Last year, I wrote a column about how Kodak Black was everything great about rap music. Kodak was 18, his star was rising, and he’d just released the impressive Lil B.I.G. Pac mixtape. He’d also just been sent to jail after leading cops on a chase. They’d seen him buying weed, and he and his friend had taken off speeding, possibly also throwing a gun from their car window. I was rooting for him, a kid who could have an incredible future if he could get his life together. And then the other charge came to light. And now I don’t think I’m rooting for him anymore. I don’t know what to do with him. Maybe Kodak Black represents some great things about rap music, still. But maybe he also represents some terrible, dark things that those of us who love the music go out of our way to ignore or to minimize.
After being released late last year, Kodak is in jail once again, this time on a probation violation. But that’s not why we can’t see him in the same light anymore. Instead, the reason is the sexual assault charge that’s waiting for him in South Carolina. Last February, the story goes, Kodak’s accuser went to see Kodak live in Columbia. Along with a friend, she followed Kodak and one of his friends back to a hotel to hang out. Once he was alone with her — again, this is all allegedly — Kodak announced that he couldn’t help himself. He pushed her onto the bed, and then onto the floor, biting her and sexually assaulting her for nearly two hours. Finally, it ended, and Kodak’s accuser left with her friend. Police only found out about it because she told her school nurse about it. (The alleged victim’s identity has been kept secret, and we don’t know if she was a high school student or a college student or what.)
Kodak was booked in South Carolina on sexual assault charges, but he left jail on bail. He hasn’t stood trial yet. We don’t know if anything in that story is true. When it comes to rap and the police, things are always complicated. Young black men, rappers very much included, face levels of police harassment that the rest of us can hardly even contemplate. There are plenty of recent examples of rappers who got locked up on trumped-up charges, who saw promising careers derailed. But at least from what’s out there, this doesn’t feel like one of those cases. My wife is a social worker, and while she almost never discusses the particulars of her work with me, she’s made it clear that terrible things do happen, that rapists and abusers almost never face prosecution, that police rarely take women seriously, that the burden of proof is extraordinarily high.
It’s not like Kodak Black is the only musician who’s been accused of doing terrible things. Some of our greatest pioneers were fucked up people who did fucked up things. Think about Ike Turner, or Chuck Berry, or Jerry Lee Lewis. Think about how John Lennon abused his first wife, or about how Led Zeppelin treated groupies. Tupac Shakur went to prison for sexual battery, and he remains enshrined in rap’s dead-legend pantheon. So is Big Punisher, who pistol whipped his wife on camera. If we disregard all the music from people who did shit like this, we lose out on a lot. And there are complicating factors in Kodak Black’s life, too. Things haven’t been easy for him. He grew up in Florida public housing, in a family of Haitian immigrants. And by the time most of us were graduating high school, Kodak was well on his way to viral rap stardom, a reality-warping experience that can completely destroy people who grew up a lot more comfortably than Kodak. Still, I can’t look at the details of Kodak’s sexual assault case without feeling vaguely sick. If he really did that shit, there’s no amount of context that can excuse or explain it.
On Friday, Kodak released his official debut album Painting Pictures — or, rather, his label released it for him, since Kodak’s currently in jail and not in any position to be releasing stuff himself. It’s a great rap album. Kodak’s got an amazing rap voice — a slurring and melodic deep-South drawl of the sort that we rarely hear anymore. In his voice, I hear echoes of Juvenile and Trick Daddy and Lil Boosie and Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane. Almost none of the rappers who have found fame in recent years have accents as thick as those guys, and yet here’s Kodak, using that voice for all it’s worth, turning hooks into bluesy koans and wringing pathos from the craggy weariness of his delivery.
