“RIGHT. SAID. FRED.”
The trivia host’s amplified voice booms through Urban Growler in St. Paul, nearby tables cheer or groan in response to their fortunes, and I have to ask OKnice to repeat himself.
“There were stints in fall 2020 when I just didn’t want to be alive.”
Uh. Hm. Well then. Right Said Fred, you say?
Don’t worry! OKnice is doing fine. (As fine as any of us are doing, anyway.) We’re just talking about mental health, and getting honest, and honesty about mental health means acknowledging that many of us, sometimes in undramatic ways, without intentions or ideations, think about how we’d make the choice between feeling depressed or being alive.
“I had no active plans,” the St. Paul rapper born Cris Gibson clarifies. “Then you come out on the other side of it, and you realize sometimes you just feel like that. But writing about that… how do you write about that in a normal way?”
OKnice offers one answer to that tricky question with his new album, Have You Tried Being Happy? The title sums up the query every depression-endurer has fielded from their (often well-meaning) (and just as often frustrated) un-depressed friends and family.
“I was just tanking,” he says of the time shortly before he recorded the album. “And as I started to come out of that, I looked back on all the shitty ways that people responded when I was tanking.” He chuckles, one of those laughs that lets you know he’s kinda kidding but no, not really.
“It’s not a downer,” he points out about the album, correctly. “That was a big goal. I didn’t just want to make people’s ‘bad day music.’” In fact, the album’s very first line is “I told myself I’d make a happy record,” though the second is “Told my friends I’d get my act together” and the third is (oh well) “Y’all can see I failed at that, whatever.”
But there’s a full range of emotion between happiness and depression, and it’s where most of our lives are mostly lived. Over a selection of trickily adorned beats, less spare and simple than they might seem, the rapper describes that life in a warm, slightly syrupy voice.
When OKnice speaks, you can hear a southwestern drawl that’s only implicit in his flow. The “OK” in his name is for Oklahoma, where he grew up, deep in cattle country, listening to rap mixtapes from Texas. “There was always somebody—somebody’s cousin comes to town from San Antonio with CDs, and you burned ’em,” he recalls.
His career had a wobbly start. When he was 12, a friend’s older brother was rhyming with some pals, and young Cris thought he could join in. “I rhymed something with ‘sucky’ and they just bullied me, just extreme bullying.” But a mixed diet of Lil Flip and Def Jux soon had him freestyling confidently enough, he says, to try to impress girls. (Did it work? “You know, Oklahoma… it was a good party trick.”)
Then when he was 17, the friend who’d been his rap mentor died. “I went a little bit off the rails,” he says. “I’d gotten arrested, and then I had this whole ‘I should probably get my life together’ moment,” he says. He wanted to get out of town. Turns out he’d met two people from Minnesota in high school, “and that was enough to pick here. I found a school that would take my .6 GPA and let me start over.”
Gibson migrated to St. Paul, where he’s been since 2009. “I feel more at home here than I ever did anywhere else,” he says, and his friends are mostly St. Paulites. “We all go to the same Target.” But he set music aside for a few years, only rhyming again, for fun, when local rapper Rich Garvey couch-surfed through his apartment. Soon, he was making music with his pals Jay and Hex, and even started to hint at building a following. As he puts it, “I felt like I was in a place of almost having people care.”
Feeling it was time to record something more substantial, he reconnected with his friend Andrew Hill, an established dubstep producer working under the name Nostalgia. Hill served as his coach for the sessions, putting OKnice on a tight schedule and demanding excellence. “He went all in on it,” Gibson says of Hill. “And it’s true: When other people care about your shit, you will too.” Collaborating with a slew of producers—Deergod, Zepeda & Akamoto, Minnesota Cold, Metasota, and of course Hex—OKnice accumulated a serious collection of head-nod beats to rhyme over, with details like the sneaky bass under “Nowhere: USA” or jazzmatazzy horns running over “Pleasantville” serving as subtle but engaging hooks.
For his rhymes, OKnice had plenty of recent life experience to draw on. In 2020, Gibson, who’s been married for 11 years, hit a bumpy emotional patch, and his relationship wasn’t insulated from its shocks. He agreed to make some changes, and that included being tested for ADHD. Then a funny thing happened: The results suggested a diagnosis of Bipolar II.
“I was like, ‘Oh, no no, that’s not what we’re testing for,” he jokes. “Even as comfortable as I am talking about mental health, this was different. I thought, this means I’m a ‘crazy person?’ No thanks, I’m good.”
A list of the symptoms, which described feelings and behaviors he’d always chalked up to anxiety, soon convinced him. “I realized, oh fuck, that tracks. For instance, one of my big manic things is, I’d send out text after text after text to someone I was working with, just thoughts, but with lots of second guessing and worrying,” he recalls. Friends excused these “mini-meltdown moments,” but less familiar collaborators might be a little freaked out. Now he could trace this back to his disorder.
Throughout Have You Tried Being Happy?, OKnice’s goal was to talk about mental health issues in a way that other people could get—including his family. “Growing up, my mom’s thing was always, ‘You worry too much,’” he says. “For my family, life is getting by and paying bills. They think, ‘I don’t have room or time to think about depression or how to deal with it.’ I tried to keep them in mind on this record, to make sure it isn’t just for people who are going through it. If you’ve never had depression, well, just think of your shittiest day.”
With: Lazenlow, Love, Ulysses, Yare, Zen Is In
Where: 7th St Entry
When: 7 p.m. Thurs. Apr. 7
Tickets: $12 advance/$15 day of show. More info here.