FxckMr was supposed to take off in 2020 — now he's starting over
The Iqaluit rapper made a strong statement with his 2019 debut. Then the pandemic hit
Beyond the 6 is a CBC Music series that highlights hip-hop artists and scenes across Canada, beyond Toronto. This month, we talk to Nunavut rapper FxckMr, who released an explosive debut in 2019, but had his plans derailed when COVID-19 hit Canada and the rest of the world.
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FxckMr was staring at the edge of stardom.
In 2019, the Iqaluit rapper dropped his debut album, 1997, to rapturous reviews from the Canadian press. It sounded like nothing else in hip hop, and in Canadian music in general: dark, sinister trap beats paired with intensely powerful lyrics about battling personal demons as well as the epidemic of suicides in his hometown. (FxckMr, the moniker of MisterLee Cloutier-Ellsworth, is inspired by his late aunt Missy, who died by suicide.)
A number of tastemaking critics had first noticed FxckMr during the second-ever Nunavut Music Week, which took place earlier in 2019. It was a four-day event that invited southern music industry professionals up North to see first-hand the burgeoning music scene emerging there. The name that was lodged in most attendees' brains was FxckMr, generating a significant amount of buzz after performing multiple showcases that week including CBC's Q Live in Iqaluit. Upon seeing his fiery set, the Toronto Star's Ben Rayner tweeted: "You'll be hearing a lot about FXCKMR."
Riding the high of all this new attention well into 2020, Cloutier-Ellsworth had a particularly important week lined up last March: a number of headlining gigs in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal as well as a speaking event at McGill University, where he was set to discuss mental health, a central topic explored on 1997. "It was going to be the next big step," Cloutier-Ellsworth thought. 2019 was a great start, but 2020 was supposed to be "even bigger."
That week he's referring to, as you may have guessed already, directly collided with the beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic entering Canada. Unfortunately for Cloutier-Ellsworth, "all that kind of got derailed."
COVID-19 didn't impact Cloutier-Ellsworth's hometown of Iqaluit until late 2020/early 2021, but with the rest of the world shutting down, his career, too, had to take a pause. Suddenly, Cloutier-Ellsworth saw his streaming numbers drop, his concerts cancelled and, in his mind, he had "flopped."
"I was not in a very good place, mentally," Cloutier-Ellsworth admits, "I didn't have much motivation to make music ... I kind of just felt really stuck. I did very little writing. I didn't want to quit, but I didn't feel like I wanted to keep going."
'I never want to be boxed into anything'
This forced break made Cloutier-Ellsworth confront some roadblocks. He had to deal with the mental exhaustion that came with releasing such a personal and dark record. 1997 was an exorcism of darkness, a cathartic exercise where Cloutier-Ellsworth wanted to "throw all those emotions out so that I could start focusing on making different types of music." The music on that album reflected a "very heavy" time in his life, and it formed a narrative that followed him in the press. Suddenly, Cloutier-Ellsworth was seeing articles with its heaviest topic splashed in its headlines: "rapper talking about suicide and depression."
These are topics that Cloutier-Ellsworth cares deeply about, and is not ashamed to discuss openly. "It's a very big issue," he says, of the suicide rate in Nunavut, which is one of the world's highest. "I wanted to stand up for those things, but then it … didn't feel like a gimmick, but it felt like that's what I was going to be tied to, and I never want to be boxed into anything."
Music, to Cloutier-Ellsworth, is a reflection of what an artist is going through in the moment, and he never intended to stay in the mindset of his depression. It's not sustainable — he doesn't even like revisiting the songs on 1997 now — and it also only reveals one dimension of who Cloutier-Ellsworth is. In fact, as he was writing and recording 1997, he was simultaneously working on another set of songs: "happier stuff."
When time came to release a debut, Cloutier-Ellsworth chose 1997 because "I've never really heard anything like that album," and he believed that would set him apart from other artists. As a result, his lighter tunes were shelved — until this past April. Quietly, on his Soundcloud account, Cloutier-Ellsworth released Cryingonapinkwall, a collection of "lighter and easier to listen to" rough cuts that focus more on love and relationships than depression and suicide. A layer of sadness is still embedded on some of these tracks, but it's a less consuming force.
An example of such is its closing number, the spare, piano-driven "Suicide Note v2," which Cloutier-Ellsworth wrote after the death of rapper and Cloutier-Ellsworth's idol, Mac Miller. While it's a song that examines suicidal ideation, with Cloutier-Ellsworth repeating the phrase, "I wonder why I feel I wanna die," he says the song is "a way to express those sad feelings without all the anger."
Just as 1997 provided an emotional release, Cryingonapinkwall — which was named after a real incident where a young Cloutier-Ellsworth was kicked in the face and collapsed on a friend's pink wall, crying — was a liberation of feelings he held on to, as he pointed out in an Instagram post: "This is one of the only ways I know how to release those emotions so thank you for letting me be vulnerable and honest with myself."
'I don't feel pressure anymore'
It's around this time that Cloutier-Ellsworth also rediscovered the fun of making music, which he says he lost in the early months of the pandemic. Putting out Cryingonapinkwall was something Cloutier-Ellsworth did for himself versus for others, which was something he realized he was starting to lean towards in the wake of 1997.
"I was thinking too much about what other people wanted," he admits. He eventually said "f--k it" though, and went back to that source of enthusiasm and excitement that he had when he first started rapping in high school.
Part of that return to the joy of making music involved working even more closely with his friend Thomas Matthew Lambe, who also raps under the name 666God. Lambe, who has been working more on producing and engineering lately, now has a studio in Iqaluit, which has made the music-making process feel more accessible for Cloutier-Ellsworth, who previously had to fly to Montreal and book accommodations and studio time. Now, with Lambe's space nearby, the recording process has provided more intimacy, and Cloutier-Ellsworth feels like he can have a bigger hand in shaping the sound of his songs. (While Cloutier-Ellsworth has mentioned in the past that he hopes to get more involved in music production, he laughs and reveals that he hasn't gotten far into that process because "it's f--king hard, man!")
It's his hope that he and Lambe can become more central figures in the Iqaluit scene, especially for hip-hop acts looking for a space or producer. Cloutier-Ellsworth can feel that shift coming, but admits that the past two years have frozen some of the development in his city's music scene. As the world slowly re-opens, Cloutier-Ellsworth is ready to put all the lessons he's learned into practice.
Together with Lambe, Cloutier-Ellsworth has completed more than half of FxckMr's new album. Had you spoken to Cloutier-Ellsworth after the release of his debut, he could've conceded to feeling some pressure on an official followup.
"I don't feel pressure anymore," he says with a smile now. "To not feel [that pressure] is so freeing. I'm really working at my own pace now. That was the biggest thing I needed to understand after my debut album: it's my music. I've got to do it on my terms."
If you are thinking of suicide or know someone who is, help is available nationwide by calling the Canada Suicide Prevention Service toll-free at 1-833-456-4566, 24 hours a day, or texting 45645. (The text service is available from 4 p.m. to midnight Eastern time).