As I settle in for my virtual meetup with Boston hip-hop artist Billy Dean Thomas, I can't help but smile to see they're wearing their signature two-toned button-down shirt and bow tie. The local style icon is maintaining their status in the cyber world, and their energy is magnetic through the screen. For a moment, it feels like we are together, in person, as if a global pandemic hasn't brought the live music industry to a standstill.

"I think that's something we all need right now," Thomas tells me, responding to my comment about their pleasant disposition. "And we can all still have our moment of flexing and being proud of what we've done because sometimes, the worst scenarios bring about the best stuff." It's a statement that speaks volumes to the kind of person they are and what they've chosen to do with their time during quarantine.

Thomas is teeming with excitement to share the news about new music coming later in the month: For Better or Worse, their highly-anticipated 7-track EP, drops on October 30. The album features the single, "Trust No Mo," an impressive collection of relentless flows and punchlines that critique our blindly trusting social systems and the attention-seeking mentality of our culture. It's a song that embodies a raw emotion, the kind that can only be captured by recording and creating music right now. "It's been my way of dealing with what's going on," they tell me. "From the politics to the social groups that I was a part of — that I'm now very separated from — it's given me a moment to reflect on how I felt about a lot of spaces and communities that I was a part of."

The forthcoming EP follows their 2018 EP Rocky Barboa, and while it shares similar qualities in form and style, their new work marks many firsts for Thomas. To start, it's a project that forced them to release some songs they wrote years ago and stored away. Thomas says they were personal and deserved to be part of bigger projects, but their partner saw things differently. "She's so sick of me holding my songs hostage," they tell me. "She's like, 'just put it out and see what sticks.' That scares me to death, but I decided for better or worse, this is the time."

Exploring vulnerability is also new territory for Thomas, something I realize as we get candid talking about the perils of openness. I've always seen them as charming and approachable, the kind of person who's always brimming with an infectious positivity. Thomas is all of those things, yet still considers themselves to be shy and reserved, too. "Maybe that's something I got from my mom because she's a super-poised Black woman who embodies this 'never let them see you sweat' kind of mentality," they say. "But I think now I'm hitting this turning point, especially with this body of work, where it's okay if I show a little bit of myself and my failures or say something intense. Just being okay to stand in that truth is what I'm learning."

Thomas at Schoolmaster Hill in Franklin Park.
Thomas at Schoolmaster Hill in Franklin Park.
Courtesy of the artist

For Thomas, this entire body of new work has allowed them to get closer to that truth. Thomas grew up in Harlem and moved to Boston in 2016. Right away, they sensed that the pride among the city's musicians was strong — but also that could play against them as an artist "from away." "It was very easy to feel like I could never be a part of that pride because I'm not from here," they say, "Even as much as I contribute and am trying to boost and support the culture."

They've since developed strong friendships and have collaborated with several local musicians, including their band, Michael Christmas, and 2020 breakout Anjimile. Thomas still feels isolated from the community but has carved out space for themselves in the local scene. "I had to just say, 'It's alright. Work with the people that want to work with you and that you support and that want to support you, and good things will happen.'," they say.

They're also learning how to validate their own perspectives and beliefs, instead of seeking that validation from other people. "I'm just trying to be open and let folks decide what resonates with them," they tell me. "I know there's someone out there that I can be a support system for. There has to be one person like me, you know? Even if it's just one, that's still more than if the music is sitting on the shelf, not being heard."

While the political and social upheaval of 2020 continues to influence much of the music's themes coming out right now, it's also affecting how the work is being produced. Thomas recorded most of the tracks on their new EP in a studio — and a few at home — but, more importantly, tested out a new recording style that ultimately influenced the project's entire sound. They chose not to listen to the beats, created by Boston music producers, before recording their vocals. It's a process that allowed them to tap into the realness of recording in quarantine; in fact, Thomas tells me that many of the songs' first takes made it to the new album. We joke about nit-picking and its role in the creative process, but they're not concerned. "I'm a Gemini, and an over-thinker," they tell me. "Removing that and letting my emotions lead has changed how I access my music. I feel like I tapped into something emotionally that I had never done in my life."

Thomas also isn't concerned about not being able to tour their new work due to the pandemic. As is the case with many artists, the pandemic has given them the opportunity to find creative ways to be more accessible. "It's forcing me to do the things that I've been distracted from," they say. "With the live performances, it's fast; it's quick; you're moving; you're touring. That takes me away from focusing. I would even say most of my performance career has taken me away from producing more work." Instead, Thomas is turning to the internet to connect with their audience. "For what my immediate goals are (and were before the pandemic), releasing a project now positions me exactly where I need to be. My focus needed to be digital; building a relationship with my listeners happens online."

Before we part virtual ways, Thomas asks if they can share some quotes with me, crediting both as sources of inspiration for what we'll hear on the new EP. The first one is from American artist and activist James Baldwin:

"I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually."

And the second is from Pauli Murray, a queer, nonbinary civil rights activist:

"When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them."

Cover at for Thomas's new EP For Better or Worse.
Cover at for Thomas's new EP For Better or Worse.
Courtesy of the artist

Thomas's new EP For Better or Worse is due out on October 30. Check out their website and follow Thomas on Instagram for updates.