Between Dreamer Isioma’s breakout 2020 hit, “Sensitive,” their vibrant music videos and breezy confidence, it’s hard to say whether the Chicago-based artist should be labeled the next best Gen Z performer, songwriter or vocalist. It’s much easier to stick with how the nonbinary rockstar refers to themself: an all-around creative director.
"Bad Ting" is the latest iteration of Isioma’s fluid, euphoric work. Arriving ahead of the release of their debut album, Goodnight Dreamer, out February 23, "Bad Ting" dates back to one of Isioma’s high school crushes as much as it does a tale as old as time — what they call an "endless cycle” of love and loss. The technicolor fantasy world Isioma imagines with the single’s music video is just a taste of the LP, which they describe as the first time they’ve been able to fully express their vision.
“I care less about making sense to the public and more so just vomiting all types of creativity into the world, even if it doesn’t make sense,” Isioma says. "Because at the end of the day, my brain just doesn’t make sense."
But it’s the unplaceable sense of their sound, floating easily from R&B to hip-hop to lo-fi bedroom pop on their 2020 EP, The Leo Sun Rises, that’s made Isioma such an impressive talent. Each of the singles so far are already fan favorites — which, given the range between them, from the irresistible funk groove of “HUH?” to the shimmery fast pace of their killer hyperpop hit “Crying in the Club,” is a testament to Isioma’s production capabilities as an expansive multi-hyphenate with an ability to surprise.
Goodnight Dreamer offers more than an unconscious eclecticism, though. Isioma set out to track the evolution of their own growth over the course of their short yet explosive career alongside the development of the human race through sound, traveling conceptually from the beginning of history all the way through to doo-wop, rock ‘n’ roll, '90s grunge and modern-day electronic music.
If that sounds ambitious, it’s because it is, but the 21-year-old creative director is ready and so is their fanbase. “I love my fans so much, they’re some of the craziest, funniest people ever,” they laugh. Yet Isioma insists elsewhere on the album, "I’m not anybody’s fantasy.” As much as they talk about fostering community through collaboration, being in love, borrowing from genres and their Leo confidence, Isioma is set apart as an individual creating their own sound.
Below, PAPER talks with Dreamer Isioma about “Bad Ting,” their production process, and how they managed to travel through time and still make it to bed by 10 PM every night.
To me, watching "Bad Ting” is like watching the kind of world people create when they’re in love.
I like to think of the storyline as a cycle of love and pain. It’s about how sometimes when you love someone you want them to be your savior, but at the same time they can also be the person that hurts you.
In the video, I get stabbed by a winged character. I enter the video all fucked up and they’re the one that saves me, but then toward the end it insinuates that they’re the one who also shot me, because they have a crossbow. It’s just an endless cycle.
That’s what the song is lyrically about, too. I remember I wrote this song a really long time ago — like, in high school — just about a crush that I had. I imagined myself as a knight, and they were the little princess in the castle and I wanted to save them, but at the same time I was also fucking them up, so it was this endless cycle.
It’s crazy you wrote that in high school.
Those lyrics still apply. Whatever type of time I was on back then, I’m like, yeah, still that way. It’s still very relatable and still resonates with me a lot. There were rewrites as time went on, but the foundation and the chorus have always been the same.
What can we expect from your new album?
This is my debut album. I’m so excited about it because this is my first time being able to execute the creation of the world that’s inside my mind. A lot of the time as a creative, I guess it’s hard for me to express myself or really show what I’m thinking.
And now, as time goes on, I care less about making sense to the public and more so just vomiting all types of creativity into the world, even if it doesn’t make sense. Because at the end of the day, my brain just doesn’t make sense and that’s okay because the products that come out of it are really cool. So it’s been exciting putting together all types of genres and sounds and instruments throughout the whole project.
The visuals coming from the new project are really cool. I’m wondering if you consider yourself more of a performer, songwriter or vocalist. What element of the work do you identify with most?
Overall, I would say I’m a creative director. It really does take a village to do everything that I do, but I take a lot of pride in being the mastermind behind all of the weird shit that goes on, and being able to have a bond with my friends in order to make sure everything gets done, but also with love. I never want to stress anyone out. If someone’s going through something, I pitch in. I want to be as hands-on as possible and put all of my energy towards projects.
So all the projects are collaborations with friends?
