A month ago, Broward County police arrested the 19-year-old Florida rapper Kodak Black after a high-speed chase. Police saw Kodak and a friend trying to buy weed, and they tried to block their escape, but Kodak peeled off in an Audi, only making it a couple of blocks. Police also say that he threw a gun into a dumpster somewhere along the way. Kodak had a couple of charges already on his record, including an attempt at robbery with a weapon when he was 14. He’s been in jail ever since. He could be in for a while. So maybe Kodak hasn’t had a chance to see the first national magazine with his face on the cover. Earlier this week, XXL unveiled the cover of its annual-ish Freshman 10 issue, which includes Kodak among lesser-light doofs like Lil Dicky, Lil Yachty, Dave East, and Desiigner. Alongside Anderson .Paak, I’d call Kodak the only real can’t-miss prospect on that cover — partly because he’s already a star among certain audiences, and partly because Kodak represents just about everything I love about rap music. I hope he doesn’t stay in that jail cell for long. Rap needs him.
For some idea what I’m talking about, take a look at French Montana’s video for “Lockjaw,” a track from his Wave Gods mixtape. French is the credited artist on this thing, but the track really belongs to Kodak, who takes half the verses and the hook. In the video, French and Kodak visit Broward County, Kodak’s hometown, and Port-Au-Prince, in Haiti, Kodak’s ancestral homeland. (They don’t spend any time in the Bronx or Morocco.) The track’s bass-heavy slow-motion haze could belong to either French or Kodak — rap regions can be hard to decipher these days — but Kodak is unquestionably the star of the video. There he is: skinny, rangy, sly look in his eye, arm in a sling, hair done up in tiny buns, gold all over his teeth. He’s perfectly at home in both locations. French is the guest: slightly awkward, happy to be there.
French should want to draft off of Kodak’s momentum right now. Kodak has a lot of it, and it’s good business. Kodak is one of those up-from-nothing success stories that’s become rare in recent years, a rapper who built himself a fanbase out of thin air, with no star cosigns. He grew up in what was, by most accounts, desperate poverty — living in in the Golden Acres projects of Pompano Beach, Florida, raised by Haitian-immigrant parents. Heart Of The Project, the breakout mixtape that Kodak released on the last day of 2014, had 22 tracks and zero big-name guest appearances. Instead of working within the system, Kodak blew up on YouTube, a word-of-mouth sensation the same way Chief Keef was a few years ago. He got over on his natural charm, his hungry-hyena street-rap sensibility, his craggy frog-squeak voice, and absolutely nothing else.
Given how far he’s risen, and how quickly, you might expect Lil B.I.G. Pac, the mixtape that Kodak released over the weekend, to be a celebratory victory-lap, considering the fact that he recorded it before going away to jail and all. And there are moments on the tape where Kodak seems to be in a celebratory mood. Gucci Mane and Lil Boosie — who, alongside Lil Wayne, are Kodak’s most obvious influences — both make guest appearances. And the Gucci collab “Vibin In This Bih,” which already sounds like a hit, is top-shelf slurry-twang shit-talk. (Since coming home from prison a couple of weeks ago, Gucci has released songs with Kanye West, Drake, Kodak Black, and nobody else. If that’s not a sign of Kodak’s ascendance, I don’t know what is.) But seconds after that song ends, we hear Kodak wondering if he’ll live long enough to raise his infant son. On the tape’s most poignant track, he talks about wanting to go back in time, before he found fame, to a time before he lost friends to violence and prison. Another track is written as an extended letter to a friend in jail. Kodak spends plenty of time talking about partying on Lil B.I.G. Pac, but even then, he has other things on his mind. He does not, for instance, want to take a picture with you. He doesn’t know you. Get away from him.
Lil B.I.G. Pac is easily Kodak’s best tape yet. It’s the first time he’s really edited himself, holding himself to a manageable 13 tracks rather than his usual 20-plus. His songwriting is coming along, and his staggering singsong hooks are getting more and more confident. He still sounds barely pubescent, his sleepy mutter a few octaves higher than what you’ll hear from most of his contemporaries. His sound — a melodic, drifting take on rudimentary 808-heavy Southern street-rap — remains unchanged. So does his viewpoint, which is that of a kid who has seen unimaginably awful things in the few years he’s been on the planet. Kodak isn’t a showy rapper. He doesn’t cram in syllables or use thesaurus words. But there’s a heavy emotional truth to everything he says. He’s a kid who’s faced every possible disadvantage in his life, and those experiences don’t magically disappear once he gets a little bit of success.
Look, rap can be a lot of different things. In the past few years, it’s gone to aesthetic places that people wouldn’t have been able to imagine even a decade ago. These days, popular and credible rappers work with indie rock bands and bleeding-edge dance producers, and nobody even bats an eyelid. The biggest rap star in the world is a Canadian former child star who grew up comfortable. And it’s exciting to see that rap, decades into its existence, is still finding new places to go. But I hope there will always be a place for kids like Kodak Black — kids who came from terrifyingly awful circumstances, kids haunted by things they’ve seen and done, kids who can make fun and catchy and celebratory music that still tells uncomfortable truths about the places they come from. Kodak never sounds like a throwback, but he’s part of a proud tradition. We need more guys like him.
1. clipping. – “Wriggle”
A few days after he wins a motherfucking Tony for Hamilton, Daveed Diggs is back to spitting fusillades of scarily precise fast-rap over industrial-noise bombs. On “Wriggle,” clipping. turn Miami bass into Cronenberg-style body horror, and it’s fucking awesome. God bless rap music. Musical theater can do many great things, but it can’t do this.
2. Mozzy – “1 Up Top” (Feat. June)
On the very solid new album Mandatory Check, this guy comes off something like a Bay Area version of Beanie Sigel, in spirit if not in sound. There’s a lived-in intensity here that not many other rappers can touch.
3. Problem – “Fuckin Money”
Tense, siren-driven hardness about constantly stressing over how you’re getting your next check. I can relate. You probably can, too. And my guess is that slick-as-hell studio-funk outro is the work of co-producer DJ Quik.
4. AD – “Tap In” (Feat. E-40 & Nef The Pharaoh)
Three vastly distinctive but classic approaches to West Coast rap together one one song: AD’s knucklehead force, Nef’s slippery playfulness, E-40 motormouth authority. They all sound so good together. (All the rappers on this week’s list are from the West Coast. I didn’t plan this, but there is so much good music coming from that side right now — especially when you take into account the surprise early release of YG’s Still Brazy, which came out after I wrote this column. Take it as a sign.)
5. Clams Casino – “All Nite” (Feat. Vince Staples)
What if there’s no cloud-rap on the Clams Casino album? What if the whole thing just slaps like this?