Veteran Finnish rapper and singer Jesse Markin's second solo album "Noir" offers a deeper portrait of an artist who had to redefine himself after a surprising leap from the musical margins to broad recognition. Markin hasn’t always been the kind of confident narrator that emerges on "Noir". Growing up in a small town left its mark on him – including relentless ambition.
Jesse Markin has been creating music since he was 16 and performing live since he was 18. He’s a veteran of the Finnish hip hop scene as a rapper and producer with his group The Megaphone State since 2004. His real rise from the margins didn’t take place until 2019, though, when Markin released his first solo album, "Folk". It became one of Finland’s big surprises of the year in terms of both popular and critical success.
That album wasn’t intended as the launch of a new phase of his career, but rather as a final reckoning of an artist who was questioning the meaningfulness of the music business. Markin admits now that at one point before "Folk", he considered ending his career.
I figured I’d finish "Folk" and then call it a day. I felt like for me, music was just taking up time, money and energy, and my relationship with my partner was suffering. Was it really worth all that?
“I figured I’d finish this record and then call it a day. I felt like for me, music was just taking up time, money and energy, and my relationship with my partner was suffering. Was it really worth all that? I decided to put everything I’d learned up until then into "Folk" and just give it my all because I’d probably never return to this platform,” Markin recalls.
While weighing his own career, he pushed all of his energy into the record. "Folk" was a four-year process, so it meant a lot to Markin when it finally came out.
“I went over everything many times. I worked on "Folk" really hard every day. I’m always working on a record in my head, not just on recording days. At the same time I was thinking about what I was going to do with my life in general. And eventually it turned out that "Folk" got noticed,” Markin says.
Finding inner voices in isolation
"Folk’s" successor, "Noir", released on 11 June, heads off in a new direction from the previous fork in the road. How has Markin’s sound developed since last year?
“The mixing was done better on this album; the bass kicks harder and the vocals sound better. We thought about how the sound would work as well as possible on vinyl. We’ve progressed a lot technically, considering what kind of budgets records like this are made on,” Markin says.
"Noir" open-mindedly mixes styles, making use of a variety of sounds and encompassing bangers and ballads. The result is a heavy, dark-toned album at times.
We thought about how the sound would work as well as possible on vinyl. We’ve progressed a lot technically
So what musical influences have inspired Markin recently – and can they be heard on the album? When he heads into the recording process, says Markin, he gets into a mood in which he can be overly influenced by other sounds. Therefore he minimises external stimuli and tries to find other sources of inspiration.
“I try to shut out my own favourite things and listen to something that doesn’t affect my own recording process, because I know that I get too into them otherwise and might end of directly copying something,” Markin says.
His most recent music purchases have been ‘60s and ‘70s LPs by prog rock bands like Sandrose, Bakerloo and Aphrodite’s Child. Also on Markin’s shelf is Pekka Streng’s Kesämaa, a 1972 Finnish hippie classic.
How to dismantle your unconscious patterns
In the album’s lyrics, Markin takes a personal approach. He’s been pondering what change and leaping into the unknown really means after a successful album, what differences recognition have brought and how it feels to live with uncertainty and the idea of giving up.
“Maybe my writing has changed, in that "Noir" isn’t as analytical about society or as political as the previous record. I’ve tried to look deeper into myself and ask what this all means. My writing process changes all the time and it’s connected to what I’m reading. I pick up themes from books and lectures that I watch,” Markin says.
Maybe my writing has changed, in that "Noir" isn’t as analytical about society or as political as the previous record. I’ve tried to look deeper into myself and ask what this all means.
He says, for instance, that psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s 1952 book Black Skin, White Masks opened up points of reference about what it’s like to be black in Finland, to perform for mostly white audiences and to have to unconsciously fit into the role in which hip hop artists are placed.
“I can see it in my own behaviour and relationship to this culture. For instance Fanon has this idea about internalisation: when I think about the concept of ‘the girl next door’, do I think about a woman with African hair or a blonde? I suddenly noticed unconscious patterns of thinking within myself, which I’ve started to dismantle,” he says.
Growing up as a contender
Markin, who was born in Liberia, moved to Finland from Ghana at the age of six. He grew up in Viljakkala, a semi-rural former municipality of just over 2,000 people in southwest Finland. The small-town atmosphere was one reason why Markin found it difficult to integrate into Finnish society.
“It made me wonder why others saw me as they did. I’ve been a lot more reserved than I would have been if I’d lived in a city – sort of on edge all the time. When I was young, I learned a certain distrust, like when you walk into a room and you think that any one of these people could attack you at any time. My survival mechanism was to develop a kind of asshole attitude. I was really arrogant and really shy at the same time,” Markin says.
When I was young, I learned a certain distrust, like when you walk into a room and you think that any one of these people could attack you at any time. My survival mechanism was to develop a kind of asshole attitude. I was really arrogant and really shy at the same time
Growing up in a small town may have also had some advantages. Markin believes that he gained a sense of “rural absoluteness” in which there’s only right and left, without fuzzy areas in between. This seems to carry over into his attitude toward his own music, in which there’s no room for compromise, and any modesty must be shaken off.
“Ambitious music resonates with people and attracts them. It seems like you have to do it with a big ego in order to really accomplish something, and aim high to be able to find the things that lift you higher,” Markin suggests.
Minimal elements, heavy messages
As Markin sees it, Finnish hip hop is a constantly changing genre with expanding variations in styles and plenty of new talent. But it’s also a safe scene that needs to find ways to stand out from the crowd. For him, for instance, rapping in English was an obvious choice from the start. It offers a different frame of reference and challenge: when the language switches to English, the points of comparison immediately become international. You have aim for the level of your role models, not just that of your buddies.
“When I perform in English, I know that I’ll be compared to other English-language artists. So you have to jump up to that level in your skills and what’s challenging is that are an unbelievable number of excellent creators, so it’s a tough field. If I wanted to take the easy route, I could just start to translate and modernise old things into Finnish, like a lot of people do,” says Markin.
When I perform in English, I know that I’ll be compared to other English-language artists. So you have to jump up to that level in your skills and what’s challenging is that are an unbelievable number of excellent creators, so it’s a tough field.
For him, ambition as a songwriter doesn’t mean a huge number of instruments or tracks. It may be learning to say less when it comes to language. The lyrics on "Noir" include self-reflection, sharp analysis of the surrounding society and clever pop-culture references, but Markin’s flow is never packed over-full. Rather, it’s highly condensed, which gives the songs a tremendous amount of momentum.
“You can use as many words as you can fit in one line,” he says.
“Now I’m thinking about how to simplify things so that even with minimal elements, a heavy message can get through.”