Yung Kayo, in his burgeoning career, has had to dodge a few haymakers. The 18-year-old Northwest Washington, D.C.-bred artist released his debut album DFTK (Down for the Kount) on Young Thug’s YSL label in February to critical praise. Three months later, his label boss and mentor was arrested, along with labelmate Gunna, on RICO charges in Georgia. About a week later, Kayo’s labelmate and friend Lil Keed passed away from still unknown causes.
It was a lot to take, even for a rapper whose moniker is a spelled-out version of the boxing term K.O., or knockout. But Kayo remains undaunted. “I’m more like Floyd [Mayweather], ’cause he went 50 and 0 with the bob and weave, more defensive style,” he tells MTV News. “Someone like Mike Tyson might get hit a few times. I’m not getting hit.” It’s an apt comparison for the way Kayo has been able to attempt to navigate conflict and grief, but also how he maneuvers instrumentals. Kayo is at his best when he melodically floats, then chooses natural moments to attack and land a rapped jab. As he prepares to deliver his follow-up EP, entitled Nineteen to align with his birthday on November 29, Kayo hopes to weave together all of his processing and preparation into one compact sonic version of himself as the ultimate fighter.
Before Kayo could be as seasoned and tactful as he is now, he had to train by picking up techniques from a variety of influences. His early musical understanding came from his father, a local DJ who spun go-go (a funk subgenre born in D.C.). Even though a young Kayo couldn’t accompany his dad to clubs, they still had parties at home. Surrounded by an array of pulsing instruments, Kayo internalized inspirations for ways he would eventually rap. “The go-go cadence to the outside world sounds offbeat, but it helped me,” Kayo explains. “My cadence is an off-beat, on-beat flow like go-go. When I hear 808s is like when I hear bongos.”
In the early 2010s, Kayo picked up on the styles of D.C. rappers Fat Trel and Dew Baby from the collective Sluttyboyz. The wild energy of the hometown stage left a specific impact. “When they were out doing shows, it was a crazy era for D.C.,” Kayo says. “I went to Fat Trel’s show and he passed me a J. It was lit. So when I first started rapping I had that energy. I had to yell on the beat. It was just natural to me.”
As a preteen, Kayo started rapping with his group 40 Boyz, composed of himself and his brothers. He compares the family group to the Migos, speaking fondly of memories of guerrilla recording in various Apple stores in D.C. and New York when they had limited resources. “We would have Apple headphones [to record through], go into the store, and go into GarageBand on their shit,” Kayo explains. “Then save it and send it to our phones.”
During this time, Kayo met his go-to producer Warpstr. Kayo credits him with adding a “futuristic techno vibe” to his music, which makes it stand out among the rage beats and PC Music-indebted hyperpop rap tracks we hear today. The two eventually recorded Kayo’s first two solo songs “Outlet” and “Glitch,” the latter of which caught the ears of Young Thug. Thug called Kayo and eventually flew him out to Los Angeles for a month to record within his YSL compound famously known as the Snake Pit. While that name refers to the uniqueness and adaptability of the people who make up YSL, Thug does in fact have pet snakes. Kayo connected with Thug initially about their love of animals. “I’m an animal person, so I liked playing with his snakes, and he also has cats and stuff,” Kayo says. “He used to have a cat named Tootie. Tootie was fire. All of his pets are named Tootie actually.”
The YSL members welcomed Kayo into the communal space where they hone their craft and helped him add another punch to his sonic combos. “Being in the Snake Pit taught me how to stretch my voice more,” Kayo says. “It opened up new pockets for me.” The mentorship in the YSL ecosystem gave him the resources, support, and vocal tactics he needed to go all in on his first project.
DFTK is a barrage of reverberating cadences. Kayo describes his sound as “creative rage,” atop Warpstr’s beats filled with mystically controlled chaos. Using his father’s go-go bounce, D.C.’s grimy exuberance, and YSL’s signature vocal acrobatics, Kayo punched his way into crafting his own sonic sphere filled with twinges of escapism. “Everybody feels like they want to escape into their own world without feeling like they’re hurt. When people listen to my music, I want them to feel like they’re in a happier world and feel more creative.”
While Kayo says he was satisfied with the release and how it “surprised people in a good way,” tragedy struck soon after. When Thug and Gunna were charged, it forced him deeper into work. “It was a lot going on,” Kayo says. “But everything that I do on my day-to-day, I still made sure that I did it and more. It didn't stop anything. It’s messed up timing and shit, but it also made me even go harder.” Thug and Gunna remain in jail until their trial begins in 2023.
In reaction to Keed’s passing, Kayo has been much more ruminative. “The Keed situation was a tragedy. I don't even know how I feel about it,” he says as he figures out how to process the grief of losing someone he was continually in the studio with and learning from. Kayo copes the only way he knows how, by putting Keed directly into his art. His new EP, Nineteen, features a collaboration with Keed titled “I Wouldn’t.” Kayo recalls the fulfilling and fun process of recording the track simultaneously with two mics and one engineer catching all the magic. Over an atmospheric soundscape, hearing Keed croon, “I been in outer space, tryna figure it out,” countered with Kayo’s guttural cry, “I been tryna get some L-O-V-E,” evokes chills.
Later on the project, on the track “Bloom,” Kayo raps, “We came out the dungeon, my lizard, my slime / We bleed green every time, Keed been sending signs.” While he didn’t want to reveal details about the specific ways he’s felt Keed’s presence, Kayo did say, “Spiritually he motivates me every day.” After losing someone who helped him find his voice, he seems to want to offer what he learned vocally in commemoration.
Kayo just finished shooting a performance film of all the tracks on the EP, which he says also has a “Keed tribute.” The thought of mortality is running through his mind as he prepares to present it. Mostly he hopes to find a way to fight against the inevitable. “This is my last teenage year. So after this, I'm living forever,” Kayo says. “I'm just like a Komodo [dragon]. I'm saying like eternity, infinity stone, never-going-down-type shit. I’m tryna live immortally through life in general, by living spiritually every day through music.”