Close this search box.

The Creative Destruction of Quinton Barnes

The Toronto hip-hop artist is his own worst enemy and greatest saviour, too.

by Leslie Ken Chu

Photo by Ajay Hira

Quinton Barnes is no longer playing it safe. The Toronto-based singer-rapper-producer had always wrestled with his sexuality, ego, and self-doubt. It’s this conflict that is frequently reflected in his tumultuous smash-up of industrial hip-hop and R&B, and on his third album, For the Love of Drugs (Grimalkin Records), Barnes kicks the raging chaos into overdrive.

Barnes began working on Drugs in December 2020, a month before releasing his breakout sophomore album, As A Motherfucker. But as his songwriting progressed, his life began changing. “I felt the album I was making didn’t represent my life anymore,” Barnes says. “I felt like the more things I was adding, the less clear it was what I was trying to say.” 

It didn’t help that when Barnes previewed a song he was particularly excited about for a friend, she didn’t share his enthusiasm. “I’m used to you being bolder,” she told him, quickly deflating his ego. “The last blow was when Arca released KicK iii, and I was like, ‘This is an amazing album. I need to be more creative and more exciting,’ So I scrapped everything and started over.”

Drawing from the surrealist psychological and body horror of cinematic visionaries like Stanley Kubrick, David Cronenberg, David Lynch, and Darren Aronofsky, the album that emerged from the scrapped sessions was more daring, confrontational, visceral, and jarring than anything Barnes had unleashed before. And like so many works in the horror genre, Drugs is fully aware of how campy and over the top it is.

“Some of the more sexually charged stuff almost borders on ridiculous. I definitely think I was trying to be comedic and cheeky with it,” Barnes admits, chuckling bashfully about a song like “Wild Man,” where, over ironically regimented drumline percussion, he raps, “You got a big dick? / Learn how to use it / You got a small dick? / I’ll take that too, shit.”

But Drugs isn’t all tongue-in-cheek. It’s rife with boasts that boil over into open hostility. “I don’t know if it’s just hip-hop or the industry in general. I feel like a lot of people in different fields are in this hyper competitive mindset. A lot of people are struggling and don’t have enough access to resources, and I think everyone’s feeling the pressure.” Though Barnes admits his boasting is largely just him showing off, “A lot of it was not even about other musicians. A lot of it was general frustration because all the things I’d embarked on and all the things I’d imagined for my life at that point were not lining up.”

On the icy “Stunner,” Barnes acknowledges that his ambition drives him in unhealthy ways. To avoid slipping into a toxic, overly competitive mindset and ward off pressure he feels to top the success of As A Motherfucker, he reminds himself that nothing really matters, and nothing lasts forever. “When I was a kid, it was just about having fun, and at the end of the day, that’s still what it’s about.”

Drugs also counts the writings of Frank B. Wilderson III among its multidisciplinary influences. An author and professor of African-American studies at the University of California, Irvine, Wilderson’s also the founder Afropessimism, a school of philosophical thought which posits that Blackness and the condition of being enslaved are the same. As well, according to Afropessimism, Blackness is a permanent caste that society—specifically American society—needs in order to exist. This class is so fundamental to the function of society that full emancipation, defined as autonomy over selfhood, is impossible. That is, unless the whole system gets demolished so that the enslaved can build anew, towards a self-determined future.

Though Wilderson believes that Black art alone is insufficient as a revolutionary force or space of liberation, “He was saying artists need to continue to push forward and try to imagine new ways of thinking,” Barnes explains. “I don’t know if I’ve done that, but it felt new for me in terms of my own creative journey. What would an Afropessimist record sound like if I were to make that?” 

“It can be interesting to lose belief in everything, because that means you have to enter a space where you have to find new ways to adapt.” 

Wilderson’s work also inspired Barnes to think about creative destruction, the idea that the process of creating something new leads to the demise of that which existed prior. “It can be interesting to lose belief in everything, because that means you have to enter a space where you have to find new ways to adapt. Just because you lost your conceptual framework doesn’t mean you can’t find something new.”

Venturing into the unknown is always a gamble. It can be terrifying and take its toll on the psyche, but it can also be the exact lifeline an artist needs. Subjected by his insecurities for far too long, Quinton Barnes saves himself on For the Love of Drugs by hurling himself into the pit of chaos and channelling them into daring creativity. For the Love of Drugs is a call to action for others to rise up, push the boundaries, conquer their oppressors, and build their own prosperous futures.