Whenever an 18-year-old picks up a microphone, there exists the potential for magic. Perhaps this is because in youth the part of us that tells us “This has been tried before and it doesn’t work” isn’t there yet. At 18, we effectively understand what needs changing about the world, and we are still young enough to believe both that it can change and that it will because of us. Then again, great genius lies in some people, no matter their age. If they are given a tool to create and a place to post it, they will do something worthwhile.
This is the case for Kweku Collins, the teenage Chicago rapper whose EP Nat Love is due out soon from Chicago’s Closed Sessions. The EP’s single, "Death of a Salesman," is a sordid, dreamy lullaby with stark and unrepentant lyrics. "Murder, murder / The crows are calling," he croons over a glitchy drum kit frosted with vaporous lines of melody. Collins’s raspy voice pushes against the edges of the track. The effect is not unlike being in a dream in which someone keeps imploring you to wake up.
Over the past two years, Collins has amassed a deep catalogue of tracks, mostly bedroom-level reflections on love, life, loss, and creativity. But the force of his lyrics and the complexity of the beats, whether they are sharply self-produced or make use of the services of guest craftsmen like "Death of a Salesman" producer oddCouple or Phantom Shilla, push the music far beyond the limits of public journal-reading. All of Collins’s work is distinguished by a commitment to the ghostly, to songs that unearth themselves slowly over time, painting an intangible world in which the typical bluster of hip-hop is ever-present but securely blanketed by a preternatural sense of longing.
Last week, reality star and retired face-paint innovator Gene Simmons stirred up controversy by gleefully predicting rap would be dead within the next decade. And viewed through a certain lens, he may be right — not that the genre will die for lack of artistic merit, but for the exact opposite reason. Rap is so deeply relatable, and its central conceit — talking about your feelings over a beat — is so unaffected that it holds something of value for everyone. Its global popularity can be explained by the fact that rapping is much less artificial than confining your voice to a well-executed melody. So meaningful, in fact, is the form that its borders are being pushed both from within, by MCs wanting to communicate everything with the craft, as well as from without, by everyone else wanting to use rap to solve everything. What Simmons is accidentally right about is that this will likely continue until the borders themselves no longer exist. Hip-hop may become so well integrated into music's mainstream that it will cease to be a thing at all.
Collins and the rest of the Closed Sessions roster are situated at the brink of this transfiguration. They are making music that is currently called rap because black people are delivering rhyming sentences over beats (and because we need labels), but in every other sense it pushes far beyond. And here’s where the challenge lies. If you ask Collins or the masterminds at Closed Sessions, they will likely tell you that they’re guided only by a desire to make the best, most honest music possible. But it’s impossible not to think that, like all business ventures, they hope for the financial success needed to underwrite the continued making of great tracks. Collins’s pieces are deeply powerful and eminently innovative, but they are the kind of tracks that don’t get the club up so much as make the club cut out early to spend some time journaling. While he may not be going for bangerz, bangerz are still what we love. And if Collins, oddCouple, and company can stumble upon a drop that forces the body to move as mightily as the heart does, then we may be looking at the vanguard of the whole game. Such a balance is the brass ring for which many indie labels are searching. When a kid like Kweku takes the mic, we all suddenly find ourselves believing that anything, even this kind of magic, is possible.
I called Collins on a Wednesday afternoon. "I just came home from the skate park, and now I’m just kicking it," he said. We spoke about his music, his new label, and the state of our collective world in 2016.
Chicago has been repping incredibly hard over the past few years. How would you describe that special Chicago swag?
I think that people are special everywhere for different reasons. It’s all relative. But once Chief Keef came out, and once Chance came out, both of them really opened the door and people started paying attention. I think that's what makes a difference.
How do you feel about the fact that your music is starting to get attention?
It’s been all I wanted for so long that it’s really surreal that it is happening. This could totally not work, and I’m prepared for that. I’m just really grateful that I’ve been given the opportunity to try. I’m excited, I’m hopeful. It’s a trip. But at the end of the day, I’m just a person. It doesn’t make me any more special than any other person.
