Mary Sue: Honest, hypnotic hip-hop emerging from Singapore’s underground

Written by on 14/02/2022

Mary Sue Singapore Soundcloud rap Kisses Of Life album interview

Where there is a mainstream, there must be an underground. As hip-hop flourishes in Asia, rap music becoming pop music and its artists turning into sought-after performers and even celebrities, the continent can expect to see more upstarts taking the medium to unexpected places beyond the bright, glitzy spotlights.

In Singapore, one of those young adventurers is Mary Sue. His lo-fi hip-hop, heavy on noise-flecked loops and light on conventional song structures, is a far cry from the glossily produced trap- and R&B-influenced sounds many rappers in the city-state gravitate to. If they’re emulating Drake and Travis Scott, Mary Sue’s heroes are MF DOOM and Earl Sweatshirt; if they’re aiming for Spotify playlist placements, Mary Sue celebrates a spot on Bandcamp’s front page.

“I just love the dirt and crunch of it,” he says of the woozy, deconstructed beats he makes. “If it’s too clean, it’s not right.”

People call him Sue. When NME meets the 23-year-old rapper and producer, he absent-mindedly fiddles with his face mask and occasionally stumbles over his words – clearly more at ease recording in his room at four in the morning than talking to a journalist in a noisy cafe. But, asked the right questions, Mary Sue speaks confidently. His thoughts flow.

Mary Sue has just released ‘Kisses Of Life’, a 22-song, 45-minute debut album that he began working on in the wake of MF DOOM’s death. On its first song proper, ‘Cavalry’, he broods on the legend’s passing, our ‘post-truth’ age and climate change, concluding: “The devil and his cavalry be coming to loot”. ‘Kisses Of Life’ is dedicated to Sue’s grandfather, whose declining health and eventual death is chronicled on the album. On ‘March’, he raps: “Losing the trust in myself / Like my grandpapa’s lungs / We worry for his health / These the cards that we dealt.”

Sue started making hip-hop music when he was a 17-year-old who loved Kanye West, so much that he tried to record his own ‘College Dropout’. He’s since gone off Ye: “I think he has like, 50 producers. ‘I want this sound that sounds like the wind’. It lost the personal touch.”

That personal touch is what Sue cherishes about his corner of hip-hop, which lives and thrives on Soundcloud; some bigger names in this sprawling field include MIKE and Navy Blue. “What I love about it – I think this is my favourite part – it sounds like you can do it,” Sue says. “I don’t want to say it’s easy, but it feels like you can write it yourself. It doesn’t feel like an ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ type of extravagant magnum opus. You don’t have to pretend to be anybody.”

“I just love the dirt and crunch of it. If it’s too clean, it’s not right”

As an ethos, Mary Sue upholds honesty and rejects artifice. As he raps on ‘Alone/Yam Seng’: “The samples be my canvas, and I’m painting when my heart heavy.” On ‘Kisses Of Life’, Sue cuts through the hypnotic loops with confessional bars about his own mental health, his relationships and his family – who, at the time of our interview, still didn’t know that he makes music. How did he get up the courage to bare his soul like this on record?

“I think it came from a place of ‘nobody’s going to hear this anyway’,” he says, laughing. “It was a catharsis thing. You’re just getting your feelings out.” Still, on his earlier releases – a trilogy of EPs over 2020 to 2021, and a smattering of one-off tracks – Sue often cloaked his raw emotions with wordy metaphor and abstraction. “I was self-conscious of my skill and people hearing my vulnerability,” he says. “But this tape, something clicked. Just say it – just say it simply.”

Sue’s decision to be more straightforward in his writing stems from the confidence and community that he’s found over the past few years. “As you gain more friends who like your music and more people listen – people who come up to me and say, ‘yo, your music means a lot to me and helped me out’ – you’re like, shit, maybe you’re kind of meant to do it at this point in time.”

