Hannibal Burress is back at the grind.
This time, though, instead of working on new standup material, as is often the trajectory for famous comedians like him, Burress is working on what may amount to a whole new career arc. The quick-witted and multi-talented artist released his debut EP, Eshu Tun, under the same stage name, in mid-April. That eight-song album features both his production work and beat making as well as his sly, skillful rapping. For Buress, the work is both an exciting window into future creativity and something that connects him to one of his earliest loves: music. It’s something that’s invigorating him these days and, perhaps down the line, the work will inform future standup specials. But in the meantime, it’s all about the songwriting.
“I could coast and do standup and clock much more than I’m clocking right now per week,” Burress tells American Songwriter. “But I don’t know if I’d be as happy and inspired through that. Because I’ve done that already. I’ve got five specials already and I’m happy and proud of them but I feel like there’s more.”
Certainly, Burress is not bowing out of standup altogether. He may even incorporate joke telling and storytelling in his upcoming musical sets. But the artist also has a significant perspective. He knows hard work—this time in the realm of music—will only ultimately inform any future standup specials. In this way, for Buress, music is all about effort and growth.
“I’m not saying I’m never going to do standup,” he says, “but I bet in three years, my standup special is going to be way more interesting if I’m talking about how I’ve been pursuing rap for three years, you know what I’m saying?”
Truth be told, Buress is one of the best standup comedians on Earth. He is deliberate and nonchalant at the same time. His demeanor on stage is effortless, though it’s true he’s put a lifetime into it. He speaks to his audiences like a friend or roommate, but he is impressive enough to stand on par with the greats. And the same level of work it took to get there, he’s now applying to songwriting, beat making, and achievement in a recording studio. He’s even learning the drums—something he’s wanted to do since he was a kid, forced to learn the saxophone instead of the uber-loud kit.
“I’m looking at it, like, okay, if I’m really working at these other aspects of the game and I’m locked in,” Burress says, “then when I’m 50, my concerts are going to be fucking insane!”
While his career to date, which includes popular specials and appearances in Marvel movies, Buress knows there’s some level of step skipping he’s afforded that other no-name artists aren’t. Yet, while his name will get him in the door, no name is good enough to afford bad songs or lackluster performances.
“This ain’t no novelty shit,” he says.
He’s even begun to book big shows, reach out to promoters and work on sets for upcoming concerts. He calls himself a “hungry musician” who is willing to take discounts to perform his songs. (Though, “If you want some standup, I’m taxing your ass!” he says, with a laugh.) But while Burress is officially putting himself out there these days as a musician in full, his love affair with songwriting began when he was young. Starting with the sax, he says, that “probably had some imprint on my brain.” He wrote songs growing up, even before he began doing standup around the turn of the 2000s. While the songs maybe weren’t exceptional, they were good.
“They might not have been for radio,” he explains. “But if you listened to them, you wouldn’t have been bored.”
He remembers going to open mics. He remembers being around rappers, musicians, beat makers. He remembers “battle rapping” against lyricists, including the Chicago legend, Open Mic Eagle, whom he even beat once in a battle competition. Later, as his standup career grew, he had visions of creating sets around the idea of what fixed him in the world of hip-hop: why certain lyrics didn’t make sense, why some rap videos included a “To be continued…” ending but were never later resolved. He even talked about putting out an EP with fellow comedian Eric Andre. But nothing really materialized (though in 2020, Buress did put out the song “Judge Judy”). As his comedy career grew, it became more difficult to find the resolve to sit down and write songs or go into the studio.
“The time was absolutely there,” he admits. “But I was doing other bullshit like gambling or partying. With my extra time, I wasn’t really using it properly.”
But when the COVID-19 pandemic and resultant shutdown occurred, he had his opportunity. Around the beginning of lockdown, in September of 2020, Buress did what several comedians did: participate in a drive-in tour. But this, to say the least, did not suit him. Around that time, his most recent special, Miami Nights, came out (free on YouTube). The show did well and afforded him some great publicity but with COVID still raging, he needed more to do. He wasn’t interested in acting (and all of the hoops one had to do to undertake that work given the COVID-19 restrictions), so music became his outlet day by day.