Yeah, some of my best friends. Shoutout to Saint Lewis and my band, The Celestials. We’ve made the first half of the album, generally, and then the middle part was made with my friend Victor. He’s out of Chicago, super cool, super talented. And then the ending of the album, that’s more like pop music, that’s produced by my friend Frankie. We’ve made songs together in the past, I’ve known him for a really long time. All of us, those guys, we really just click. We all just get it, we’re all just weird, and doing weird shit in the studio. It’s really fun.
The Leo energy is coming through really strong.
Yeah, definitely. I guess I identify with the confidence and the loyalty aspects of being a Leo. I’m literally living with my best friend and we’ve known each other since we were three years old, type shit. I keep the same friends, it’s very rare for me to lose a friend. Then the confidence aspect, I grew up being the prodigal child. I got all the toys, all the uncles and aunties fuck with me, and I just instilled a lot of that confidence within myself.
What kind of evolution of your sound can we expect from the upcoming album?
The concept for this album was to travel through time. So I thought it would be fun to travel through time with music. The first song starts with what I like to call a psychedelic afrobeat song because the foundation of humanity is from Africa, so I was like, "I gotta start there."
After that it goes more to ‘30s to ‘50s doo-wop rock music and then we get more to the harder shit, the more grunge-type music. The middle of the project is more funky, more R&B, then we get into ‘70s and ‘80s vibes. Then at the end of the project, it gets to what’s more popular now: electronic and pop, hyperpop-type music. I play a lot with my voice and different types of instruments and synth, just studying what people have been doing now and how they were inspired by electronic music in the past and trying to fuse it together. It’s a nice evolution of time with the album and an evolution of my growth as a person.
I thought you meant an evolution of your own sound, but then you hit me with "the beginning of time.”
Well, when quarantine hit, I went into a huge deep dive into the meaning of life and why we’re all here. I really tapped in with science and reading stars, and astrology and spirituality.
So this is why you’re a so-called “Scientist” on Instagram.
I used to be a movie character, but then I was just like, "No, this shit is real. I’m actually a scientist now."
How do you hope people feel when they hear the album?
I hope that people feel seen, that they find themselves in the music or the sounds.
What’s your process like?
I write all of my own songs. A lot of it starts with the beat. Maybe I’m listening to music and I’m like, "I really like this chord progression." I text Brandon, "What are you doing? I’m on my way to your house right now,” I text Saint Lewis, “I’m on my way to your house right now,” get in the studio, start playing around with that chord progression, start playing around with the drums. Eventually, we have a solid beat and I write to it. Then when the recording process starts, that’s when it gets kind of funky, cause that’s when I like playing with the pitch of my voice and the pitch of the song, the BPM, and it all gets really fun. And maybe a year later, it’s finally ready to see the world.
I love the creation process of making music. The main tough part is when it’s done and I’m like, "Now I gotta figure out how to make this make sense to the world and package it real nice."
Did you have a favorite Tiktok when “Sensitive” was popping off?
I don’t know if I can say I have a favorite. There were just so many. There were some people that I look up to and had watched for a long time. Bretman Rock was dancing to my song and I was like, "What the hell, that’s so cool." I couldn’t decide on a favorite. There’s a dance to that song that’s actually really hard. People were going crazy and I was just like, "Damn, people are so talented."
Can you do the dance?
I cannot dance. I really wish I could, I wanna take lessons. My biggest regret in life is quitting ballet when I was a child, I should’ve stayed. I would’ve been so raw.
What’s a day in your life like?
Well, I’m kind of old. I’m not actually old, but my mentality is. I go to bed at 10, I wake up at 7. I’m deadass. Every time I tell people that, they’re like, "Are you serious?" But this is happening in my life.
I wake up and I’m like, "What do I do?" I either read or I play guitar for a little bit, and then I need to get off my ass and go workout, after workout, eat some food, after eating, I just kind of sit on my computer until suddenly it’s dark outside and it’s time to get in bed again. It’s only when I have shoots or travel that things are fun, but my life is generally pretty normal. I get excited to go to Target. I just have a husband and a cat.
What are you doing outside of music, creatively?
I’ve been doing a lot of stuff with my mom. She runs a charity that’s based in Nigeria, so we’ve been plotting more about outreach just for this year and figuring out how we can go back out there.
And I’m also planning a listening party for this album in Chicago. It’s going to be sick as fuck, I’m really excited. I’m getting my troops ready for battle, making sure everything is all good with that. Honestly, I’m just trying to find happiness, just trying to find moral ground and make sure me and my friends are okay, and me and my family are okay.
Photo courtesy of Daniel Delgado