Lambo VanGogh continues to paint a picture on ‘Whatever Happens…Again’

The Columbus rapper’s new album releases digitally on Friday, March 18

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Lambo VanGogh

On Whatever Happens…Again, Lambo VanGogh frequently paints compelling scenes of everyday life, whether debating the merit of Kanye West’s Life of Pablo over tacos, ignoring the chirps from his Nextel phone or paying tribute to a fallen friend, fellow rapper Nes Wordz, who died in 2017. Other times, he treats syllables like juggling clubs, clearly reveling in the way the sounds can take shape in the air on tracks where he rhymes Chris Paul with “Better Call Saul.”

“I honestly feel like I can get on the mic and say, ‘Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger,’ and I know how to say it a certain way to get everyone poppin’,” said VanGogh, who will digitally release Tha Audio Unit-produced Whatever Happens on Friday, March 18. “I don’t need to be the most barry-bar rapper. That’s not my style. … I do want to paint a picture, though. I mean, I’m called Lambo VanGogh for a reason.”

VanGogh grew up on the North Side of Columbus surrounded by music, recalling how his mother and aunts would often harmonize on soul classics, singing in the round. In those days, the rapper’s house served as a neighborhood meeting spot, and it wasn’t long before his basement evolved into a frills-free studio, of sorts, a place where friends would rough out verses, later decamping to more professional studio settings to complete a final mix. 

While VanGogh traced his early interest in hip-hop to Snoop Dogg, he said he patterned his style off of those who existed closer within his orbit, in particular Benjamin Dior, who, according to VanGogh, could slide between crafting jaw-dropping lyrical verses and simply falling back on the beat, his voice bouncing through the track with natural grace. “I got a lot of my flavor from him,” VanGogh said.

At the same time, VanGogh always approached music foremost as a writer, relaying how he excelled with a pen in his hand rather than freestyling on a beat. This led to trouble, on occasion, such as the time an older family member discovered the rhymes he’d written and posted to the website Black Planet. “And they printed them off and handed them to my mom,” VanGogh said, and laughed. “I was like, ohhh. Yes, it’s pretty vulgar. … But it wasn’t a form I could put out loud yet, so I was just writing them down. … And these were pivotal moments to me.”

VanGogh described his transformation into a rapper as a gradual one, noting that he took his tentative first steps into making music in 2007 but didn’t fully come into his own until eight years later. “I found my footing in 2015, and when I say that it’s like, wow, that seems like a long time. But I was putting in the time, watching other people and seeing what their mistakes were. And that helped make me the artist I am,” he said. 

A turning point arrived when VanGogh started work on his second collaboration with producer A.U. (born Jack Burton) following The Golden Rapper mixtape, the comfort level established between the two drawing out new shades in his music. “I just took ownership [of that moment] and kind of became myself,” VanGogh said. “I don’t know how I found my footing, but something happened. … I guess the short answer is Jack helped me find my footing.”

VanGogh described the vibe at A.U.’s home studio in the years from 2015 through 2017 as one of possibility, with rappers passing in and out of the frame, offering critiques and lyrically jousting in an effort to raise the collective creative bar. It was at this time that VanGogh first crossed paths with Nes Wordz, a rapper he described as “a brother,” and to whom he pays tribute on “R.I.P. Nes Wordz,” which closes out Whatever Happens.

“Nes always wanted to give somebody advice, and he was still figuring it out himself,” VanGogh said. “But I remember he was going around Jack’s house giving advice, which was his M.O., and he pulled me aside … and was like, ‘I don’t have any critiques for you, and I’m going to be honest, I’m not trying to be your dad or nothing, but I see a lot of myself in you and your music. Just keep searching.’”

At the time, Nes’ words left VanGogh confused (Searching? For what?), but when he returned to them last year, something clicked. “He saw that I was searching for something because he was searching for something,” said VanGogh, who started to question if music was a worthwhile pursuit as pandemic malaise settled in over the last couple of years. “People in the city, we get to a point as we get older, and we see other people succeeding or not succeeding, and you can fall out of love with it, or lose your passion for it. … And at some point in 2021, I felt myself sinking into that territory: Do I really want to do this? Does it matter?”

Around then, spurred by a conversation with A.U., VanGogh revisited his earlier exchange with Nes, this time connecting with the late rapper’s words in an unexpected new way. “I realized I had to pick myself up and go, because I already got what I was searching for,” he said. “I have the knowledge. I have the keys. I have the musical cues to do these things. I just need to pick myself up, put my head down and plow through. And that’s how I’ve been feeling ever since.”