When I get ahold of Alec Reinstein late on Monday night he sounds tired. It’s been a big couple of days for him. Reinstein, better known as Despot, the rapper from Queens who signed to El-P’s Def Jux label in 2004 and has yet to release an album due to his crippling perfectionism, put out a new single, “House of Bricks,” on Sunday during Ezra Koenig’s Beats 1 radio show. It’s his first official solo release since 2009, and comes after a revelatory string of guest verses on tracks by folks like Das Racist, Vampire Weekend, and Run the Jewels. In the years since his last single, he’s become something like an underground Ludacris, known for his sophisticated wordplay and incredible bursts of energy in a supporting role. “House of Bricks” proves that he can do those things when he’s the star, too. The track is an extraordinary blast of quotable bluster (“pockets full of Rogaine, bald out of control”) over a dense, jubilant beat by E*Vax, aka Ratatat’s Evan Mast. It’s one of the most exciting rap singles so far this year. So I don’t think Despot was actually tired when I talked to him. I think he was conserving his energy for when it’s time for him to go off.
“House of Bricks,” like Despot’s endlessly delayed debut album, has been gestating for a long time. He started working on it in 2011, and it’s become a staple of his live show since then. He performed it on 2012 on KEXP, a radio station in Seattle, and it slowly spread around the internet from there. Some people ripped the video to MP3 and passed it around, which kind of pissed Despot off, because he felt the song wasn’t finished yet. E*vax finally took it away and finished it, and so this is now the official version.
That doesn’t mean that Despot is content with how it turned out. In fact, he hears a bunch of things he would do differently.
“It sounds kinda dated to me,” he says.
Despot describes himself as a perfectionist who is also lazy, a lethal combination for productivity. He’s perpetually dissatisfied with his music because he can’t get the perfect sound he hears in his head to translate to real life.
“I think about going to the studio to work on a song, but then I’ll just, like, watch TV instead,” he says. As someone who has started a dozen short stories that I know will be good if I write them once I’m a better writer, I can relate. But Despot takes avoidant perfectionism to Chinese Democracy-esque extremes.
It’s fair to say Despot is neurotic. He’s said it himself. He’s possibly more neurotic than the average person, but for a rapper he’s at a Woody Allen level. It’s hard to imagine, say, Prodigy from Mobb Deep, one of Despot’s idols and a fellow Queensite, publicly copping to being unhappy with his new song the day after its release. But you would never know Despot has these insecurities from his rapping. He has one of the most stonefaced confident deliveries in rap, and his talent is undebatable. It’s very Queens, an inferiority-complex-stricken borough Despot reps hard. The ring on the cover of the single is a model of the building in Forest Hills near the border with Corona, where Despot lived for the first 25 years of his life. Despot says the ring is his calling card, as much a signature piece of jewelry as Ghostface Killah’s golden eagle, an item Despot references on the song. But he also calls it “ostentatious” in the tags on his own Soundcloud page. He has mixed feelings about this whole rap thing, even though he’s been called the best rapper in New York.
I tell him I’m not going to ask him when the album’s coming out, because it comes out when it comes out.
“That’s how I feel,” he agrees.
I ask if he’s ever considered not putting it out just to troll people who keep pressuring him about it.
“If it never comes out, it won’t be on purpose,” he says. “It might happen, but it’ll be because I dropped the ball.”