A Polish Rapper Goes From Scandal to Superstar

WARSAW — The vast fields of Warsaw’s Bemowo airport have hosted concerts by some of the world’s biggest stars. Michael Jackson played there. So did Madonna. Metallica, too.

But last Saturday more than 30,000 people — many young teenagers, with their parents acting as chaperones — crowded together next to the runway waiting for a new star to get onstage: Michal Matczak, a 21-year-old rapper with bleached-blond hair and a constant grin, better known as Mata.

“He’s like the representative of our generation,” said Joseph Altass, 20, a student who’d traveled from Gdynia, more than 200 miles north of Warsaw, for the concert.

Zuzia Waskiewicz, 19, sharing a bottle of flavored vodka with a friend, agreed: “He’s the first person talking about real things about us.”

But one specific track marked Mata’s explosive entrance into Polish cultural life two years ago: “Patointeligencja” (an amalgam of the Polish words for pathology, and intelligentsia). Over spare production, Mata paints a picture of life as a student at Batory, an elite high school in Warsaw where many students are expected to push for admission to the world’s best universities. In his telling, few of the students are quietly studying for their final exams. Instead, they’re using drugs, alcohol and sex to deal with the pressure. “My friend wanted to spend his father’s whole salary on drugs,” Mata raps, “but his old man was making so much he would have killed himself trying.”

“Patointeligencja” was a sensation almost as soon as it appeared on YouTube in December 2019. Cyryl Rozwadowski, an editor at Newonce, a popular Polish-language culture website, said “it was such a groundbreaking event, I hardly think of it as a song anymore.”

Newspapers and TV shows started using the track to debate both the pressures on Polish youth and issues of privilege, like whether an apparently rich kid like Mata should be rapping at all. Their takes often reflected political divides in the country. Poland has for years been in a culture war, with liberals on one side and the ruling populist Law and Justice Party and its conservative supporters on the other, facing off over issues like gay rights, abortion and even the rule of law.

Some conservative sections of the media, including the country’s main government-run TV station, presented Mata’s track as showing the dysfunctions of the liberal elite. They regularly pointed out that Mata’s father is Marcin Matczak, a lawyer and academic known for his fierce opposition to the ruling party’s policies.

On his new album, Mata has a tribute to him called “Papuga,” or “Parrot,” slang for lawyer in Poland. His father has welcomed the association, this year releasing a book called “How to Raise a Rapper.”

A few hours before the airport concert, Mata said in an interview at his record label’s plush office that he liked causing scandal. “I’m a bit addicted to adrenaline,” he said, adding that as an only child he craved attention. Sometimes, he feels “like an internet troll more than a rapper,” he said.

But he insisted he hadn’t written “Patointeligencja” when he was 18 to cause a stir. He typed it on his phone during his final year at Batory when he’d “just had a big breakdown.” A three-year relationship had ended, he said, and he was overwhelmed with stress about exams and his teachers saying he was heading for failure.

One day, he skipped class and went to a Caffe Nero, where he poured alcohol into a coffee while searching for a beat on YouTube. When he found the music for “Patointeligencja,” the lyrics angrily spilled out of him. “It was just stream of consciousness, all these bad emotions coming out of me,” he said. “Even now, I’m excited when I think about that moment. I felt alive.”

When his father picked him up later, Mata rapped the tune to him. He said the song was like “the cure” for his breakdown. Soon he was writing his debut album, “100 Dni Do Matury” (“100 Days to Finals”), which reviewers later called a farewell to his childhood. He managed to graduate.

“Mlody Matczak” — released last Friday — is mainly about his new life as an adult, he said, but it also includes a track cursing Polish political figures who’d criticized him and his father. There’s a song about his grandfathers, who both died this year, one of complications from Covid-19. At one of their funerals, Mata got up to sing, and the piano player asked for his autograph, he said.

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