform onstage, I have to embody everything I’ve made my music about. Which is me,” he says. “But you’ve got to keep people like my band around me who will bring you back down to earth. . . . There might be women that are like, ‘Oh, my God, I need him,’ but then the two ladies on my [tour] bus will definitely joke on me for being ashy,” he says, laughing.
On the road, “it’s my birthday every day,” he says. But when he’s done with the tour, he’s looking forward to hanging out in his North Hollywood neighborhood, where he’s more likely to wear sweatpants than silk, and where the staff members at his favorite restaurant know his Acai bowl order by heart.
“I just like to balance it out,” he says. “That keeps you a normal human being.”
Jamaican-born Maségo plays at least 16 instruments but can’t read music. He invented the TrapHouseJazz sound, a mash-up of two genres, jazz and trap music, that represent Southern black culture but rarely intermingle. “When I don’t know all the rules, I just break them all,” he says. He is a “musical actor,” he says, and his show makes that clear. At the mic, he’s a singer, a standup comic and a dancer