What will you do with your life if music doesn’t work out?
If this doesn’t work, I’ll probably go to school. I do have other areas of my interests and personality that I would love to explore. It's like skateboarding: For a while, I wanted to be a professional skateboarder, and I skated every day. Then music started becoming a bigger part of my life, and I eventually realized I love skateboarding, and I always will, but I can just do it for fun, and that’s enough for me. If music was the same way, I wouldn’t have a problem with hanging up the gloves.
The first thing that struck me about your music is how much it's influenced by reggae and dub. Who are your biggest musical touchstones?
A lot of the staples of their genre — the Marleys and the Lauryn Hills and the Sades. Jimi Hendrix. A wide spectrum of artists.
How about in terms of hip-hop? What are you vibing on really strongly right now?
Right now, I’m really, really into track no. 7 off of [Kendrick Lamar's] Untitled Unmastered — the one where he talks about “levitate, levitate, levitate, levitate!” Every time I hear that, I’m like, “Ah, this is the shit.”
How did you become a musician?
My father is a percussionist, so I’ve been playing drums since just before I could walk. From there, it was just kind of a natural progression that led me into hip-hop. I really started doing that freshman year of high school — five years ago now.
What’s the first music you ever remember loving?
[Grateful Dead drummer] Mickey Hart. His solo stuff. There was one album [Planet Drum] where he just takes ... percussion from every corner of the world and puts it together in one album. That was crazy.
Do you still listen to world-music percussion?
Yeah! I mean, I’m surrounded by it daily. My father still has congas and timbas, shakers, and kalimbas, all that stuff, around the house, so we’re always playing and jamming out.
Who are some of your non-music heroes? Just people in the world that you look up to, admire, and respect?
I would say Fred Hampton, for sure. Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, a lot of the Panther affiliates. Angela Davis, Richard Pryor, Jane Goodall, Steve Irwin, even. Just really anybody who is down for a cause.
What is the hardest part about making music for you?
The hardest part about making music, I feel like, is separating myself from it. It’s been such a big piece of who I am for so long, and it is really hard to remove myself from that. Over the past few months, I’ve been trying to kind of figure out me as a person aside from the music. When someone doesn’t like my music, to me it feels like you don’t like me. To me, this is, like, everything I am in three minutes.
You’ve produced a lot of your own stuff. Was it difficult to hand the keys over to someone like oddCouple?
That was cool. I had been a fan of oddCouple since my freshman or sophomore year of high school. And I’ve sent him emails, like, “Yo, I’m a young artist budding soon. I really dig your sound — I think we would work.” And I never got a response, but that’s just how it goes — I wasn’t trippin’ or anything. Once I started coming around the office and the studio with Closed Sessions, they were like, “Yo, we’re gonna set you up with oddCouple, and we’re gonna see if you guys can vibe out.” To me, he’s, like, the new Timbaland, almost. But he’s so multi-dimensional, it’s almost, like, unfair to say that about him. But then, Boathouse … same thing. All the artists on Closed Sessions have such a love for their craft that it's no problem for me to just sit back. They know exactly what they’re doing. I love giving up the reins.
What effect do you want your music to have on the world?
I just want people to relate and not feel like they’re alone in life. It’s really about empathy to me. If a white man from a very rich neighborhood who does maybe have some biased predisposition on racial ideologies that he lives his life by — if he can look at a black man and say, “You know what, I’m not with that, but I can respect you as a human being,” then we can start having the conversations of “What’s really up with race in this country? How can both parties, and both sides, not feel so much hurt? How can we really, really fix things like how everybody says they want to?”
We live in a particularly racially divided time. Do you try and address that in your music?
I’m starting to more. The subject matter is wide open. I think I have an interesting perspective, because I kind of see it from the middle, meaning white and black. I do try and address it — even if it’s real low-key, cloaked in metaphor, it’s still there. And then if people pay attention, they might come up on it.