The stakes were high for the latest album from Portland, Oregon rapper Bryson the Alien (BTA). He named JUENETHIA after his mother, and that meant spending a lot of time in the quality control phase to make sure it was worthy of the title.
“I sat on most of these songs for four years,” he says. “I wanted them to be perfect. I’m putting my mom’s name on this body of work forever, you know.”
Flash back to 2015, four years before the release. BTA had just moved to the Rose City, and as he told Willamette Week soon after, he based the name of his stage persona–and the collective he co-founded, SUMALIENZ–on a feeling of distance from the local scene. Now, on JUENETHIA, he’s still blazing his own trail, but he’s also paying homage to the family he came from and the community he’s found along the way. Hence, the title.
“I wanted to just show the ultimate respect to my mom, and her name is unique, which makes for a curious title. I feel like my music is unique too, in a way, so it was fitting.”
Even before his sharp, deliberate flow kicks in, the record is already reckoning with themes of family and coming of age. It opens on a candid conversation between BTA and his older brother Brandon about some of the rapper’s earliest musical moments, vibing to Dr. Dre beats as a two-year-old.
“I knew I wanted to capture some dialogue from a family member for this album, and Brandon makes music too, so I felt he was the perfect one to show the world a vulnerable side of me like that,” says BTA. The two got the chance to spend time together and reflect while Bryson was visiting Ohio in the summer of 2019, around the same time he was recording JUENETHIA.
“We took some inner city kids who were part of this youth program Brandon mentors to a water park in town, and I was the special guest for the day,” says BTA. “We were sitting on beach chairs watching the kids play in the water and that inspired a deep conversation. Honestly, I had no idea he was going to say what he said. I just hit record on my iPad and got, like, ten minutes of audio–with Brandon’s permission, of course.”
From that conversation came the conversational interludes “Baby BTA” and “Kids,” which BTA used to frame the album and its focus on childhood.
“I felt like the interludes brought the concept full circle of being a kid and the pure innocence that comes with that, to now, being an adult and understanding that some kids never got to be kids at all because their home lives were unstable or chaotic,” he says.
He illustrates that cycle in his lyrics, which develop over the track list and hit a deliberate shift at the record’s midpoint.
“The first half is almost kid-like fantasy raps–i.e. the comic book references–and the second half is more reality-based raps about my life pursuing music in the midst of everything going on in the world,” says BTA.
JUENETHIA also features a rich family of collaborators on its punchy beats, laser-sweep synths, and jazzy piano samples. His brother sings on it, and each track features a different producer–each one significant to BTA in one way or another.
“I wanted to showcase producers in my circle who were on the come up and producers who I looked up to growing up–my heroes and my homies,” he says. In the homies camp, add Emilio Alvarado of rock band The Outset, who engineered and mixed every track but one, having previously worked on Bryson’s Hail Mary and Super Secret projects. The exception is “GREEN GOBLIN,” produced by Chuck Inglish, engineered by Iam the Human, and mixed by SUMALIENZ member Alfa007.
The extensive credits show the evolution of SUMALIENZ as a collective and label from its founding as a small live performance unit back in 2016.
“Originally, SUMALIENZ was the name of the group of artists who would perform with me on stage,” BTA Says. “There was four of us at the time, and it was too confusing putting all our names individually on the flyers, so we started going by one name.”
Two of those original members left the group to perform solo, but the name has lived on–first with Bryson and Alfa007 as a duo, but expanding since then into a larger artistic body.
“Around 2018, we began to transition into more of a collective to include other artists in our circle,” says BTA. “We also began releasing music under the name in label fashion, along with putting out merch, promotional stickers, and posters around the Pacific Northwest area. We pretty much just took the Odd Future approach with it.”
In the new year and the new decade, SUMALIENZ hopes to grab more attention from the music media–no small feat for independent artists who serve as their own management and publicity representation. In the meantime, the releases keep flowing; Alfa007 released his debut instrumental album in January, and BTA has another project in the works that could come out later this year.
There are also as-yet-unidentified artists with projects of their own who are new to the label. He’s not offering any spoilers, but BTA takes pride in the collective’s policy toward their copyright and creative freedom.
“I really want SUMALIENZ to be a safe hub for artists to be themselves and try out innovative ways of approaching the music,” he says. “Everyone on SUMALIENZ keeps their masters and are free to move how they want in regards to their identity and their contributions to the umbrella.”
And with that ethos of openness, given the time and resources, he’s hoping the limits are nothing short of extraterrestrial.
“Eventually, we want to transition into other media outlets like filming movies and developing video games, once we get the funding and help to pursue those things.”