The musician and visual artist Jean Dawson is consistently viral — clips of his wide-ranging and somewhat existential interviews have a way of multiplying on social feeds — and yet remains a genuine enigma. Growing up, the 26-year-old artist split his time between Tijuana and San Diego near the border. His mother is of Mexican descent and his father is Black, and he says he drew early inspiration both from hip-hop and Latin music. Generally, though, Dawson prefers to eschew simple categorization. Recently, he stopped by Rolling Stone’s offices ahead of a run of shows that finds him opening for Interpol, Deftones, and Lil Yachty. “I live on the fringe,” he says. “It’s really cool. I’ve made sure that I couldn’t be categorized early on, [because] I want to touch everything. Just being a fucking experimental kid.”
Last year, Dawson released his second album, Chaos Now, earning a healthy amount of fanfare for his eclectic sensibility. Tracks like “Sick of It” have the frenetic, guitar-driven energy of alternative rock, while songs like “Pirate Radio” have the gentle twang of Bon Iver. “Black Michael Jackson” feels like a combination of all of these sensibilities and more straightforward, trap-infused rap. “Chaos Now was an idea that I wanted to essentially commemorate the feeling of my youth and how it’s fleeting,” Dawson says. “Everything that I do, I want it to be a coming-of-age statement. So when it came out, I wanted the vulnerability of me growing up to be something that I signified through music.”
Dawson says that as a kid he spent a lot of time by himself, and “quickly realized that I wasn’t really good at adapting to the world around me, so I just chose to make my own. And that sounds poetic, but it’s really not. I just chose to exist in my own parameters.”
Genre-bending, hip-hop-adjacent acts are a driving force in music coming from today’s Black youth. Lil Yachty embraced psychedelic rock on his latest album, Let’s Start Here, and Teezo Touchdown similarly leaned into more rock and punk instincts for his debut How Do You Sleep at Night? But Dawson seems unconcerned with those conversations. “People can say that I’m rock & roll. People can say I’m rap. People can say anything,” he says. “I just choose to not live in other people’s delusions. It’s easy enough for me to be like, ‘I’m not this or I’m not that,’ but anybody can call me anything. When I make music, that’s when I decide, ‘This is how I want to express myself today. And tomorrow, I might change.’”
In addition to touring with both Gen X and Gen Z icons, Dawson is working on music for his upcoming third album, which he says he hasn’t decided on an official release date for. Even without a rollout planned, the record has been a part of Dawson’s creative vision for some time. “I had planned to do an album every two years, and I had the first three already kind of solidified in idea, but I had to grow into those ideas,” he says. “It’s like buying a baby’s clothes before you have a child. That’s kind of what I was doing.”.
“She DMed me and she was like, ‘I love your music and I think you’re a genius,’” Dawson says. “She had me come through and we were in the studio and we’re working on some stuff for her world. I think we’re afflicted by the same kind of world. And I think she speaks truth to aspects of me, and I think aspects of me speak truth to her. So making the song, it was like breathing. It didn’t feel like an exercise.” He continues: “I think it’s called autonomic function of your body, which is breathing or your heart beating. It’s like, you can’t control that. It happens. And that’s kind of how our shit came about.”
In conversation, Dawson speaks gently but authoritatively. It’s clear he’s given ample thought to some of the more difficult questions of the universe. “I think my songwriting process is much like a detective when they have the strings, and they’re trying to connect the fucking cocaine dealer to the guy that distributes, and they use the yarn,” he says. “I feel like my music-making process is a lot like that, where I can see it all in front of me, but it’s just articulating it. That’s when I’m having the most fun. Sometimes it’s more stressful than that.”