Mary Sue Singapore Soundcloud rap Kisses Of Life album interview
Courtesy Mary Sue

Sue – who until recently maintained a fairly anonymous online presence and was sometimes mistaken by listeners for an American rapper – is also ready to “rep” Singapore in his own way. “There’s always a New York sound, an LA sound. Even within this scene, you can hear it. So I was like: it’d be cool if there was a Singapore sound as well.”

Indeed, Singapore filters through the cracks on ‘Kisses Of Life’: from the rowdy Cantonese toast sampled on ‘Alone/Yam Seng’ to ‘Paper Generals’, the only political track Mary Sue has released so far. “Fucking pandemic a bonanza / Revealing all this shit we got pent up / Leaders in denial is a recipe for cancer / Alternative affirmatives, the movement they gon’ tamper,” he seethes.

“Shit was going down in Singapore, don’t you feel?” he says of the time that song was written. “I was very disappointed. I didn’t grow up here… when you’re outside, you always hear of Singapore as multiracial. Coming back here, you see the problems and it’s really fucked up. Especially with migrant workers.” (On ‘Paper Generals’, Sue hones in on how migrant workers are ferried in the backs of lorries alongside goods and equipment, a longstanding safety issue that came under scrutiny again after two accidents last year. “Humans ain’t cargo / Decision ain’t a challenge / The conscience of the whole fucking nation held to ransom,” he raps.)

“I can’t freestyle. I take a long time to write. I feel like the only upside I have is being honest”

‘Kisses Of Life’ closes with a track by a Singaporean producer, fxrxzx, who’s one of several contributors to the record. Most of them are like-minded rappers and producers Mary Sue shares SoundCloud space with: Tony Bontana, TRISTANTHEEND, Oldman Freeman and many more. On ‘Wanna Be’, Sue delivers something like a mission statement for them all: “We not making hits, we making shit that you should sit with / Born to not miss, formulated from our souls, we don’t care about your nitpicking… The music avant-garde, but the bars hitting.”

It’s a rare flex from the paradoxically self-deprecating Mary Sue. He named himself after the literary term for an unrealistically perfect character, but in his songs Sue turns a ruthless microscope on his own faults, his stream-of-consciousness cadence trailing off as he sinks into introspection.

“My flow is not that insane,” he freely admits. “I’m not like Yung Raja, I don’t have that skill. I can’t freestyle. I take a long time to write. I feel like the only upside I have is being honest.”

Mary Sue Singapore Soundcloud rap Kisses Of Life album interview
Courtesy Mary Sue

Some of the most heart-rending lyrics on ‘Kisses Of Life’ are about Sue’s late grandfather, who died after a protracted battle with cancer and a lung infection. Though he was diagnosed early and offered treatment, he decided against surgery and its risks in order to “enjoy life”, Sue says. “He gave no fucks. What the doctor said don’t eat, he was eating… And shit, it came back to haunt him in a way because it got really bad. In his last month, he was so weak he couldn’t eat much.

“Waiting for someone’s death is a very strange emotion,” Sue adds. “It’s not like a sudden passing… every day you see him deteriorate, because [he had] no water, or the minimum. It’s a scary thing. He was a very lively person. And at the end, you see him… I was wondering, shit, did he regret his decision?”

Though his grandfather’s death (as well as his grandmother’s health struggles) inspired the themes of the record, Mary Sue doesn’t think ‘Kisses Of Life’ is a sad album. After all, that time in his life dovetailed with good, hopeful things as well, such as the start of university, and new friendships he fostered through music. On the song ‘Life’s Kisses’, he basks in the glow of community and slow but steady progress: “I’mma show you from the start in this race it ain’t about the sprinting / It’s the start to the hustle and we move in inches.”

When asked what’s next for him, Mary Sue says he’s got some new features on the way, but he’s mostly just “chilling”. After putting a good amount of music out in two years, he’s ready to lay low for a bit and see what comes. “If I make music, I want it to be something special. Something that sounds different, too. So I’ll take time to find that.”

Mary Sue’s ‘Kisses Of Life’ is out now via Higher Self

The post Mary Sue: Honest, hypnotic hip-hop emerging from Singapore’s underground appeared first on NME.

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