The construction noises are an annoying way to start the day. It’s afternoon, but as Kirk Knight emerges from the shower of the Bed-Stuy apartment where he’s staying the first week of November, he gives a little wince at the adenoidal screech of power drills, buzz saws, and belt sanders coming from the floor below, which is getting gut renovated by a team of jocular contractors blasting urbano hits from an old boombox. Our move to avoid the din would ordinarily be to just get out of the building, but it’s one of those classic fall days in Brooklyn, fucking cold and pissing rain. Besides, Kirk is still moving slowly, pulling a T-shirt over his head and taking up a seat at a plastic folding table – one of a small handful of pieces of furniture in the apartment.
Kirk acknowledges its not the most comfortable spot, but it has to do for now. Just yesterday the 22-year-old rapper, producer, and songwriter got back from a month on tour in Europe with his buds in Flatbush Zombies, and he gave up his lease on another place before he left. He got back in town yesterday “jetlagged beyond repair,” he says, and without a permanent place to live. Today, he’s waking up to the sounds of heavy machinery. That isn’t exactly the glamorous life you imagine of multi-platinum musicians, but that’s the reality of it. There are transitional days.
Once he gets dressed and realises our interview isn’t going to be on video – which allows him to put away a backpack full of jewellery, and stop agonising over which chains to wear on camera – he settles into an excitable, slap-happy rhythm. He’s stoked about the time he’s spent in Europe, both now and on previous trips with Pro Era, the group of Brooklyn kids with whom he first rose to prominence a in the early part of this decade. He talks about those trips with the wide-eyed joy of college sophomore who’s just gotten back from a semester abroad, detailing mind-blowing raves and perspective shifting encounters with real life reminders of world history. “The architecture is like no other,” he says. “New York definitely has its culture and its swag, but it don’t got shit on the Gargoyles on the top of the towers in London and shit.”
It can be hard to get a word in edgewise, Kirk kind just free associates from one subject to another, pontificating – in just the first few minutes that we’ve been hanging. He talks about gentrification in New York (“There were dice games and love stories in those buildings”). He raves about the the crystalline sound design in EDM (“All these different soundscapes to intensify the feeling of excitement at the peak of the night”). He bemoans the disposability of streaming music (“You know when someone hands you a pamphlet on the street and you don’t even look at that shit?”). He may not be sure exactly how he wants to spill everything he wants to say, but he’s doing his best to figure it out.
This is indicative, more broadly, of the process that Kirk Knight has been undergoing over the last couple of years. On November 9, just a few days after our interview, he released IIWII, his second solo album and his first in three years. Over that span, Kirk’s world has expanded quite a bit. He’d already tasted a not-insignificant amount of success as Pro Era, rising alongside Joey Bada$$ as a producer with a knack for turning gnarled sample flips into sneakily infectious underground anthems. But something unexpected happened last year when “Plain Jane” – a song he produced for A$AP Ferg – took the fuck off. It’s a simple, but effective beat, a slowly loping thing built around a clattering sample of the New York City subway and a foreboding synth loop that sounds kinda like Philip Glass’ piano pieces for the Candyman soundtrack. It became a New York anthem, got remixed by Nicki Minaj, landed in the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100, and has since gone double platinum.
“It made me realise I can make something that everybody can relate to,” he says, clearly proud of its success. “I’ve never felt that type of energy.”
That “energy” he refers to means a lot of different things. It’s being in the club and seeing someone “throwing up their guts” to a song he made. It’s a famous comedian – whose name he forgets – reaching out with a video to show how much their toddler loves the song. It’s the chance that you could be anywhere, doing anything, and hear one of your songs playing. People love Pro Era, and they love Kirk’s solo efforts as a rapper, singer, and songwriter too, but this was on a whole other scale. When thinking about making IIWII, there was this new consideration: “ Damn, I need ten more of them motherfuckers.” The question was how, exactly? The answer, on some level, was to look back to his roots.
Kirk – born Kirlan Labarrie – grew up Brooklyn, a fact that he holds close to his identity. He told Interview Magazine in 2015 that the borough’s “hustle” was instilled from him in a young age. He met Joey Bada$$ in high school, and ended up tight with Pro Era through him. After just hanging out in the studio shooting the shit with that crew, he decided he wanted to rap too at 16. He’d been nursing a healthy interest in underground greats, like DOOM, Peanut Butter Wolf, Madlib, and Mos Def, and attempted to channel their slippery lyricism into his work with the rising group.
Then all of a sudden that became his life. He made the decision not to go to college in order to focus on his craft. So far it’s paid off. “I never had a job in my life,” he says with an incredulous laugh. “I never made a resume. I don’t know how to do that shit.”
“You can have bars and not make a good song,” Kirk says. “Growing up, I didn’t listen to Cudi for double entendres. I listened to Cudi to not feel alone.
On one hand the rest is history – people still talk about Kirk’s place in Pro Era, and more broadly in those terms, as an inveterate experimenter both as a rapper and a producer. That’s true, but Kirk tells me it’s not the whole story. Before he got invested in scratchy, twisted experimental rap stuff, his tastes were different. He favoured colourful pop music of all stripes, naming Calvin Harris, Animal Collective, Kid Cudi, and the bleeding heart emo pop band Hawthorne Heights as early influences. Lest I doubt his sincere fandom, he pauses to loudly and nasally sing the epic chorus of their, uh, kinda annoying 2006 single “Saying Sorry” at a volume that was probably loud enough for the construction workers to hear a floor away. While he appreciated the nimble syllable twisting and complicated wordplay of the rap stuff he was into, he appreciated how this other music could afford to be direct. There was no mistaking the feelings that inspired the music – everything was on the table.
