Tierra Whack Breaks Reality in 'Cypher'

Tierra Whack Breaks Reality in 'Cypher'

By Ivan GuzmanNov 28, 2023

The word "cypher" has two definitions. In hip-hop culture, a cypher is a gathering of rappers who stand in a circle and take turns freestyling. It also defines a hidden code or secret writing — in World War II, for example, spies would often communicate using cyphers. Tierra Whack plays with both meanings in her new documentary Cypher, now available to stream on Hulu and in select theaters via Andscape.

What starts out as a seemingly typical music documentary soon takes a twist, becoming a commentary on parasocial fan relationships, illuminati conspiracy theories and music documentaries themselves.

“It’s still hard to do interviews because I don’t wanna give it away,” the 28-year-old rapper told PAPER at the Brooklyn premiere of the film earlier this month. “Everyone’s like, oh it’s a documentary, and it’s like, yeah, but... it’s a buildup. You just gotta watch.

It’s true. Throughout the showing, fans become increasingly on the edge of their seats, at points screaming and buzzing at what's happening on screen as if it were a jump scare. Without giving too much away, the film takes a drastic turn when, after a show one night, a fan approaches Whack and her documentary crew in a diner desperate to show the rapper a YouTube video about an ancient secret society called the Oculists. The fan claims that the Oculists plan to perform an initiation ritual on Whack as their next ‘chosen one.’ What ensues involves hidden cameras, stalking, and acts that blur the line between fiction and reality.

When Tierra Whack first debuted, it was hard to not see her as a once-in-a-lifetime prodigy. She initially gained viral fame through her mind-bending freestyle on the streets of Philadelphia, a compelling artifact that showcases her raw talent and love for the art of rap. In 2018, she released her boundary-breaking debut album Whack World, and soon after came the Grammy nominations, the Apple ads the collaborations with Beyoncé.

Through it all, Whack developed an unstable relationship with fame. In 2021, she abruptly announced that she would be quitting music, before releasing a trio of EPs months later. For the introverted little girl growing up in Philly who would turn to writing poetry as a form of escapism, it seemed as if the added layers that came with becoming a mainstream star were becoming too much.

“When I was young, I was good at so many things, but then I pushed them all to the side to focus on music and rapping and singing,” she says. “So now I’m getting back into drawing and sketching, and that’s been bringing me joy.”

The documentary lands alongside new single, “Chanel Pit,” a classically Whack track that toys with whimsicality and double entendre in the way that fans initially fell in love with. She also has a new album slated for early 2024, which is sure to catapult her back into the public consciousness in a major way. After seeing the film, it occurs to me that perhaps it was her way of working through the feelings that come with so many eyes being on you.

Tierra Whack has always been an unconventional storyteller, a clever jester who aims to play with our understanding of things. It makes sense that her take on the ‘music documentary’ would be a meta-fictional rollercoaster that leaves the viewer questioning if what they just saw was real or not.

As far as what her new album will be like, in one word?


Photography: Rahul Bhat