Courtesy Atlantic Records

Kodak Black's Jailhouse ‘Letter’

The Florida rapper finds strength in a message from a friend

"I'm from the alley corner where we do a n***a nasty," Kodak Black raps on “From the Ugly," the cold track that opens 2015's Institution. That's a pretty bleak way for a rapper who’s not old enough to buy a beer to start a mixtape, but it's a typical stance for the 19-year-old rapper from Pompano Beach, Florida, who came to real prominence last year with his singles “No Flockin’" and “Skrt" (not to mention footage of Drake dancing to his music). This world-weary teenager doesn’t take a second of his life for granted — a quality that comes through again and again in his music.

Last weekend, despite a recent arrest on open warrants for charges including armed robbery and false imprisonment, Kodak Black released his first mixtape of 2016, the ambitiously titled Lil B.I.G. Pac. The moody blues-rap of “Can I" and the Boosie collaboration “Slayed" are good insights into his mind, even if they lack the spacey production and catchy, slurry hooks that made earlier songs like “Skrt" and “Like Dat" stand out among many Deep South rappers. Lots of rappers can speak to hard times, but Kodak has a unique way of playing his dire words against featherlight beats. His songs sound like we're listening in on a teen who's still figuring out how to make his way in a world that’s thrown so much at him.

The fact that Kodak is in trouble with the law provides a sadly timely backdrop to the tape’s best track: “Letter," where he describes being in prison and reading a letter from a friend. The song could be over-sentimental, but Kodak infuses it with the levity of two pals talking shit to each other. His friend — just out of jail himself — wishes Kodak the best as he keeps fighting his case, tells him how all his friends miss him, dreams of what they’ll do together once he’s free (“I was hoping when I get out we could ride around the city"), and even offers a bit of life advice (“This shit just a lesson for you, bruh, pay attention / When you get out, Kodak, just keep focus and keep spitting"). It's a novel way of presenting the familiar desire to make it out of a tough situation and to keep one’s head up.

Rap often takes for granted the bond between male friends, but “Letter" makes it concrete: As Kodak literally holds his friend's message in his hands (“Got a letter from my n***a / Grabbed the top and I ripped it"), he makes that kinship vividly real.