Some artists love labels, but they're few and far between. To let master jazz cat Duke Ellington tell it, the best music — that is, the music that holds the interest of the people, that tosses and turns us and forces us to reconsider our perceptions on all things under the sun — is "beyond category." Music, much like people, only gets more reductive the more it's bound.
But how does an artist get to the point of limitlessness? It's very seldom that an artist is world-building in broad strokes right from jump. There's no monochromatic pill or FDA-approved drug that opens up latent faculties in our minds. For now, there is only practice and process. And as the recent innovation of mixtape-as-album becomes standard, the EP format is no longer a lesser version of an album. Instead, it's more often an invitation to hear how artists are processing themselves.
On his latest EP, Grey, 20-year-old Evanston, Illinois, rapper Kweku Collins is as introspective as ever. He's still working on the sense of selfhood that he established with his acclaimed 2016 debut, Nat Love. A sprawling, perceptive, lo-fi hip-hop joint, Nat Love made clear through literary significations and Cudi-style crooning that Collins's feelings of racial ambiguity — his father is a drummer specializing in African and Latin rhythms, his mother a white American elementary school teacher — fed into social and musical fluidity as well. On the new EP, he's still wrestling with what it all means.
Collins describes Grey as a screenplay in audio form; there are plots chronicling the interconnected tensions of his professional and personal life. "It's weighing out the cohesion of content versus cohesion of sound," he said of the half-hour EP's structure.
"Lucky Ones" opens Grey with Collins acknowledging the privilege of his birth — "Start with a check, wish I did lie / End with the privilege of speaking to you" — over pressurized ambient noise and piano keys that sound like waking up while having your memory wiped clean. The song makes plain Collins's growing understanding of the advantages he was born into — not just a financially stable home, but one that actively endorsed creativity as well — while also recognizing that blackness in America often equates to lacking in America. By the end of the song, Collins seems to argue that the stories of his upbringing, while crucial to his understanding of self, are, indeed, just stories, and that we all have them. Collins’s empathy means readily living in the here and now, and understanding that our individual stories can lead us to similar destinations.
Nat Love focused in part on Collins's relationship to fame and cash; Grey seeks a sense of self outside terms of success. On "Aya," his "evergreen-forests-type affinity" provides a welcome relief from "ducking the account when the money wrong" and "only pay[ing] cash if the money right." Collins is trying to find an internal brilliance that matches his recent glow-up: "Fuck a street light, what you tryna see inside / Shed a little light on the old shed / Said some advice from an old head." Later, on "International Business Trip," he tries to reconcile his desire to "pop bottles" against wanting to be the soundtrack to his homies popping bottles.
Later, Collins performs a heavily reverbed cover of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' 2004 plea “Maps” that addresses the cultural distances between himself and those original star-crossed lovers with modern, airy rhythm-and-bluesing. An added third verse imbues “Maps” with a nuance that's all Collins's own: Elongated melodic notes unlock the optimism in the seemingly unending possibilities of reconciliation, even if he knows he can “never quite get it right.” (The short, sarcastic staccato that follows is blunter still: “Baby, this time will be different / Ain’t that what they always say?”)
Collins has always been comfortable linking texts across established cultural spectrums: On Nat Love, he directly invoked beloved white properties in functionally black ways. Grey is more instinctual and subtle. The lucid dreaming of "Vanilla Skies" on the earlier album mirrors the white-AF Tom Cruise film alluded to in the title, but is countered with lyrical interpolations ("Play your part, pimp!") of UGK's blackity-black "International Player's Anthem." These racial-sonic signposts are sprinkled all across Collins’s burgeoning discography; the fundament of his work is about fluidly living within those conflicts without being swallowed up by them.
Grey is the sound of Collins carving out a space for himself between and outside binaries, of getting to a point at which an artist is so concretely themselves that classifications become moot — just as Ellington would have wanted.