“In that time,” he says, “the studio experience was still dope. The feel of creating music in that room, once you get in a room. The outside is kind of gone, you know what I mean? So, I was able to lock in and starting from about November 2020, I spent hat time learning how to record.”
In the studio, Burress would work on his own beats, receive beats from producers, and rap, freestyling and writing. Songs began to form, including a 14-minute raw freestyle that he was hyped on and sent around to friends. His main objective at the time (and perhaps still is, in many ways) was to write music that wouldn’t make someone go, in a bad way: What the fuck?! Buress wanted to write and release music that fit in playlists that he loved, work in clubs and not mess up the flow of the night when the DJ spun it. As he wrote, he got better.
“As far as the writing,” he says, “when I have the idea, then the writing is—it becomes pretty easy.”
On the new EP, Buress raps about teeth, bowling, drinking, and much more. The EP is fun. But it’s not some odd daliance. It’s not Adam Sandler singing about Thanksgiving and Lunch Ladies. Instead, it’s authentic songwriting—not comedy music. One thing that really helped his process was a recent trip to New York City. For the Illinois native, venturing back to the Big Apple, where his comedy career really took off, allowed him to feel old and new creative energies all at once. To feel emboldened where he’d made his name but also excited to be starting, in a way, fresh.
“That’s one of the things that’s been really dope about doing music,” he says. “Revisiting these places kind of in a new state of mind.”
He did midnight sessions in studios in New York. He worked and reworked songs, trimming verses, and using lines from one track to begin another completely new song. He’s begun to reach out to contacts to see if his songs would work for, say, the Professional Bowlers Association. He even found himself in a “bottle service” dance club in New York, randomly “air-dropping” his songs to whoever would accept the file. One of those folks was a DJ in the club, who played the track, which didn’t fuck up the flow of the evenings and the dancers. That was a big step.
“It was so cool to be in New York and realize how fast things can really move when you’re in motion and motivated,” Burress says.
In New York, Buress worked on new songs, using slower beats he may not have been initially drawn to at first, working outside of his comfort zone, but seeing he was agile and competent on different vibes and tempos. Later, he traveled to Los Angeles and kept working. Now, with the new eight-song EP loosed into the world, Burress is making more plans, both for music videos and live shows. With music, acting and even recording comedy specials, he can be completely hands-on, working with track unlike sequencing, mixing, and mastering.
Next up: Burress wants to set up some shows in some of his more trustworthy markets: New York City, Atlanta, Chicago, and Los Angeles. For starters, he’s got his eyes on a mid-July festival gig in Chicago that could include some 20,000 people in attendance: the Silver Room Block Party. And perhaps another at the large United Center in Chicago.
“I’m learning,” he says, “that it doesn’t have to be rushed. I don’t have to press the gas on it.”
Recently, Buress has done some small pop-up shows and, like a comedian might do after an impromptu improv show, he’s analyzing what worked and what needs to be tweaked in order for the material to truly hit the audience best. His focus is on the upcoming July dates. One song on the new EP, “Veneers,” especially hit live. That’s been an exciting revelation, says Buress. The song is slower, but in that way leads the listener through a hooky chorus. Burress recently performed the song at the “Detroit Thanksgiving,” put on his friend Danny Brown.
“People just rock with that one right away,” he says.
For Buress, the work is all infused with love. He truly adores music and piecing a song’s puzzle together. He finds both joy and honor in the endeavors. It’s truly admirable. Burress could be doing more Marvel movies. He could be going into some Netflix special or sitcom. He could be leveraging the work he’s already done to live fat off the land, so to speak. Instead, he’s challenging himself, doing something he loves—yes—but in many ways starting from scratch. While, sure, his name will get him into some important rooms others may not get to right away, he has to make sure the product is there in full, never the less. And it is.
“I just love having the shit work,” Burress says.
Photo courtesy Hannibal Burress