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When mastering engineer Emerson Mancini works on an album, he typically doesn’t listen closely to the lyrics during his first session. But as he engineered Kendrick Lamar’s “Auntie Diaries,” from the album Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, Mancini had an emotional reaction to the words Lamar recited.
“My auntie is a man now/I think I’m old enough to understand now,” the prolific artist raps.
“I was like, ‘What? What’s happening? What is this?’ I ultimately had to stop and play the whole thing,” Mancini admitted. “I needed to know what this is about because I had just started taking testosterone a couple of months prior. The whole experience was really raw at the moment, and it was amazing to me.”
“‘Auntie Diaries’ is a song that inspired me to come out in a loud way,” continued Mancini. “I wasn’t out to anyone other than a couple of friends. No one professionally, no one publicly. I don’t know if I’ll have a more personal relationship with an album than I do with Kendrick’s in particular because it was really a big thing in my life.”
After Mancini mastered Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, he shared the news with Lamar and his team. “I said something to the extent of, ‘There’s a lot of bravery and courage on this album, and I would feel remiss if I didn’t partake in some of that for myself’ — and I just told them. And it was met with nothing but love. It was really an extraordinary moment in my life that I’ll never forget.”
Now, Mancini — who won his first Grammy last year for mastering Jon Batiste’s We Are — is competing alongside Lamar at the awards show in two major categories: album of the year and record of the year for the conscious track, “The Heart Part 5.” Mancini is nominated in the same categories for his work on Lizzo’s Special and her No. 1 smash, “About Damn Time.”
Mancini’s transition is so new that his deadname is how he appears in the credits for Lamar and Lizzo’s albums. The deadname was also used when the Grammy nominations were announced in November but then he sent an email to the Recording Academy.
“I hadn’t bothered trying to do that with Jon Batiste because I wasn’t out yet, so there wasn’t really anything for me to go on or to say on the topic really. I thought, ‘Well, this time I’m out, so let me see what happens if I just ask.’ And literally, all it took was one email, and 30 seconds later my credits were changed,” Mancini said. “It was breathtaking. It was like gravity kind of trembled for a moment. It was pretty wild.”
Mancini grew up in Long Island, New York, and got involved in music by accident. After taking a songwriting workshop as a teenager, he abruptly decided to go to music college. There the first generation American, whose parents are from Argentina, discovered music technology and fell in love with it.
“I’m kind of the black sheep of my family, being really creative and arts driven,” he said. “I always loved music. I played flute, I played piano, I played guitar and I was interested in computers and technology. My dad used to build computers from the desktops that people would leave on the edges of their driveway. He would take them apart and put them together, and make them work again. I had an exposure to computers and technology at a young age, and once I figured out that music technology itself was a thing, it all made sense.”
He then worked with 14-time Grammy-nominated mastering engineer Dave Kutch, whose resume includes Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” Bruno Mars’ Unorthodox Jukebox, The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” and recently, Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever.
“I really fell in love with the way that [mastering] allowed me the opportunity to collaborate with my friends and colleagues as opposed to compete with them because there’s so few mastering engineers in comparison to mix engineers and tracking engineers and producers,” Mancini said. “And it gave me the opportunity to really learn the administrative side of the business, along with the engineering, and the technical, and the creative. I really like to think of it as being able to sit at my little altar of sound.”
Alongside Kutch he worked as a mastering assistant on tracks like Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire,” but his big a-ha moment came when he heard a song he worked on — the 2017 track “Feel It Still” by rock band Portugal. The Man — on the radio.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God. This is really happening. I did a thing. Maybe it’s going to be OK. Maybe I’ll be able to pay my bills,’” Mancini recalled.
The song was a sleeper hit, and eventually topped Billboard’s Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart for five weeks, peaked at No. 4 on the all-genre Hot 100 and reached 7x platinum status. It also won Portugal. The Man the 2018 Grammy for best pop duo/group performance.
“This is a different thing than usual. This is going places,” Mancini said. “That was pretty exciting.”
But Mancini went on to engineer more multi-platinum hits, including Rosalía and J Balvin’s “Con Altura,” Lil Wayne’s “Sucker for Pain,” Ellie Goulding and Juice WRLD’s “Hate Me” and Marshmello and Bastille’s “Happier,” which set a record when it spent 69 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Dance/Electronic Songs chart.
Mancini has also worked with Pharrell, Common, Paramore, Migos, the Chainsmokers, Halsey, Carlos Vives, Willow, Demi Lovato, Gabby Barrett, Charlie Puth, Saweetie, Machine Gun Kelly, Breland, 6lack, Wiz Khalifa, French Montana and Cordae, among others. He even mastered the Top Gun: Maverick soundtrack, including the Oscar-nominated “Hold My Hand” by Lady Gaga.
But Mancini’s particularly excited about his recent work with Lizzo and Lamar because they visited his studio during the mastering process — which is unusual nowadays.
“The majority of artists don’t come in. It is kind of funny that the two things that I am nominated for are people that I actually had the pleasure of meeting in person,” Mancini said.
“It was really just exemplary of how Lizzo’s this unstoppable force of nature,” Mancini added of working alongside the pop star. “She had been elsewhere in the country, and flew in the day-of to do the sequencing. She was super-kind, super-gracious, super-focused. We went through a couple of different orders and put some stuff together until she was happy. It was amazing to see.”
His connection to Lamar is undeniable, and unforgettable.
“The whole thing was so special to me. I’m just over the moon,” he said. “I didn’t think that there was an iteration of reality where the album wasn’t recognized as being the extraordinary work that it is, but the fact that it received so many nominations, and in the categories that it did, it warms my heart.”
Though many praised “Auntie Diaries,” some critics found issue with the song, citing misgendering and deadnaming.
Mancini’s thoughts? “I know there’s been quite a bit of arguments online about what that song means, but it was crafted in order to make a point. And I think it opens an opportunity for people who aren’t or weren’t amenable to trans acceptance when the song starts might be by the time the song ends. I don’t think it’s written for people who already get it. I think it’s written for people who don’t, and I find that to be a really extraordinary and moving experience,” he said.
“To hear it coming from the perspective of a Black man who is a rapper at a Black church in defense of a trans woman of color who is in his family — all of those things are in one sentence — that’s absolutely mind-blowing and earth-shattering.”
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