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Welsh musician Ren's new album 'Sick Boi' is rooted in medical pain

REN GILL: I wake up. I take a bunch of medication. I go to the doctor's five days a week to get IVs.


That's Ren Gill. He has a number of chronic health problems. As the rapper Ren, he delves into the agony of his struggles on a new album called "Sick Boi."


GILL: (Rapping) I lay broken on the kitchen floor. I clawed at the laminate. Pain wandered my body - an uninvited guest. Bones of a home where the devil could rest. I cursed the gods, cursed my messiah, cursed my maker. I cursed all of creation. There I lay, feeble and thin, sick boi, sick boi, seven my sins.

RASCOE: Ren says his pain can be a gift.

GILL: It's a decision, at the end of the day. Like, I can either decide that this is the worst thing that could happen to me, and I can start pitying myself. Or I can go, OK, this has given me a perspective that most people don't have, and I can take that perspective and I can alchemize it, and I can turn that into music. I mean, after a while, you just adapt. And you're like, well, if I'm going to keep being the victim of this story, my life's not going to be a happy story. So you've got to take it, and you've got to change it into something that makes you feel like you're in control. Like, it helps you. It helps form the character that you are.


GILL: (Rapping) Pain that twists you, the heavens dismiss you. The Father, the Ghost, and the Holy Son.

RASCOE: You make many references to God in your music, and it seems like the illnesses you describe in your music aren't just medical, but maybe they're spiritual. Is that some of what you're delving into?

GILL: Yeah, I've always had quite a turbulent relationship with my idea of God. Obviously, because if you're waking up and your body's in pain every day, there's a lot of questions, do you know what I mean? So you want answers, and sometimes they're not right in front of you. So you have to create them for yourself. So I love the mythology behind a lot of different religions. I love diving into the stories 'cause I think there's a lot of powerful meanings that we can extract from them, and it helps me try and piece together whatever the hell I think that this weird thing called existence is all about, you know?

RASCOE: Is there a song on the album that you feel like exemplifies that to you?

GILL: The track called "Lost All Faith," which is actually a metaphor for losing faith in the medical industry, where you feel like you're not getting the answers or justification for something that's causing you a lot of suffering.


GILL: (Rapping) Oi (ph), I'm a charming fella. I like drinking cans of Stella. See, I'm living for the weekend, bad kebabs and salmonella. Cinderella story, rags to riches, spin it full propeller. I'm Nigella Lawson, stacking mozzarella. Only joking. I'm an introvert, alone inside my room because my insides hurt. I contemplate existence with consistence in my polo shirt then reassert my confidence with compliments I don't deserve. I calm my nerves by plotting for the day that I might leave this Earth.

RASCOE: I mean, you know, listening to your flow on this album, like, kind of calls back to earlier eras in hip-hop. I mean, I did think of battle rap. Like, I hear that you are from a small village in Wales. So how did you find your way to rap music?

GILL: (Laughter) Yes, it's a strange place to start, isn't it? I don't know. From a very early age, I just became obsessed with hip-hop and with drum and bass, as well. And obviously, growing up in a small village, there was nobody who was doing it. And I wanted to be a producer. So I'd sit at home making loads of beats and stuff? And I was like - being like, all right, mate, do you rap? And, like, nobody rapped, so I could never find anyone to do it. So I just started doing it myself. And when I first started, I was pretty terrible, I'm not going to lie. And I just - I was just persistent.


GILL: (Singing) I got what you want. I got what you need. Old-school kicks with a new school twist banging on my MP3.

RASCOE: Who were some of the people that you loved to listen to?

GILL: Back in those early days, man, it was, like, a lot of old-school stuff. Like, I really liked all, like, Tribe Called Quest, KRS-One, early Eminem stuff. I mean, one of the first albums that I bought was "2001" by Dr. Dre. And I just - there was the beats on that - particularly, I loved the beats on that. And then a lot of U.K. artists like Plan B, Dizzee Rascal, Ghetts and Skepta and stuff like that. It's just - yeah, all sorts of stuff.

RASCOE: You really seem to value, like, just telling stories, narratives.


GILL: (Rapping) Let me tell you a story about a boy named Jimmy. One years old, and his first words were mine, mine, gimme (ph). Two years old, he was walking; 3 years old, walking quickly; 4 years old, he was running around the pavements of his city. Five years old, and his daddy told him, listen here, son. You got to learn to be a man, a man, he works for what he want. Six years old...

RASCOE: Who is Jimmy, and what does he represent?

GILL: Well, OK, the thing for me that I think movies do amazingly - right? - movies will create a whole character, make you emotionally invested in them, maybe more emotionally invested in those fictional characters than you are in characters in your real life - the movies like "Scarface" or the series like "Breaking Bad," where you have this story of, like, innocence to corruption, to the point where you almost emphasize with the protagonist, right? You almost feel like you're on that journey so you can see all the steps that happened that made that person end up into a life of corruption. And I hadn't seen that done in music very much. So for that song, I was like, you know what? I want to do the same thing. I want to create a character, and I want to start at the very start, at the moment of innocence, and I want to tell his story from the moment so that everyone can see the little steps that brought him to a life of corruption, a life of misery. And, yeah, it was a really exciting challenge. I thought I'd have a go at it.


GILL: (Rapping) Twenty-three - a life of luxury, crystal and cocaine. Twenty-four - he makes the Forbes list, they're applauding his name. Twenty-five, and his daddy told him, listen here, son. While you are sitting in that palace, that don't mean that you won.

RASCOE: What happens to him at the end of your song?

GILL: You're going to have to listen to it to find out. I can't spoil the ending. That'd be, like, telling you what happens at the end of "Breaking Bad."

RASCOE: You don't want to say. OK.

GILL: Yeah, 'cause if I just tell you the end, if I just give you the pudding without having the main course, then it's going to ruin the meal, do you know what I mean? So you've got to listen to the end.

RASCOE: Your album, you know, it really bares a political conscience that seems to criticize some of the darker aspects of human nature, like greed and pride and envy. I'm talking to you as there are major wars going on, raging right now. What do you hope people around the world will take from your music at this moment?

GILL: What I would hope is to just inspire a point of mediation, because I think there's so much hyper-polarization in the world at the moment. There's so many people in echo chambers with their hands over their ears, shouting at each other and not listening to each other. And all that does is push us further apart. And it doesn't matter what the viewpoint is on either the left or the right, or what even the debate topic is. The most insidious thing is that that division is happening in the first place, and we're not able to sit down, have a conversation that doesn't end up in even more division. Because topics that we're arguing about, really, at the end of the day, they're not going to matter if we become so divided that we can't even agree on how to progress as a species.


GILL: The human being - we're the most incredible species, and we've got so much - this potential. And I think sometimes we waste that potential when we don't try and figure things out and we bicker over things. What I'd really hope to inspire is just more open, compassionate and empathetic dialogue because I think the world's thirsty for it, man.


GILL: (Singing) It's a simple situation with an obvious equation - you and me collaborating for the night.

RASCOE: That's Welsh musician Ren talking about his new album, "Sick Boi." Thank you so much for joining us.

GILL: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.


GILL: (Singing) Came in uninvited, two planets colliding. I don't really like it being on my own. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.