On the surface, Anjimile Chithambo seems like a fairly laid-back, affable person. Walking to a coffee shop in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood, the singer-songwriter casually notes the warm weather, deflects compliments with cat-like reflexes (“I am really not good at accepting any positive reinforcement,” he jokes) and expresses slight apprehension about the release of his sophomore album.
“I chose a job where I sell my diary,” they say with a wry smile, settling at a table inside a sparse café. “And when it’s time to sell my diary, I’m like, ‘Oh, no, people are gonna read it.’ And so there’s this sort of misplaced anxiety about doing the thing that I am literally contractually obligated to do.”
Yet if the only context someone had for the burgeoning indie artist was their latest album, they would see a fundamentally different person than the one sipping on an iced tea across from the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
On Anjimile‘s sophomore album The King (out Friday, Sept. 8 via 4AD), the 30-year-old artist unleashes a torrent of fury, dismay, discomfort and indignation at a world that refuses to let him live as he is. Suffused with bleak imagery and an embittered point of view, the album asks the audience to consider; how is someone like Anjimile supposed to survive in the culture we’ve built?
Creating the songs of The King was about Anjimile allowing themself space to grieve and process the myriad struggles they’ve faced as a Black nonbinary trans person (Anjimile uses he/they pronouns). The arduous process was largely prompted by the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and the subsequent protests against police brutality that broke out after the footage went viral. Feeling a deep well of anger roil inside of him seeing this kind of injustice continue to go unchecked, Anjimile says he tried to find whatever outlets he could to release that pent up emotion.
It started with listening to other artists. “I made a playlist called ‘Black,’ that was just a bunch of protest songs by Black artists — ‘King James‘ by Anderson .Paak, ‘Zombie‘ by Fela Kuti, ‘Mississippi Goddam‘ by Nina Simone, ‘Alright‘ by Kendrick Lamar,” they say. “Now, unfortunately, whenever there’s a new [story about police brutality], I play that playlist.”
That ended up helping Anjimile articulate just what he was feeling, and over the course of three days following Floyd’s death, he penned three songs that would become centerpieces on The King: “Genesis,” a wounded ballad of grief in impossible circumstances, “The Right,” a haunting depiction of fear, and “Animal,” a seething protest anthem that boldly declares “If you treat me like an animal/ I’ll be an animal.”
The divide between the severity of Anjimile the Artist and the placidity of Anjimile the Person is very much by design. “Believe it or not, I have a hard time expressing my feelings, unless it’s through song,” he explains calmly between sips of his drink. “I’ve always used music as the outlet to prompt me to look at my feelings and learn how to feel them and then express them. Because otherwise, I will do no such thing.”
Perhaps the album’s most commanding song comes in its titular track. On “The King,” Anjimile recounts the Biblical story of Belshazzar, the Babylonian king who sees a vision of a hand writing a message he cannot translate on the wall of his palace. Calling on Daniel to interpret the message, Belshazzar learns that he has been “weighed in the balance and found wanting.” As the message is revealed in the song, a whirlwind of voices and pounded guitar strings whirl around the listener, as Anjimile issues a curse; “The plague of our year/ The Black Death is here … There’s a flood of flame/ And it calls your name.”
The song’s lyrics were inspired by a conversation Anjimile had with their father years prior. Struggling with their alcoholism, Anjimile was approached by their dad, who told them the story of “the writing on the wall.” They weren’t offered an explanation or a moral once the story was finished — they were simply told by their father to “think about it.”
Years later, even after getting sober and finding peace in his personal life, Anjimile still found himself thinking about that story. “I think it stuck with me because it’s very scary. A disembodied hand appearing and just writing s–t on the wall? That’s a horror movie,” he says. “It wasn’t until I was writing this song that I feel like I got the point — I was thinking about police brutality, and killer cops and wanting to see somebody get weighed in the balances and found wanting. It almost became this revenge fantasy, where I was begging, finally, for some kind of punitive justice.”
Thanks to the turbulent nature of what they were writing about in 2020, Anjimile points out that they aren’t eager to revisit that headspace. “It was painful,” they say. “It was really cathartic, of course, because I’d never really gone to that place and I felt like I was able to seriously process some emotions that I was having a really hard time facing. But it was definitely hard for me.”
