It’s fitting that Kweku Collins (pronounced kway-koo) is from just outside of Chicago. The 19-year-old rapper and Evanston, Illinois native lives just beyond the fray of the city dubbed Chiraq and the distinctive music scene that has risen as result. He is close enough to witness some of the more disturbing elements of crime, poverty, and violence that plague the city, and it seeps into his music due to an awareness and acute sensibilities beyond his years, but just as he is physically outside of the city, he has a hermetic seal artistically that sets him apart. He’s not Chance The Rapper. He’s not Vic Mensa. He’s not a drill or juke dude. He doesn’t need to feel like Pablo. He is simply himself — the one thing no one else in Chicago, Illinois, or anywhere on this entire planet could be.
While still in high school, he was signed to buzzing Chicago label Closed Sessions off the strength of his prolificity and a wunderkind quality that resonates upon listening to just a track or two. The catalyst for some media coverage, an escalating play count, and his decision to skip college and go straight to the pros was last year’s Say It Here, While It’s Safe EP — his first as a signed artist. The EP is excellent, with many elements from different genres melding to bolster Collins’ mature introspection delivered through a sliding spectrum of singing and rapping.
Today, he’s dropping his debut full-length, Nat Love, and we’ve got it here first. The album is a testament to Collins’ versatility as a producer and dexterity as a rapper. Folk leanings on the closer “The Rain That Wouldn’t Save” coexist with classical-tinged “Ego Killed The Romance,” the synth-soaked “Ghost,” the Taylor Bennett-assisted R&B “Vanilla Skies,” and the neo-soul-esque “Stupid Rose” — and things get even more far-flung from there.
The growth between his buzz-inducing EP and the album is incredible. He spits and croons with the assured confidence of a veteran and a sense of maturity and erudition balanced by a healthy wonder and exploration. If Collins was a hooper entering the draft at his age, the analysts would say his upside is tremendous. Dick Vitale labels young college players with the rare combination of already developed skills and plenty of untapped potential “diaper dandies.” Meet the musical equivalent down bottom, and stream his debut below.
STEREOGUM: First off, I was really digging the album. I got a little advance stream of it, and it’s very dope man. Really varied.
KWEKU COLLINS: Thank you, man. I appreciate that.
STEREOGUM: So just to kick things off with a little bit of background — what part of Chicago are you from?
COLLINS: I’m actually from the next town over from Chicago. It’s called Evanston. It’s just outside of Rogers Park.
STEREOGUM: With Chicago being so close and buzzing old and new with Kanye and Chance, the Chi-Raq film and everything, how do you stay true to where you’re from, but also find your lane and how your voice is going to cut through?
COLLINS: I do my thing and I make the music that I make. That’s about it. I just do what I want artistically. I don’t really make an effort to be different that’s just how it happens.
STEREOGUM: Like I was saying, the album is really varied. And sometimes you can listen to a record and know who an artist was listening to at the time when they were making it and who influenced them, but I couldn’t get a sense of that with your album because there are a lot of different elements. So who are your influences, and what genres do you like to listen to the most?
COLLINS: As far as influences go they come from everywhere. My influences range from Sade to Kendrick Lamar to Tame Impala to Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, Black Sabbath, weird sludge metal bands like Electric Wizard or something like that. You know, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Wolfmother, stuff like that. So it really comes from anywhere. But I was listening to a lot of Tame Impala and Sade, a lot of Kendrick. J. Cole I listened to a lot when I was making this project. That’s about it.
STEREOGUM:I would never have guessed a lot of those names.
STEREOGUM: So the songs were mainly produced by you other than a few tracks with help from a couple others in Boathouse and Odd Couple. There are a lot of really good piano flourishes on there. Did you start out playing the piano first and then range out? How did your musical sensibilities come about?
COLLINS: I actually started as a percussionist. That’s what my father did before me, he’s an African and Latin percussionist. So naturally that was passed down through me. We had drums everywhere in the house when I was a kid, and that’s all me and him would do. We’d just sit around and I’d imitate what he was doing. That was how I picked up on a lot of the traditional African and Latin techniques. You see people playing the kpanlogo drums or the kungas. You see them using that. So I learned that at a very young age, and that rhythm and that technique I was able to apply to making music now. Just being around music for so long, I was able to pick up elements of other instruments. So I learned how to play a little bit of guitar. I learned how to play some piano, and just kept pushing that, kept trying to learn that on my own. The root of it all is percussion.
STEREOGUM: In high school, did people know you as the artist of your class? Sometimes that happens where you have that one person that is really well known among the class for doing music and performing at all the school shows and stuff, or did you kind of keep it on the low and just do your thing quietly?
