Sitting in the living room of his mom’s house, Malcolm “Waasi” Wills, wearing a retro Looney Tunes T-shirt under a letterman sweater, leans over and lights a stick of incense. As a wisp of smoke curls into the air, Waasi waves it around, blending it into the afternoon light.
“I almost cried when I got on stage,” he says, recalling the details of his show at the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar on January 5. More than 100 people filled the room to watch him perform tracks from his debut full-length album, Betterdaze.
In the crowd were family, friends and fellow rappers—including his former teacher Cullen “Fellowman” Wade and Betterdaze producer and engineer Finn Downey—along with complete strangers. When his set ended around midnight, the same time the album was released digitally, Waasi pulled his cell phone out of his pocket, went to his SoundCloud page and pushed the release button to a room full of whoops. After the show, Waasi says he yelled, screamed, laughed—he’d experienced a moment of reassurance: Music is a passion worth following.
Waasi, now 20, began writing poetry in middle school. He says he was “big into it,” but he was shy, so he kept his love for rhyming a secret until he and his friends started rapping during lunch at Albemarle High School while fellow students kept the beat, thumping on the tables.
He switched to Monticello High School for his junior year and recorded a song in the school’s studio. It gathered more than 30,000 listens on SoundCloud, and he started thinking he could go far with his rhymes.
Betterdaze is an honest peek into the life of a Charlottesville-raised young man on the precipice of adulthood. The album’s eight tracks talk about dating, about losing family members and friends, about feeling adrift in the world after high school and reconciling that feeling with your hopes and dreams.
Waasi creates with an awareness of the music industry’s effect on youth culture. He hates to see 14-year-olds popping Xanax or worse—because of something a rapper says in a song. When he writes he considers who might hear his music and what he wants to say to them is: “Be honest, be authentic. Speak your own truth.”
On the track “1 2 3,” he spits: “I see my own friends hatin’ but I’ma just use that shit as motivation/ So I’ma go get to the bag no complaining,/ ’Cause I’m trying to move my shit out of the basement.”
And when he makes it big? Fancy car, big house? Maybe, he says, but first he’ll pay off his mom’s house, buy her a new one if she wants. Waasi dreams of opening a school that encourages creativity and real-world knowledge, full of teachers like Wade, David Glover and Madeline Michel at Monticello High, who fostered his creative energy. He imagines it’d be like the Music Resource Center, but for adults too, he says, speaking it into existence.
These are big dreams for a 20-year-old guy sitting in a chair in his mom’s living room on his day off from work. But he’s just released his first album; there’s a wide road before him that he’s seen for years, and he has finally pulled onto it.
“That’s what [Betterdaze is] really all about,” says Waasi, swirling another curl of incense smoke around. “It’s like life is just starting.”