Who is Eli Arbor? Ten revelations from ‘IDols’

Jacob - Nierenberg - The Stanford Daily

The last several months have been relatively quiet for the members of Stanford’s hip-hop collective The Outsiders, but they came back in a big way with today’s launch of Eli Arbor’s “IDols.” The Outsiders released “O/X1” in May of last year and followed up with some solo mixtapes, but “IDols” is the first new music we’ve heard from an Outsider since August. Arbor (née Elliot Williams ’15) spoke to The Daily at length about his creative process and the birth of his debut studio album. Here are the 10 juiciest takeaways from his interview.

·       “IDols” is a double album, with each half inspired by one of Arbor’s “artistic and ideological idols.” The first half speaks for his love of hardcore and punk music and professional skateboarder Mike Vallely…
As a teen, Arbor was big into skating, and one of his favorite skaters was Vallely, who was also the vocalist of the band called Revolution Mother. “He’s big on respect, honesty, loyalty — a lot of values and ideals I tried to take on in my younger years, and that sort of pushed me to gravitate towards hardcore music,” he says. In middle school, Arbor withdrew into the sounds of punk, listening to The Distillers and Dropkick Murphys.

·       …while the second half is inspired by actor and comedian Donald Glover, better known as the rapper Childish Gambino.
Arbor was a fan of OutKast and Kanye West growing up, but Childish Gambino — who Arbor calls the first “post-Kanye” rapper — was one of the first rappers with whom Arbor could connect. “He was concerned about being cool enough — or not being cool at all — or not fitting in,” says Arbor. “That’s the type of shit that I was worried about.” Interviews of Glover are sampled a few times on the album, most notably at the end of “After Graduation (Interlude),” where the multi-talented entertainer proposes that “life is just, like, about learning how to let go.”

·       Think there’s not much in common between hardcore kids and hip-hop nerds? Think again.
Nerdcore is a branch of hip-hop that references geeky topics such as science fiction and video games; it’s a genre that Arbor loves. Apparently these pastimes share a fan base among punks and rappers. “A lot of hardcore kids have Death Stars tattooed on them — like, they’re big into ‘Star Wars,’ big into comic books,” says Arbor. “They love their childhood; they love the things that make them happy.”

·       That said, Arbor doesn’t participate in the drinking and smoking that his favorite rappers rhyme about.
Meetus (Daryle Allums Jr. ’17) makes an appearance on the churning “x Hit the Blunt Take a Shot x,” enticing Arbor to “just sit and chill and breathe / Take in this THC.” Arbor’s response isn’t entirely fictional; in accordance with the straight-edge movement of hardcore, Arbor does not drink alcohol or use drugs. “It’s a lifestyle choice,” he says. “It’s my choice, not yours.” (The x’s bookending the song’s title are the symbol of straight edge; Arbor also had them drawn on the back of his hands in our interview.)

·       Of the 16 tracks on the album, Arbor is the most proud of “GPOY (Glover Intro).”
“GPOY (Glover Intro)” rides a colorful squiggle of synthesizer into the second half of the album. Lyrically, it tells the tale of a young Elliot Williams who “likes ‘Star Wars,’ and hated ‘Brady Bunch.’” Its flashy production, handled by fellow Outsider EAGLEBABEL (Tyler Brooks ’15), is reminiscent of the titular rapper, who coined the titular acronym (which stands for “gratuitous picture of yourself”). “It’s also the closest I’ve gotten to being completely, like 100 percent myself,” he says. “It’s allowed me to say a lot of things that I haven’t really told anybody else before.”

·       Another song on the album, “5 Lines [tw: Sexual Assault],” deals with an issue that Arbor is very passionate about.
Arbor runs for the shadows on “5 Lines,” a song so sensitive it requires a trigger warning. (He declines to explain the meaning of the song’s title.) The song begins with Arbor out to avenge a friend’s assault before realizing that such retaliation will not help her heal. Unfortunately, Arbor knows these feelings of rage better than most, having had friends open up to him about things that have happened to them. “You’re really like, ‘I’m gonna go kill this person.’ And you’re okay with that idea,” he says. “[Sexual assault] is something that affects so many people, but goes so under the radar.” Arbor pops off here — on people who blame victims, on dress codes that deem girls’ bodies as “distractions,” on athletes who get away with sexual assault.

·       Other topics “IDols” explores: guns, gentrification and “relationships as a measure of worth.”
As the name implies, “Shooters” relates three stories of gun violence from Chicago to Nigeria. “40 Acres” hits close to home, dealing with the destruction of a public housing complex in Arbor’s hometown of Rochester, New York, and the displacement of its black tenants. Even on “My Paradise” and “The Morning After,” the album’s most shimmering pop songs, there’s a yearning for self-love. He opens the former with a clever turn of phrase: “I don’t really know who I want to be / I really don’t know who I want to be with.”

·       There’s a reason for the unique capitalization in the album’s title.
ID is, of course, short for “identification” — and the search for identity is a key theme across both halves of “IDols,” as reflected in the straight edge beliefs he maintains, the connection he feels to Childish Gambino, and the romantic relationships that anchor his self-worth, Arbor is still trying to find out what exactly makes him what he is. “I feel like I’m stuck between a lot of different worlds,” he confesses. “I don’t know who I am yet.”

·       “IDols” makes the occasional reference to Arbor’s previous releases, even if he’s ready to move on and continue learning.
“Everything’s a progression,” he says of the relationship “IDols” has with his past works — an EP named “The Ride Home” and two mixtapes named “The Coldest Season.” For example, “After Graduation (Interlude)” is a response to “Graduation”, one of his very first songs — but that doesn’t mean that he’s not ready to put them behind him. “If someone came up to me right now and was like, ‘‘The Coldest Season 2’ sucks,’ I’d be okay with that,” he says. “I don’t need to be the old Eli, because the old Eli was still learning […] The whole point of ‘IDols’ is, I want to be myself.”

·       Even though it’s a solo release, “IDols” is a truly collaborative album — and, according to EAGLEBABEL, is “the most representative” snapshot of what’s to come for The Outsiders.
“O/X1” was an unabashedly fun listen, full of triumph and tragedy. Its overall tone is celebratory, the sound of a group of friends getting together and having a great time. But “IDols” is a different work altogether. It goes into darker places and asks questions that even its creator doesn’t always have the answers to, but it is a journey that he does not make alone. More so than anything before, “IDols” feels like an introduction not just to Eli Arbor — the rapper, the poet and the artist — but to Elliot Williams, the man behind the music.

 

Contact Jacob Nierenberg at jhn2017 ‘at’ stanford.edu.