In 2015, Kirk released the solo project Late Knight Special, a nocturnal collection of street-level songs that hewed far more to the sounds he explored with his Pro Era compatriots than to his childhood favourites. There’s guest spots from some of his most talented friends, like Joey, Noname, Mick Jenkins, and Thundercat. It’s conceptually solid listen, driven by this feeling that Kirk’s called by the caliber of his guests to try to live up to their technical abilities as rappers. By my estimation, that competitive spirit worked out pretty well, but he says in retrospect, he wasn’t sure what he was trying to say. “That was a time in my life where I couldn’t articulate myself as well,” he says. “I wasn’t as barred up as Joey or [Pro Era founder Capital] Steez. But I knew I wanted to express shit.“
The success of “Plain Jane” brought into focus just how he might do that. Seeing the effect that it had on people, as a pop song, reminded him of the effect that the music he loved as a kid did. “You can have bars and not make a good song,” he says. “Growing up, I didn’t listen to Cudi for double entendres. I listened to Cudi to not feel alone.” He realised that’s what he needed to do too, to speak clearly, rather than focus on proving himself as a technician.
That’s why he decided to call it IIWII, which, as the record’s intro elucidates, stands for the immortal aphorism “it is what it is.” He wants the meaning of its songs to be clear and simple, for anyone to be able to understand them immediately. Consequently, the record is relatively frill-free. Though Kirk certainly could’ve called in any number of favours, he chooses to go without high-profile guests here. For better or worse it’s all him – writing, producing, and singing – plumbing the depths of his own psyche and trying to translate it in a way that’ll make sense to anybody.
As the vagueness of the record’s title suggests, that can mean a lot of different things. Across the record’s 12 tracks, he covers a lot of ground, both in content. There’s heartbroken R&B ballads (like “Never Again”), swirly rapped reflections on his newfound success (“M.O.”), for real pop songs about self-doubt (“Downtime”). There’s not really anything that sounds like Hawthorne Heights, but basically every other thread of Kirk’s musical history is here – even, in spite of his claim that he wasn’t interested in that sort of thing – some surprisingly intricate bars, in the form of “Run It Back (Freestyle),” a double time full of sneaky bars about the holy trinity of millennial diversions: video games, pills, and fucking.
It’d be easy to read the record’s many tones and topics as a scattershot project, but the more I’ve listened to it the more that feels like a conscious choice. It’s not a concept record with a unified set of themes or thoughts. It’s more like Kirk tried to do everything he loved at once and ended up with a record that sounds like a weird version of the diversity you find across a radio dial. Each track’s like twisting the dial a little bit, finding a new station, but hearing the same familiar voice at the centre of the songs. The chorus on “Different Day” seems to nod to his multitude of interests: “Different day... different moves to make.”
Plus, in addition to his talents as a songwriter, Kirk is capable of these production flourishes that make everything feel a little weirder. It’s not just R&B, it draws in elements of his love for psych pop. A rap beat might take little percussion tricks he picked up from a random Burial song.
“At the end of the day, if we’re going to make hip-hop, let me make hip-hop like this,” he says. “That’s how I always try to think. If we’re going to make garage music, how are we going to make it with a twist?”
Kirk’s blessing and curse is that he’s good at all of it. Singing, rapping, and producing (both for himself and other artists) all come pretty naturally to him. He also designs clothes with a preternatural flair. His brand Dot Kreep has started occupying more of his time as ever. It sounds like a big part of the reason IIWII took so long is just because he’s juggling so many different interests at once. But that diverse set of interests is what makes work exciting for him.
“I like that one morning I can wake up and make clothes, then the next morning I want to produce then the next morning, I want to songwrite then the next I want to sing,” he says, plainly.
It makes his work unpredictable, which is really exciting thing in a world where rooms of musicians sit in rooms workshopping idiosyncrasies out of pop songs. But it also means that Kirk’s path is going to be a tougher one. There isn’t a clear route to stardom for jacks-of-all-trades, but Kirk seems content to indulge the rabbit trails and the tangents.
One of Kirk’s recent fascinations, for example, is house music. He started thinking about it a lot after he went to a rave in Berlin, and had the feeling that the music was “curating the feeling of the drugs that everybody was taking” – which is very much as takes-MDMA-once thing to say, but you get what he means. He readily admits that he doesn’t know much about the history of the form, but after watching a few Boiler Room sets, he felt like he had something he could bring to it.
"Once you hit [mainstream success], then you’re at a crossroads of what kind of artist you want to be," Kirk says. "But once you go up you gotta just go up."
Shortly before I leave, he goes to his room and retrieves his laptop, then starts bumping these psychedelic, low-slung dance beats that’d slot easily into a Moodymann set. He’s only got a couple, and he sheepishly apologises, saying they’re only rough demos. But they’re legitimately great, further testament to the fact that he reasonably tackle any project he sets his mind to.
You have to imagine that on some level that’s a burden. If you can do everything, how do you anything? Kirk admits that he feels a tension there. “That’s the current problem I’m going through right now,” he says. “Once you hit [mainstream success], then you’re at a crossroads of what kind of artist you want to be. But once you go up you gotta just go up. The checks don’t hurt either.”
So, world domination is the plan, at least for now. But first, I’m politely asked to go so that Kirk can go start looking for a new apartment. This one’s under construction, and he’s ready to leave that behind.
Landon Speers is a photographer based in New York. You can find more of his work on Instagram.
Colin Joyce is an editor for Noisey and is on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.