“When I say hustling I mean taking something and just making the best out of it.”
I’ve already asked Kent Loon for his definition of common rap terms several times over the course of our interview. But he’s patient with me, enduring these questions of semantics and answering each after a meditative pause. At just 21 years old, the rapper already understands that some things are more complex than they appear on a track. Money can be both a gift and a curse; notoriety can render you both an idol and a target. And yet, when there’s throbbing bass and a cavalcade of hi-hats to contend with, when there are ever-shortening attention spans to capture, multifaceted concepts often get steamrolled as one-dimensional.
The same is true of rappers themselves. As a thoughtful introvert—more inclined to visit his hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida’s Dali Museum than a Miami strip club—whose verses often find him deep in drug induced nihilism, or tangled in sheets stained with equal quantities of lean and strangers’ DNA, Kent Loon is prepared to be misunderstood.
“Being an artist you kinda share your story, but people don’t grasp the whole thing…I’m really not a bad person at the end of the day. Even though a lot of people might think that based on everything that I talk about. But it’s just really me experiencing my life.”
Much of this subtle misdirection is by design. True to its title, Kent Loon’s debut, Stay Low, which Noisey is premiering below, often finds the rapper hiding in plain sight. In a cadence like the thick narcotic ooze of tar dripping from the end of a blunt, Kent sneaks the more personal facets of his identity into his songs, disguised in the palatable trappings of trap music. But if his lyrics seem superficially familiar, Kent Loon is far from your average Floridian rapper. This is simply his hustle working to perfection.
Born in Bogota to a Chinese father and a Colombian mother, at age four Kent found himself running for his life. The success of his father’s restaurant business had caught the attention of local guerilla fighters. Facing threats of kidnapping and extortion, Kent and his mom fled to the United States, where he’d spend his childhood navigating life as an immigrant. “I didn’t know any English. It was kinda hard for me,” he admits. “I didn’t really have any friends like that. I was just doing my own thing.”
This sense of alienation was compounded by constantly being shuffled around the Sunshine State—St. Petersburg, then Clearwater, Land O’ Lakes, Ellenton, and finally back to St. Petersburg, where he settled with his mother and grandmother just as he started middle school. He began rapping at school—for fun, he says, and for the social bridges his budding skills built him. Still, he felt isolated, and, “kinda depressed and lonely.” Then, his freshman year in high school, he met Noisey Next pick Chester Watson .
Watson’s influence on Stay Low can’t be understated; it’s nearly ubiquitous and one of the record’s veiled clues into what Kent Loon values when he’s outside of the vocal booth. Watson, the rapper, producer, and reigning pharaoh of Nü Age Syndicate—a crew that includes himself, Kent Loon, producer Kanisono, and other young hip-hop artists based in South Florida—features on a quarter of the record’s tracks and produced two-thirds of them. Kent also credits Watson with the creation of Stay Low’s eerie sonic palate and his own true sound. But the two didn’t initially connect over shared musical talent. Stranded on campus after a bogus bomb threat was called on their high school, the pair got sick of waiting for the all-clear, hopped a fence, and celebrated their freedom over, “fat ass five-dollar foot long[s] from Subway.” They’ve been friends ever since.
It’s in relating simple moments like this that Kent’s voice becomes inflected with excitement. Though his raps often paint a fantastical picture of young money and its sexual and psychotropic fallout, he describes his ideal social gathering as “Just being with all my homies. Listening to music, creating music.” He spits about cocaine rushes and molly, but prefers just smoking weed in St. Petersburg’s tropic rain because, he says, “it really makes me enjoy life.” This rift between image and reality isn’t disingenuous, and there’s truth in many of the darker narratives Kent relates on Stay Low. It’s just an aspect of his hustle—of his pursuit of self-betterment through musical success—and his hustle is so much a part of him that it’s basically woven into his DNA.
“My mom, she’s always been a hustler. She hustled everyday, just working all day, everyday. If she wasn’t working we would have been homeless,” he says.
From an early age, Kent learned this: The alchemy of a well-executed hustle is the conversion of hard work into cash that supports oneself and those they care for. The alternative is destitution. On a recent trip back to Colombia, he witnessed a similar kind of magic born of his father’s hard work and economic success. “Everyone around there just knows him. Everyone knows him and knows what he does. It’s beautiful.”
Stay Low begins with Kent admitting he’s possessed by, “voices in my head telling me to get this money.” Whether those voices come from social pressures or genetics, as the album unfolds in a succession of marketably hood tropes, there’s a clear tension between the rapper and his words. It’s palpable in the anxiety-riddled beats and his often-disassociated delivery. The record is more haunted by the specter of money than a celebration of its acquisition. It’s an aggressive ghost born of necessity, and lodged in Kent’s unassuming, sensitive shell.
By the record’s last two tracks, “I Like” and “Dreaming of You,” he’s performed a sort of exorcism. Both songs have an expansive sense of space to them—a playful lightness that allows Kent to revel in the pleasure of a late night drive, and to fantasize about an interstellar honeymoon with a candidly human innocence. He describes them as the album’s destination. By the time he’s arrived there, enough hard-hitting tracks have been hustled to satisfy his loyal SoundCloud followers, promoters, and the new fans Stay Low will earn him. He can step out of character and chill. The things Kent really cares about—friendship, family, hard work—don’t necessarily make a hit, but they make him who he is.
Ben Grenrock is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.