Courtesy of Sir E.U

Listening to Sir E.U‘s music requires a constant reshuffling of expectations—the beats sometimes rupture or disintegrate, and the lyrics tumble wherever the D.C. rapper senses a flicker of truth. The reward for keeping up, though, is an oddly warm realization that he cares about the art form as much as anybody. That love is only getting more complicated, too.

On the 26-year-old’s latest release, RED HELLY/TWIN TOWERS, self-reflection and impulsiveness are often side by side as he dives into his own flaws and attempts to make sense of slippery things like income, relationships, and peace of mind.

“I see myself, that’s why there’s eyes on the cover,” he says about the reptilian image he sketched for the album. “I’m recognizing these traits within me. Although I can recognize it, it doesn’t mean I can immediately expel it. And that’s a euphemism for ‘career’ in a sense, because although I can see why I’m not going upward at a rate that’s perceivable, it still is what it is—I’m still me.” 

The flaws range from misogyny (album-opener “GOOD”) to defensiveness (“4GIVE ME,” which is more about retaliation than forgiveness) to careless cockiness (“BRISK,” which could be a Kendrick Lamar cut from an alternate universe). When he expands beyond himself during the partially a cappella “LAST CALL,” the delivery has layers: Some of the lyrics are skimmed from Charles Bukowski lines about how young people are “flowers of chance.” 

Throughout the eight songs, producers Tooth Choir and Wreck Tech experiment with palettes of bumps, thumps, and meme-oriented samples. Sir E.U often gets out of their way. That kind of creative solidarity is crucial when it comes to the noncommercial side of D.C.’s hip-hop scene, he says. He’s enthusiastic when asked about D.C. rapper Nappy Nappa, another freewheeling MC whose output pops up in unexpected places on Bandcamp, SoundCloud, and social media. 

“We’re from the same school of thought as rhymers, and I know that is a product of the incubation that goes on,” Sir E.U says. “And when you’re going against the grain as somebody that’s doing it cathartically and truthfully and organically, and you don’t rely on or weaponize convention … you’re left to your devices.”

For Sir E.U, it’s multidimensional—he studied digital filmmaking at the Art Institute of Washington, and adores fashion, design, and photography. The “Red Helly” in the title is a slightly fried fashion reference, i.e. the Helly Hansen jackets that remain a signature look in some corners of D.C. (The “Twin Towers” portion, meanwhile, stems from his interest in 9/11 conspiracy theories.)

Sometimes the need to be seen leads to extremes, like a 25-hour solo performance in February 2018 at the Uptown Art House in Cleveland Park. The physicality of it became unexpectedly poetic. 

“At one point my throat really closed up from being dry and swollen, from using it that much,” he says. “It was around the last eighth of the show. I was just so fatigued, physically, that the level of emotion that I felt at one point from something I was saying or doing or seeing or thinking, it just made me cry.” 

A more recent milestone was an excursion to Côte d’Ivoire, where he performed in the coastal city of Abidjan and met a branch of his family—his mother is Ivorian—for the first time. That trip and others to London and Canada drove home the point that D.C. might not provide his best audiences, he says. 

“I have to do it for myself. I have to live my life for what I want it to be,” he says. “I can’t do it for what sells, I can’t do it for what somebody else wants me to be.” 

Sir E.U performs at 8 p.m. Thursday at Studio Ga Ga, 2218 18th St. NW.

Want a heads up about artsy goings-on? Sign up for To Do This Week, a twice-a-week email roundup of arts and cultural events.