Photo by Bridges
Chicago hip-hop has seen its share of breakout stars in recent years: from Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, and other members of the Save Money collective like Towkio and Joey Purp to Chief Keef, Lil Durk and their fellow disciples of drill. Kweku Collins isn’t concerned—or really interested for that matter—in latching onto his city’s recent crop of stars. The 19-year-old always considered himself something of an outsider anyway. To that end, in many ways he’s aiming to defy classification. "I do make the effort to be different," admits the soft-spoken, multi-talented hip-hop artist who released his genre-bending debut album, Nat Love, last month. "Honestly bro, I could make the shit that these other motherfuckers are making. That’s why I can’t get into a lot of cats that are coming out now. I hear it and I’m like, 'I could do that. I’ve made that song before.'"
When we encounter him on a recent spring morning, Collins—his hair propped up in a tight bun of dreadlocks, wearing a black hoodie and matching Doc Martens—is sitting in a dark corner room in the Humboldt Park house-cum-studio of his local indie label Closed Sessions. It’s been a few weeks since he released Nat Love, and already the critical praise has started rolling in. Sold-out hometown shows and offers for European gigs quickly followed. If Collins feels like a breath of fresh air for hip-hop fans, it’s because in an era where artists are constantly latching onto trends (dancehall!), Nat Love is a decidedly risk-taking, left-field project, to be sure: gauzy psychedelic melodies (“Stupid Roses”) cozy up next to shiny synths (“Ghost”) and biting trap drums; acoustic guitars shimmer (“The Rain That Wouldn’t Save”) atop steel drums giving the project’s best tracks a reggae-tinged vibe. The through-line, of course, is Collins and his ever-meandering mind laying down distinctly poetic, multi-syllabic rhyme cadences at each turn.
“Good rap is both rhythm and poetry,” says the son of an African and Latin percussionist who grew up in suburban Evanston just north of Chicago and was influenced by the outré hip-hop of boundary-blurring artists like Outkast and Kid Cudi. Collins says he knew he wanted to be a musician since seventh grade, but it wasn’t until his senior year of high school—circa winter 2014—that he decided to go full force with it. People expected he’d go to college but that “made me dig my heels in that much more,” he says. “Luckily when my parents saw this shit starting to work they were really supportive of me making the choice and decision to not go to school. Especially when I signed to Closed Sessions.”
“I don’t really consider myself a rapper,” Collins clarifies when referred to as such in a wide-ranging interview with Noisey. “People call me a rapper—that’s fine. Honestly I don’t really care. Personally I consider myself just an artist: I sing, I produce, I rap. Rap is just a tool in my kit. You got the oils and you got the paints and the crayons. It all blends together.”
Noisey: What if any expectations did you have for Nat Love? You released last year’s debut EP Say It Here While It’s Safe that subsequently racked up major Soundcloud listens. This however feels like a mission statement.
Kweku Collins: All the positive attention is really validating. I worked so hard on the project and it was just cool to be like, “Alright, I was on the right track.” To see people affirm that is really cool to me. Really humbling. It did catch me off guard though. I didn’t expect any of that shit. I thought people would be like, “Yeah, this is cool. When’s Drake come out?”
You assumed the album would get swept under the rug?
On the inside I was a nervous wreck before the project dropped. I was trying to clamp down all these hopes I had for it, but I was so terrified of having any expectations. You drop the album and then the next big thing comes along. Like Post Malone drops his new mixtape the next day or something like that [laughs]. That’s definitely a big source of anxiety. Like, "Fuck man, I hope Twitter is still talking about this in a week."
Where was your head at when you began constructing Nat Love?
I didn’t really have a specific thing in mind. I just knew I wanted it to be something different.
You’ve mentioned being attracted to artists who carve their own sonic lane.
Growing up I listened to a lot of Kid Cudi and Andre 3000. Outkast as a whole, really: every album of theirs pushed the limits. Bob Marley. Kanye. Everybody who was doing something exciting. Mainstream rap appealed to me a lot more then than it does now.
Your best lyrics feel not unlike a free-form poem over slinky melodies.
That’s the good rap: the intersection of literary genius and musical savvy. That’s what I think makes the best music. That’s why Kendrick Lamar is one of the greatest rappers of all-time and probably the greatest rapper of this time: he has the musical savvy—sonically his albums are perfect—but he also has this unmatched lyricism, this ability to craft words the way the great authors of time have.
Is now then a good time to be a risk-taking musician?
People are in the right mindset. This is post-808s and Heartbreaks. This is post-Yeezus. This is post-Black Eyed Peas. This is post-all the shit Cudi has done. People are really receptive to innovation. This is a great time to be an abstract rapper.
You produced the near entirety of Nat Love.
It’s very important to me. I love collaborating with people and the more I’m out here doing this shit the more people are going to hear collaborations. But being able to make my own sound and crafting a sound that’s identifiably me 360-degrees is really important. I don’t put my name in the production credits. It’s redundant. If you don’t see a producer’s name on my song you should assume I produced it.
Photo by Bridges
What track, if any, on Nat Love defines the project?
“The Rain That Wouldn’t Save.” On two levels, lyrically and sonically, that song encapsulated my vision for the project. That song covered everything. It summed up the year and what’s been going on in my life very well. Sonically it’s basically a folk song; a hip-hop, folk, psychedelic record. That really encompassed what I was trying to do with the projectto make a box-less piece. Just showing the versatility of being able to blend that weird folky shit with the strange heavy trap hi-hat breakdown. You know when you open a paperback and it’s got that little slip on the inside cover that’s got the whole synopsis of the plot? That’s what I think of that song as.
You seem a somewhat introverted sort of dude. I imagine having a spotlight shone on you following Nat Love has been an adjustment?
I like all the attention when it’s appropriate: If I’m doing a job ya’ll better be looking at me. But as far as in general, I usually like to keep to myself. I like being in the cut: a room where it’s dark and I don’t have to say much.
Are live shows then a work in progress?
I’ve been performing onstage since I was a little one. My father is a performer as well. I used to go and do shit with him so I’ve been accustomed to performing since I was a really young guy. Every performance I’m learning something. There’s always room for improvement. I have so much to learn. And so much sharpening to do. A live show is all about the vibe. But if you’re not enunciating then the vibe is going to be fucked up because nobody knows what you’re saying. My songs are very emotionally raw and I want to convey that to people. I want that connection. The real purpose of a live show is not just to showcase art but to have people connect to it.
Do you feel your life changing in the wake of Nat Love?
People look at me a little bit differently now. People come up to me in the street now and are like “Thank you. I needed this.” The Internet doesn’t mean shit to me. It’s about in-person interaction. When somebody sees you and recognizes you it’s really weird. It’s like, “Are we Facebook friends? Do we have mutuals?” It still catches me off guard, for sure.
Any advice for those who ever doubted your music career?
I want to go back to school and flex on this one teacher, for sure [laughs]. Just the one, though. Everybody else was super cool. But this dude told me I wasn’t going to be shit. I was like, “You know what? Watch me!”
Dan Hyman is a writer based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.