COLLINS: You know, it was kind of 50/50. People knew, but everybody knew once I got signed. That was halfway through my senior year of high school. It was in April. After that came out everybody was like, oh shit. OK. We see you now. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: What were you like in school? Were you a class clown type or did you just keep to your own and do your work? What was that experience like for you?
COLLINS: I wouldn’t say I was the class clown, but I wasn’t — it depended on the class really. So if it was math class, I’d probably be in the back talking to somebody or listening to music or doing probably anything other than what I should be doing. Usually writing, that was pretty consistent throughout all of my classes. I was usually writing something in there: Writing a song or an idea or drawing a picture. But if it was English class then I was probably usually very active in the discussions that we were having because that is a subject that I find very stimulating. Usually in school I was just kind of like the weird kind of skate rat. I kind of floated through different groups of people.
STEREOGUM: On your first project, the EP, Say It Here, While It’s Safe, you said something along the lines of, “I used to find it outrageous that lines from my pen and paper could pay for a fucking meal or fly me out to LA.” Do you still have that awestruck sense about you or are you adjusting to what Nat Love could do for you and where it could take you?
COLLINS: I’m adjusting for sure, but that sense of awe is still very much present, and I think it’s very important to maintain that moving forward. You know, if there is anything that’s going to happen, the most important thing is to still remain grounded, and still remain humble as a person. I think that awe is still very much important, very much present in my attitude moving forward.
STEREOGUM: I sense a lot of growth between the two projects. They’re both good, but in different ways. The album is a bit more varied and still larger body of comprehensive work. Obviously, it’s longer at four more tracks, but do you attribute anything to that growth or are there any experiences that played into that?
COLLINS: I think the drastic change in my situation has forced me into a lot of growth in a short period of time — I think artistically and personally. I think that comes through very clear in this music, and especially in the gap between Say It Here, While It’s Safe and this project. You can track the progression in all of the singles that I’ve dropped since then, but this project really shows the B to the A. But yeah, I did a lot of growing between 18 and 19 essentially.
STEREOGUM: You said a drastic change — would you mind elaborating on that?
COLLINS: This is the first time that I’ve been out of school since I can remember, and doing what I want to be doing the way that I want to be doing it. I really do have to look at this as my career, and the responsibility that comes with that. Being self-sufficient and self-reliant and self-confident, having to learn that, and having to learn how to be a part of a team again. Learning all that both through myself and my own experience, and the advice and the guidance of others, that really cultivated a lot of growth.
STEREOGUM: Obviously you’re a smart dude. Did you think about going to college, or was it an easy decision to go straight into music?
COLLINS: It was a very easy decision. I wanted to go to college just off of it being a cool experience. I don’t think I ever wanted to not go to college, but college was always the second choice to music. College was always like, alright, well, if music doesn’t pan out, then I’ll go to college. It had gotten to the point where I had applied to all my schools, and I had gotten accepted into a couple — well, one actually [laughs] — and deferred for a year, and then signed my contract and had to tell them that I’m not coming this year. College was kind of a plan, but not really.
STEREOGUM: Did your parents support your decision to go straight into music as opposed to going to school?
COLLINS:: Yeah. Once it became apparent to all of us that — and this is a couple of months before I signed — things were happening. Blogs were starting to pick up the music. Play counts started to go up. Things really started taking off a little bit, and people started to take notice, and that was maybe December of 2014. And they were like, “No, you should try this. At least take a year off and take a stab at this.” And then I got signed, and they were like, “You’re definitely not going to school now” [laughs]. I’m very lucky to have the family that I do.
STEREOGUM: You think you would have stuck close to home or you would have ventured out somewhere to have a different experience?
COLLINS: I would have wanted to venture out, definitely. But you never know, Chicago is a cool place. I probably just would have gone there.
STEREOGUM: Speaking of Chicago, Chance took the lead in saying people didn’t really support the Chi-Raq film, but I would love to get your perspective on it.
COLLINS: The Chi-Raq film — I mean, I tried to watch it. I tried. I really did. I think I got about halfway through, maybe 45 minutes, but that movie, I’m sorry. I like Spike Lee. I love his other films, some of his other films, but this movie was ass. It was just a poorly done movie that was making light of a situation that maybe wasn’t the most appropriate thing to make light of. Especially since you’re not from Chicago. Like, I’m not from Chicago. I don’t talk about the things that are going on in Chicago that aren’t reflected in my community, you dig? I don’t make that crossover like, “Oh, I’m going to speak on behalf of Chicago. I’m going to tell the story of Chicago.” I don’t do that because I’m not from Chicago. So I tell the story of my community and where I’m from. Spike Lee, you can tell the story of Chicago? No. Bruh, what are you doing and why is Nick Cannon here?