After months spent plumbing the depths of his psyche through songwriting, Anjimile was left with a few dozen songs representing the wholeness of his frustration. He shifted his focus back to his career — he was on the verge of releasing his debut album Giver Taker, a reflection on his coming-out journey and his struggle with sobriety exhibited through a sunnier, more optimistic sound.
It wasn’t until a meeting with his manager in late 2021 shortly after signing with 4AD that Anjimile realized his reflections from the summer of 2020 could make a good concept album. “I had all of these tunes in the oven, so to speak. And [my manager] was just like, ‘Hey — make those into an album,’” he says.
So, Anjimile started the process of choosing out the right songs to include on the project, and the right producer to help make them into a cohesive work. After six days of “producer speed dating” in Los Angeles, Anjimile found Shawn Everett. “Shawn is the man of my dreams, honestly,” he says with a gentle smile.
Meeting up with the producer at his home, Anjimile recalls talking with Everett for hours about “music, but also not music,” getting to meet his family, going together to a local restaurant and immediately hitting it off. After a week of dates that were just okay, Anjimile finally found a creative partner who he knew could make The King great.
One of the first things Everett asked Anjimile to do was to come with him to a series of art museums, and pick out a different painting to represent each song that would be on the album. It was an odd exercise for the artist, but one he says ended up bearing significant fruit for the album. “Having the images gave us a really strong focal point to work off of,” he says. “With those, we could kind of spin the songs around and make them fit. It ended up being a very visually motivated album.”
With their references in hand and ten songs selected to arrange and record, Anjimile and Everett went to work making The King. In what would prove to be one of the album’s most striking creative choices, the pair decided that the entirety of the album would be recorded using only two instruments — Anjimile’s voice and an acoustic guitar.
That is not to say that The King is your typical acoustic album — throughout the LP, Everett and Anjimile use every inch of the two instruments they’d restricted themselves to, finding increasingly innovative ways to replicate the sounds of drums, strings, harpsichords and whatever other instruments they feel would add to the album’s foreboding feel.
“For me, something that is really creatively stimulating is limitations,” they say. “Not only did that feel like an exciting limitation to bring to the table, but it also helped provide a sense of sonic cohesion to the album. It feels like a complete palette, if you will.”
Instituting that process of limitation meant creating strange solutions to problems as they presented themselves. In one instance that makes Anjimile break out in laughter remembering, the pair wanted to create a sinister, subterranean backing track to permeate the song “Mother.” Giggling to himself, Anjimile explains the recording rig they created to capture that sound: “That backing track is my original vocal and acoustic guitar demo coming out of a speaker and being re-recorded by a microphone that was submerged in a jug of water with a condom over it,” they say, their giggle turning into a full-throated laugh. “Does that make any sense?”
Despite the fact that it took Anjimile three years to write, arrange, record, and produce The King, he’s still struck by how timely the project is. According to data from The Washington Post, police have shot and killed nearly 1,000 people in the last 12 months. In January, Memphis police beat 29-year-old Tyre Nichols for approximately three minutes following a traffic stop; he later died of injuries sustained during the confrontation. Meanwhile, the transgender community has become the most popular target of anti-LGBTQ legislation in the U.S., with dozens of state legislatures proposing and even adopting laws that limit trans people’s access to best-practice medical care, discriminate against trans students, prevent trans people from being able to use the bathroom of their choosing and much more.
“I did not see the success of anti-trans legislation coming,” Anjimile says with a weary sigh. “I was shocked, but I don’t think that I shouldn’t be. I felt very naïve when those started passing. I just think about all of the queer youth who can’t live outside their parent’s homes, who now can’t even use their names in school … that makes me really concerned.”
That concern is why Anjimile hopes Black trans people listen to The King, so that they can experience the same catharsis he did while writing it. “I get that it’s a very intense record that that expresses a lot of anger and hopelessness and fear,” he says. “But when I wrote these songs, they were able to channel and release those challenging feelings. I hope folks get to experience that for themselves.”