It’s hard to imagine that a hip-hop artist’s defining musical memory is hearing their father blast the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack in the car. In the case of Jared Lee, known onstage as the genre-blurring artist Duckwrth, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s swelling orchestrations struck a chord, so to speak, that awakened his musical creativity. “Just picture an ‘80s Mazda RX7 with red fur seats rolling up to school with that on,” he says. Today, dressed in a varsity jacket and his own snakeskin boots, he pulls off the juxtaposition.
Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, paradoxically reporting some of the highest crime rates in the country while laying the foundation for some of music’s most influential artists—Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, and SchoolboyQ, to name a few—there’s an expectation that at some point, you’ll have to make a decision: enter the gang system, or forge your own path. His mother, whose maiden name Duckworth inspired his musical moniker, chose the path for him: religion.
“It gave me a backbone, really,” he says of being raised in the Pentecostal church, which steered him toward music. “Gospel is a great tool to learning theory, composition, melody, harmony. I’m pretty grateful that I had that upbringing to keep me in place in certain ways.”
Interestingly, Duckwrth’s latest album The Falling Man follows the fall of a king, playing out as a sonic roller coaster ride detailing the mistakes made when on a steep ascent to greatness. “It’s about where things get out of place when you fall in love and fall out of love, when you fall for the bullshit, fall for the hype,” he explains. It’s a storyline heard best in the standout tracks “King King” and “Soprano.” The next obstacle after avoiding childhood pitfalls is not getting caught up in the stereotypical life of a rock star. “I’m as rock ‘n’ roll as it gets, when it comes to imagery and music and how I perform,” he says. “But I don’t get into heavy cocaine or getting with 45 women in one night. I’m just trying to see the world, you know? I don’t want anything to slow me down.”
Indeed, he’s as productive as ever, writing songs and creative directing the short film to accompany The Falling Man. Having studied graphic design at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, he even did the cover art on his earlier mixtapes. Duckwrth also boasts a personal style that’s completely his own, layering vintage with hype beast staples and Bowie-esque boots. “I really love textures and mixing in the unexpected. I wear this flight suit with fringe when I perform. It’s all about having fun with it,” he says, adding that his style heroes range from Pharrell to the character Kaneda from the manga series Akira.
Duckwrth’s arrival signifies a new era in hip-hop, prioritizing vulnerability and inspiring fans to chase their ambitions rather than succumbing to a lifestyle they see on Instagram. “We’re presenting a different type of flavor for black men. We’re emoting,” he says, speaking about the collective of South Central L.A. artists he helped create called Just Friends. “We’re creating the space for dudes to speak on certain things they weren’t allowed to back in the day. It’s about inspiring other men to show that side.”
True to his manifesto, Duckwrth isn’t shy about putting his dreams out into the universe. “[Playing] coliseums is a big dream,” he says with resolute confidence. Perhaps it’s that gusto that inspires his vocal fan base who, among other things, credit him with saving their life. “The ones that reach out and say ‘you helped me not kill myself last night’ make me feel like I got a purpose in life because I gave somebody else a reason to live,” he says. “I have a reason to be here.”