Less than a minute into the album, Kodak depicts himself as someone who can’t escape the system: “I was already sentenced before I came up out the womb / Streets done already sentenced me before them crackers could.” On “Conscience,” with Future alongside him, Kodak laments, “Streets took my conscience,” and he sounds sad about it. And on “Tunnel Vision,” a lovely and hypnotic song with a beat that’s all woozy flutes and guitars, Kodak sings about the forces arrayed against him: “Lil Kodak, they don’t wanna see you winning / They wanna see you locked up in that penitentiary.” “Tunnel Vision” is a runaway crossover hit. It’s in the Billboard top 10 right now, almost entirely because of its streaming popularity. This is music that connects to a whole lot of people on some deeper level. But should it? Should we let it connect?
Weirdly enough, Friday also saw the release of You Only Live 2wice, the first Freddie Gibbs album since Gibbs was acquitted on rape charges in Austria. A woman had accused Gibbs of drugging her drink and then raping her while she was defenseless. Gibbs spent four months in European jails before the authorities finally decided that there wasn’t enough evidence that he’d had sex with her. When Gibbs got off, I breathed a sigh of relief. I like Gibbs. I’ve always liked him, praising him in Pitchfork reviews nearly eight years ago now. I’ve seen Gibbs live multiple times. I’ve met him. On his 2010 Str8 Killa EP, he became the first artist ever to thank me in his liner notes, and that was a weird little thrill. I was into the idea that I could once again listen to Gibbs without complications.
But it hasn’t stopped feeling complicated. There are too many stories about rapists who escaped prison because of insufficient evidence. I don’t know all the details of Gibbs’ case. He was always adamant about his own innocence, and he didn’t cut a deal or anything. I don’t think he raped anyone. I sure as hell hope he didn’t rape anyone. But I still get uncomfortable when a story like that comes out, whether it’s accurate or not. You Only Live 2wice is a great rap album, but there’s a line on the single “Crushed Glass” that stings like a slap everytime I hear it: “I just beat a rape case, groupie bitch I never fucked / Tried to give me 10 for some pussy that I never touched.” There is venom in that line. It makes sense. If I’d lost months of my life, and untold amounts of money, because of false allegations, I’d be pissed, too. But knowing that doesn’t make that line any less disturbing.
I haven’t stopped listening to You Only Live 2wice. I haven’t stopped listening to Painting Pictures, either. Maybe I should. Maybe you should. I don’t know. Loving music is always a complicated thing. And in the case of Kodak Black, we can acknowledge that he’s one of the most talented and promising rappers of his generation even as we wonder whether he’s done some truly monstrous things. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. Things would be easier if they were.
1. Young Dolph – “100 Shots”
Dolph just released Bulletproof, his second new album of 2017 and his first since someone literally fired 100 bullets into his car in Charlotte one night. (The car was bulletproof.) Bulletproof opens with a song that’s called “100 Shots” but which barely even mentions the shooting. Only real mention: “How the fuck you miss a whole hundred shots?” The level of devil-may-care badassery here is just off the charts. Good song, too.
2. Smoke DZA – “The Club” (Feat. Westside Gunn & Conway)
You know that feeling, where you know someone is marketing something directly to you, but you’re powerless not to respond to it? Yeah. For me, that’s Smoke DZA getting Conway to rap, “Torture Rack, leave your body in pain” over AJ Styles’ theme music. I’m pretty sure this is great. But even if it wasn’t, I’d have no idea, and I wouldn’t even want to know.
3. Joey Bada$$ – “Rockabye Baby” (Feat. Schoolboy Q)
I have gone back and forth so many times on the question of whether Joey Bada$$ is a cornball. And then he released this song — such a pure neckbreaker that I no longer even care.
4. Gucci Mane – “Drop Top Wizop Freestyle”
Distant rumblings, stirrings in the atmosphere. Somewhere, a sleeping giant twitches. The old Gucci. The fat Gucci. Also: Murda on the beats. It’s not nice.
5. Hus Kingpin & SmooVth – “Bloodsport Kings”
Bless this one certain strain of underground New York rap for finding a way to be both incredibly hard and incredibly weird.