King Von & The Art Of Storytelling
A little less than two years ago, the Chicago rapper King Von started his career with this line: “Got a drop on this flexin’ n***a, he from Tennessee/ I had a thot, she be with the shit, she told me where he be/ I said, ‘For sure, baby let me know if you wanna eat’/ She like, ‘Von, you already know, just put your girl on fleek.'” Von then spent the next two minutes telling a breathless, hook-free narrative of a robbery attempt that ends in a shootout. It’s a hard, kinetic, enthralling piece of writing, the kind that rap rarely gives us anymore.
Once upon a time, storytelling was a key part of rap music. All-time greats like Slick Rick, Scarface, and Biggie Smalls built their names, at least in part, on their ability to thread narratives out over entire songs. For the most part, that’s gone now. It’s not a part of the process. The rap economy depends on all-night recording sessions where artists crank out 10 or 15 songs at once, essentially freestyling their verses on the spot. These days, it’s not even common to write out lyrics before heading into the booth. But when he started rapping, King Von did not have that option.
Von started rapping when he was in jail. That’s the origin story. In 2014, 19-year-old Dayvon Bennett was charged in a shooting that had left one dead and two injured. Von was in jail for a couple of years, awaiting trial without bond. Late in 2017, Von’s charges were dropped. While he was in jail, Von had been writing. He’d come up with songs, and those songs took the shape of stories. “In jail, you don’t do shit but read, write, and think about the past shit that I did,” Von told Billboard earlier this year. “In jail, you don’t got nothing but memories in that bitch. I was reading a lot of books in there. That’s probably where that shit came from.”
The resurgent drill star Lil Durk, a childhood friend of Von, pushed Von towards a career in rap and signed Von to his OTF label. (Right now, Durk and Von are both co-defendants; they’re being charged with crimes including attempted murder and aggravated assault after allegedly robbing and shooting someone in Atlanta.) Von started recording the songs he’d written in jail, finding beats that fit those songs. The best of those songs are frenzied, violent stories about shootings and robberies.
In interviews, Von is careful to say that his stories are fiction, that he made them all up after reading a whole lot of urban novels. There’s a whole lot of online theorizing about Von’s lyrics. Von will name a name, and people will try to figure out whether he’s talking about real acquaintances, living and dead. As a critic, though, the veracity of Von’s stories isn’t what interests me. Instead, I’m more taken with the way he spins a yarn — the way he comes up with situations and then describes them with precise detail, building tension and momentum on his way to inevitable explosions of violence. A lot of the time, Von’s stories have a punchline: He will let you know that he’s not from 63rd. (Von really, really hates 63rd Street and anyone from there.)
In just over a year, Von has released three albums, and all of them are solid. Von raps with a punchy energy and an icy sort of precision. Unlike his drill peers, both from Chicago and from elsewhere, Von doesn’t really rely on melody or intonation. Von might exist within drill music, but he’s not really a drill artist. Instead, Von is a classical rapper. He sounds focused, and he snorts out punchy lyrics, on beat, without slurring his words or letting his accent do the talking. His imagery is sharp, and his delivery is urgent. He’s got some shit he wants to tell you right now: “Boy, I’m talking tragedies, massacres, casualties/ Shit that I can’t even remember, bet they remember me.”
On Friday, Von released Welcome To O’Block, his third album. The album doesn’t lean on storytelling the way that his previous ones did. Von spends much of it just flexing or talking shit. He’s said that he wrote most of the songs to beats rather than finding beats that fit what he’d already written. Still, Von has a way of describing a situation. He can get emotional, for instance, when he says what he’s thinking after a friend snitches on him: “Bitch, I would’ve bonded you out/ You could’ve stayed at my house/ We would’ve figured it out/ You took the easiest route.” And Von also shows real presence all through the album, holding his own even when a star like Polo G shows up.
And Von can still tell a story. Welcome To O’Block ends with “Wayne’s Story,” possibly Von’s best story-song yet. On the track, Von lays out a tale of Shorty and Wayne, two street figures in an emotional war against each other. For once, Von keeps himself out of it, telling the whole tale in third person. He ends it on a cliffhanger: “Now Shorty crying at the funeral, suit and a tie/ Looked auntie straight in her eyes/ ‘Whoever did this shit gon’ die/ Whoever did this, mama gon’ cry.'” It’s an unsettling moment, and I want to hear how it plays out.
King Von has real starpower. He’s good-looking. He’s got energy. He’s got the storytelling thing working for him, which sets him apart. Von has clearly been around a whole lot of violence in his life, and he’s spent most of his adult life in some kind of legal trouble. But if he can make it past all that, he’s got a real shot at becoming great. It’s been a long time since a rap storyteller showed this much promise.
1. Kevin Gates – “Weeks”
Before King Von, Kevin Gates was probably the last great rap storyteller to come along, and he can still get powerfully evocative: “He tried to set me up in Dallas, broke into his own car/ He not knowing that I’m psychic and I glow in the dark.”
2. Zack Fox – “Stick” (Feat. Fabo)
Everything Zack Fox does can’t be as funny as “Jesus Is The One (I Got Depression),” but “in the crib with a shirt and no pants, Donald Duck” is pretty good. The real news here is D4L king Fabo returning in all his rubbery glory. I hope that guy never leaves us again.
3. Your Old Droog – “Ukraine”
Even when he’s talking about fitting in nowhere, this guy can really, really rap.
4. JR Writer – “Nothing Means Nothing” (Feat. 38 Spesh)
When arguably the most underrated Diplomats affiliate meets arguably the most underrated Griselda affiliate, it feels like we’ve moved outside of time, into the blur. “I asked someone about you that know everything about you, but they couldn’t tell me anything about you. They clowned you.”
5. Ghetts – “Where’s Ghetts?”
Most of the best grime veterans are the ones who always sound calm, even when they’re pissed off. This guy is absolutely unruffled.