Blackbear is a dichotomy, the perfect anti-pop antihero for the murky space between the millennial and Z generations. He capitalizes on overindulgence in sex, drugs, money, and fame, but there's an ever-present darkness in his trap-influenced beats and lyrical content. Blackbear oozes confidence tempered by vulnerability and sensitivity.
He's the fashionable sad boy who sweeps a girl off her feet and onto a bed of money and cocaine — but doesn't love her...or if he did, wouldn't let her know. He's a fantasy cooked up in a Los Angeles studio, exploring themes that certainly aren't new but are presented in a way that's fresh and almost alarmingly direct, definitely blunter than contemporary heartthrobs Justin Bieber (for whom he wrote the hit “Boyfriend”) and Drake. But is it sincere?
“I don't do all the things I say I do in my songs, but nobody does,” he says. “I'm an honest person. I've nothing to hide. I just don't want to be on reality TV.”
Over the phone, he's more soft-spoken than his rich, soulful vocals would suggest. He sounds almost childlike, maybe a little inebriated, which would fit the Blackbear bill. Still, it feels more like talking to Matthew Musto than his alter ego, as blurred as the line between them may be.
Musto, 27, began his life in Daytona Beach. Born poor, he was adopted by “an awesome Italian family” that he says made him “the boss I am today.” The family has thick roots in Pennsylvania. Streets there are named for his grandfather, but they soon took him back to his Daytona home.
“Growing up was different,” he says with a voice that trails as if his mind is a million miles deep into his past. “There's all different chapters of my life,” and this patchwork of experiences comes through in his dynamic sound.
Growing up in Daytona, he's not afraid to call himself a redneck. “I have several guns,” he says. “I have several dirt bikes and ATVs, good old country-boy things.” You can hear that influence in his acoustic renditions. Lyrics about screaming models who hover over lines of drugs come off like folk storytelling.
Musto had his first taste of the stage in punk bands throughout high school and then moved to Atlanta, where he was adopted by Ne-Yo and taught how to “sing real good” and “throw great pool parties,” among other things.
“I can write songs for girls,” he says. “I learned from the best storytellers in the world: Bill Withers, Stevie Wonder, Prince, Ne-Yo, Michael Jordan, Vin Diesel, RuPaul.”
He initially visited Los Angeles a decade ago to write songs with Mike Posner. The first song they wrote was Bieber's “Boyfriend,” which made Musto an instant millionaire, changing his life forever and informing the project that would give him fame.
“L.A. is where Blackbear was born,” he says. “I like to shoot guns and ride trucks and whatever, but Blackbear is a conceptual project, I guess. I wouldn't say it's all fake, but it's a little theatrical.”
Maybe that's because it has to be. Having gone from rags to riches almost overnight, Musto began living the life Blackbear sings about. Every night was excess.
“I was a raging alcoholic on tour, slamming bottles of bourbon,” he says. “I was normal party age — 24, 25 — and then one day, I just puked up blood and woke up dead on the floor of an ER.”
He was diagnosed with severe chronic necrotizing pancreatitis, which is a fancy way to say his pancreas was dying. He had numerous surgeries to remove cysts, and today, if he has even a sip of booze, it's a trip to the hospital. He lost 50 pounds in a matter of months, turning him into the waif-like figure that can be seen in music videos for “Do Re Mi” and “Anxiety.”
Since then, he has quit drinking and worked himself back to a healthier 140 pounds. The near-death experience gave birth to his album Digital Druglord, an LP that hit number 14 on the Billboard charts and gave him his biggest single, the double-platinum “Do Re Mi,” which itself blends innocent childhood rhymes with adult language and themes.
He followed that album with Cybersex, a record he says was meant as only a mixtape but features his biggest collaborations, including T-Pain, Rick Ross, Machine Gun Kelly, and Ne-Yo. Cybersex and everything he's doing now are characterized by all-pink everything.
“It's a color, and I like it,” he says. “I don't think [it's girlie]. I can paint my truck pink. That's the point of [intro track] 'Bright Pink Tims' and Cam'ron being on it, him being the influence for that particular song.”
On the album cover, Musto is joined by a pink cybernetic male figure he calls “the Cyberman.”
“He's a digital re-creation of who I am and who I used to be,” Musto says. “He's the Devil on my shoulder. He represents the old me, if you will — the person that died.”
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In 2018, Blackbear continues to evolve. He wants to break down gender barriers as he expands his empire. He's already a designer in the sense of his own merchandise and set pieces. He'll soon unveil a men's makeup line, a market he thinks is gravely and ridiculously underserved. He claims to be a ghost designer for Gucci, as well as a consultant for many of pop's brightest stars, whether or not he publicly takes the credit.
“I like to have my own space where I draw all over the wall and my dungeon,” he says. “It's artsy and it's cool, and I record my music, and I spend time with my girlfriend here. I live 40 miles outside of L.A. because of the paparazzi that I hate. I don't go out of the house. I don't go to the mall. I don't even go to Taco Bell. I don't even go to Cheesecake [Factory], and you know I like to go there.”
Moody 20-something, unstoppable creative force, underground icon, and androgynous sex symbol: Blackbear is all of these. He's a lover and a nightmare, a mama's boy and a demon. He'll hit the stage at Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival with his full band and a generation's worth of angsty swagger, and he'll bring all sides of his reality and his fairy tale to life with a wink and a half-cocked smile, a cigarette balanced in his frail tattooed wrist.
Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival. Thursday, March 1, through Sunday, March 4, at Sunshine Grove, 12517 NE 91st Ave., Okeechobee; 305-673-3330; okeechobeefest.com. Tickets cost $269 to $699 via eventbrite.com.