Album Review and Q&A: Teller Bank$ — ‘The I & I’

The album opener to The I & I by Teller Bank$ finds the Des Moines-based rapper reflecting on the practical value of processing his trauma through his art. In “Friends,” he comments on the market forces which encourage work that perpetuates negative stereotypes: “I had to swing my sword before I use my pen / I had to use my pain to go and make me a profit / ‘til we get our reparations that’s the least they can offer.”

Bank$ is thinking out loud here, asking what he’s supposed to do as he continues to grow as an artist and human. Does he abandon references to his past when doing so jeopardizes the financial and social rewards that come from wearing his trauma for all to see? Many of the album’s 14 tracks pursue similar avenues, provoking questions surrounding identity and integrity, revealing a human trying to reconcile his escape from inhuman conditions.

The I & I is the third in a trilogy of releases produced by Indiana-based Ed Glorious, and it marks the eighth full length album from Teller Bank$ in the last year and a half alone. Despite this prolific output, the release is neither flush with filler nor stylistically incohesive, remaining musically consistent due in large part to the quality of soulful boom bap served up by Glorious. The album is rounded out with features from Aakeem Eshú, AJ Suede and Iowa’s own Rent Money (fka H the Prodigy), but whether it’s Bank$ or one of his collaborators on the mic, the album remains rich with creative wordplay throughout.

“Pages” showcases a lyrical style akin to classic Method Man, utilizing syncopated vocals to create a counterbeat within AJ Suede’s flow. This isn’t the only callback to mid-’90s rap, with Bank$ incorporating a few bars from Busta Rhymes on “Cain & Abel” and a lyrical hat tip to LL Cool J in “Finders Keepers.” Beyond its lyrical playfulness, however, the track also focuses on balancing the responsibilities of fatherhood with a lifestyle of hustling, illuminating an internal struggle of a man being pulled by opposing forces.

“Hollywood” finds Bank$ assuming a darker tone, with lyrics further reflecting an unbalanced mind. “Demons” acknowledges an ever-present threat of violence in his past, while also speaking to the ongoing impact trauma has long after attempting to move beyond it. A determination to do better for himself remains clear in these tracks, but the rapper also emphasizes that it’s the unconditional love of his children which continues to aid him in combating these demons from his past.

While the title The I & I is adopted from a Rastafarian concept that God is within all people, it can also represent a duality between separate parts of the self. For some lacking a cohesion between their intention and actions, this can result in an I against I scenario. For Bank$, however, his own I and I appear to be drawing near, with his work helping him usher in a new life while making sense of an increasingly distant past.

Q&A with Teller Banks

From “Friends,” can you clarify a lyric for me? You say, “I had to swing my sword before I use my pen, I had to use my pain to go and make me a profit.”

A concept that I address a lot throughout the album is, Black people are taught and conditioned to wear our trauma. Any kind of trauma that we experience becomes a badge of honor. It becomes what makes us special, what makes us important, especially when you think about the history of America, all of our biggest accomplishments are escaping something, right? Escaping slavery, making it out of civil rights, avoiding the police, all of these different things that our value is based in the negative that has been done to us at the hands of America and other people. We haven’t gotten any reparations for any of the pain and trauma or stuff that we’ve endured at the hands of America, right? But we do routinely make fortunes out of parading our pain or selling our trauma.

What even is “Black culture,” right? Black culture is all these specific things that block you in and if you’re not that then you’re not Black. But if you ask somebody “what is white culture,” nobody knows. Where that’s not the same as for Black people, where it’s seen as Black culture is a box and if you’re not inside then you’re not living the true authentic Black experience that people want to buy and have sold to them.

As you related it to trauma and having to wear that trauma on your sleeve, that makes full sense. It’s like, if you come from too privileged of a background, that’s somehow not enough to be a “true” Black experience.

Right, and the Black experience is defined by how it can be commodified and sold to other people, because that’s always been where our art is valued. Right? Not even the value that we put on it, but that’s what people wanted.

What’s bought and consumed by white people, for the majority, is going to be of a certain brand. It’s going to be 12 Years a Slave, it’s going to be Precious, it’s going to be Moonlight, even Boyz N The Hood back when that first came out. It’s going to be those stories that are seen as “Wow, those are so moving and meaningful.” That’s what we’re about, and so we’ve adopted that as a survival [mechanism]. Where it’s like any type of trauma — whether it’s poverty, not having a father, all of these different things — we wear that as a badge that we wear and people look at it and go “Oh, wow, he grew up on the South Side of Chicago with a single mom and gang banged and got shot twice and here are paintings that he does. What an amazing story.” And they’ll gravitate toward that, whereas if you’re just a regular dude [who paints] people are going to look at it like, “This is lacking.” You know what I mean?

We perpetuate it now, as well, but it’s also something that’s put upon us. And breaking out of it is hard because of how much of it is imposed from the outside and the inside.

This article was originally published in Little Village’s September 2022 issues.

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