STEREOGUM: Being a bit away from that situation, I know you said you talk about your community and what immediately effects you, but does it still creep into your music, what’s going on in Chicago?
COLLINS: It does because it happens here too. A lot of the elements that you find over there, you can find here in pockets of this community, definitely. Coming from Evanston, it’s… I mean, really, that kind of shit is everywhere, not nearly on the scale it is in Chicago. And that’s not to say that it happens nearly as dramatically and terrifyingly, but it does happen. That does creep into my music for sure. You can’t not observe, you can’t not see it. Especially being a person of color, you can’t not get caught up in it sometimes, it just happens like that.
STEREOGUM: How did the Taylor Bennett feature come about?
COLLINS: It was pretty organic, actually. He hit us up, wanted to get in the studio, and we just sat down and started playing through my beats and he heard that, and it just came about very naturally. It was all very smooth. I’m really happy with the way that song came out.
STEREOGUM: Same thing with Jamila Woods?
COLLINS: I had the first verse recorded, and I was kind of in a rut. I didn’t know what to do with the song. I knew I wanted it on the project, but I didn’t it to be just that little first interlude, and Jamila was coming over that day. And I sat down with my manager, and we were brainstorming ideas, just for the project. I can’t remember which one of us was like, “Oh, what about Jamila on ‘Ego Killed Romance’?” I played it for her, she wrote her part in a matter of like half an hour I think. We got down to the studio and we recorded it. She’s magical with her work.
STEREOGUM: I wanted to ask about a line you spit on “Death Of A Salesman.” You said, “Told me I was only good if I was rapping and shooting hoops, so I went with option two.” So if understood correctly, that means you hooped for a little bit?
COLLINS: So that line is kind of two-fold. I did play basketball when I was a kid, and you know, now I’m rapping. But it’s also like if you put up two fingers option two is the middle finger if you start counting, so let me go to option two real quick and flip this nigga off real quick.
STEREOGUM: You also on “The Outsiders” reference the S.E. Hinton novel The Outsiders with the “stay gold” line. So are you an avid reader?
STEREOGUM: That’s an instance where it directly influenced your music, but does it come into play in a way that doesn’t surface so obviously?
COLLINS: Yeah, I think I get a lot of inspiration from writers, definitely. I mean, you have to be a writer to be a rapper, in some way, shape, or form. And there are a lot really bad writers out there. There are a lot of really bad rappers out there. But then there’s also phenomenal writing, and there’s phenomenal rapping going on. But yeah, I get a lot of inspiration from words and the way that people use words to create images. I think it’s really important as a writer and a rapper to be able to do that. To be able to make the movie in the listener’s head. Kendrick Lamar is one of the very best at that right now. His storytelling is almost unparalleled at this point. So yeah, I think reading and writing and rapping come from the same activity zone kind of.
STEREOGUM: You also rap and sing a lot about love and relationships on the album, and I think very evocatively for someone so young, but how do you speak so assuredly on it?
COLLINS: I write what I think, and I write what I know. I step back and observe the situations I’m in, and the way the parties involved feel about them. I don’t really do anything special. I just kind of think and write.
STEREOGUM: Along those same lines, there’s a maturity in your music, but there’s still a sense of wonder and exploration. So how do you keep that balance?
COLLINS: Getting jaded, in my opinion, is one of the most stupid things somebody could do. Just because nobody’s ever going to have seen it all. Nobody’s ever going to have been to every corner of the earth and seen everything that’s ever possible to see. Because once you see the earth then there’s a whole universe for somebody to discover. So that fact that anybody could get jaded just means that they’re a little bit confused and they’re disillusioned into the fact that they think they know everything. That’s just the ignorance of people, and that’s fine, it’s just a major malfunction, a flaw that people have. I might at some point in my life have that thought too, because I’m just a person. But I know now that I’ve seen such a small fraction of the world that the inspiration is never going to run out. I can speak on what I know authoritatively because that’s what I know. These are my convictions. These are my opinions. This is my art. This my work. This is me. If I’m going to stand behind it, and I’m going to stand behind it with power, because if you don’t have power behind it, then what the fuck are you doing? You might as well just sit down. But I think knowing and being very conscious of the fact that this world is huge…the sheer size and the magnitude of this planet is astounding. And knowing that, and remembering that keeps you very, very centered in your smallness.
Nat Love is out today on Closed Sessions.