Travis Thompson on his ‘YouGood?’ visual album

By now you should know that Travis Thompson is blowing up. A month ago on his own label, the 21-year-old rapper from White Center released the album YouGood?, which has since registered millions of streams on iTunes, Spotify and YouTube. In the last few weeks, he showed up to freestyle on a hugely influential rap radio show and wrecked the spot. With less fanfare but plenty of hometown love, he released a short film complement to the album, also called YouGood?, a wildly ambitious, impeccably shot 40-minute trip through the young man’s confident, conflicted mind.

Co-directed by Thompson and longtime collaborator Dylan Fout, YouGood? presents a video for every one of the album’s 13 songs, each given its own distinct cinematic look and feel; think Beyonce’s Lemonade but with no budget, nobody famous and a husky young dude in a hat as its centerpiece. Unlike Lemonade, YouGood? is tied together—admittedly rather loosely—with a narrative thread, and it wraps up with a wonderfully clever bow at the end. The finale is worth the price of admission.

I took my 16-year-old nephew to the sold-out premiere at SIFF Uptown two weeks ago. He’s an aspiring filmmaker himself, and was duly impressed. Thompson was thrilled to hear about it.

Travis Thompson: I hope he learned that that shit’s attainable as fuck!

He was surprised at how young you are and how professional the whole production was. I was too. What gave you the idea that you could even pull off something so ambitious? How did you know it was doable in the first place?
I think what makes it doable is the fact that we have a team. We have all the homies, they all have designated positions and they play their roles. My girl Jenessa produces, Shelton my manager is on-set, my drummer Jordan is in all the videos. Dylan’s always there as director. I knew it was doable because we move how these people in the industry are moving. Anything they have going on we can do. I’m at a point where I don’t have to work a job, I just have to do rap stuff, so it filled up my days. If you’re rapping for a living you have a lot of free time so it’s doable to do a film. But you really have to work those days.

I love the run-and-gun style of Brockhampton, the way they visually represent themselves. We try to have a similar feel. I want my visuals to be just as crazy as the music itself. I want it to be an experience. Even Tyler, the Creator, musicians who care about having cinematic visuals. I strive to walk the same line.

When did you realize that, along with being a rapper, you wanted to be a filmmaker?
I’ve been writing stories forever, since I was a kid, so I always knew I wanted to write a movie. But when we started making music videos with narratives, like “American Youth,” and I was sitting next to Dylan behind the camera, and being able to have my friends film in roles and act certain ways, I fell in love with the process. I want the videos to be my resume to make a movie at the end of all this

I love making music too, that’s where my heart’s at. It’s a 50-50 thing. I get just as excited when Dylan sends me a video link as when Tyler [Dopps, Thompson’s producer for YouGood?] sends me an audio file.

It’s like you’re a synaesthete, someone who sees sounds or smells colors.
I feel like I see it when I hear a song. I see a scene—that’s how my brain works.

Among those 13 clips, each is really different in feel, but I noticed some common themes in juvenile delinquency, drinking beer and smoking weed.
[Laughs] I wanted it to feel like a sporadic brain. That’s where my head was making the album—I wanted the film to represent the same way. You’re in and out of these worlds and you don’t know which is which.

Also anxiety. It’s your mental illness and your self-medication.  
That was the headspace making the album. You can feel it in the overall vibe of the thing, it’s a darker thing. The tones are heavy, dark. That’s where my head was at.

In the Q&A after the screening, you talked about iconic Seattle music videos and how they all have the Space Needle in them, but yours don’t. I appreciated how you went to the fringes of the city for locations. Seems appropriate to who you are.
When we set off to make shit we come up with the idea first, and when we come up with the idea, they always start off as million-dollar videos and we have to break ‘em down to this location, these people. Most of the time I was like I know a spot we can get the vibe we’re looking for, somewhere in Burien, White Center, West Seattle. I want to represent the spots I grew up at. And you don’t need to go to the Space Needle for people to be like, this is Seattle as fuck. Hanging out on the rope swing, drinking and smoking. People in my neighborhood went buck for that—it’s a legendary rope swing. But everyone has a rope swing. Everyone has a park. If you’ve been in the woods drinking and smoking you can relate to that. People’s experiences are more common than they realize and when you represent them fully it’s the most relatable and translatable.

You went to Eastern Washington, too; I could tell by the landscape and the fact that Karma Knows was in a few of the clips.
A lot of the visuals were assistant directed by Justin Frick who does Karma’s videos. I met [Karma] through Justin and we became friends. He’s a regular dude and I’m super regular, at the house most days. We got close during the making of the film and every time he was on set I was like, “Throw him in.” I want everyone to win so why not do what I can.

And then you were in Arizona, too?
For “Ain’t Shit,” we went to Window Rock, Arizona, right where my family lives. My family has a house in Window Rock, or Port Defiance, Ariz., on the Navajo rez five minutes from everything we shot for that video. When I was on those four-wheelers, that’s my family’s farm. That’s how they make bread. That’s why we were hanging out with sheeps and llamas.

That line “What if we make the loser famous?” from “Boy at Heart”… Watching the film, that one stood out in my mind and you said during the Q&A that it encapsulated the album.
It’s one of those ones I wrote it and I was like, damn. It made me take a step back. I watched The Truman Show and made a joke, like, what if my life is one big scenario and someone is playing me? Like, what if we threw this kid in the rap game? And it’s disbelief in everything that’s happening right now, and where we were even six months ago.

It’s that everyman appeal you have, that accessibility. Which is nice, but then you also go on Sway and fucking kill your freestyle. You’re the everyman with ninja skills. 
Thank you. That’s the goal. And I think YouGood? was a leap. It was different and it’s the most hip-hop thing I’ve ever made. Every day I went in the studio with Tyler I wanted to make something weird, something never done before. I don’t wanna be in a box. It’s doing way better than I imagined. We’re getting these looks, which goes to what I was saying—our experiences are more common than we think, and putting out an album that was fully me, it reaffirms what I already was.

That’s why when we post about shit, I’m grateful as fuck. We’re getting zero help from editorial playlists. Ebro played me on the radio today and I had my first press run but there’s a reason it’s working, why people believe in it. The streams are from people downloading the album. People are into it and can relate to it and wanna rally behind it. Just being consistent in myself helps me maintain it. It’ll go as far as possible.