Fresh off of his newest album drop, rapper, and all-around great guy Kemba (FKA YC the Cynic) took some time to talk to me about the making of Negus, the future of topical hip-hop, and the future of his sound.
Where/when/how did it hit you that Negus was going to be the first project you made as Kemba. Were there other contenders/concepts/ideas you had for your debut?
Honestly, I started out trying to make something light-hearted and fun, but it just wasn’t coming out. When I embraced the fact that I needed to write about what was going on in the world, it all started flowing out. I always wanted to name an album Negus. It’s a song that I love from my previous album, and a strong word that’s aesthetically pleasing. So once, I realized what I’d be talking about, I knew pretty immediately THIS was Negus.
Going along with “pretty immediately,” was there a certain song that once you finished writing/recording it, you knew the album was in full-swing?
There wasn’t really a eureka moment, but once I made “Already,” things became a bit clearer. That was my realization that I could rap and still be melodic, even if the sound is dark and the lines are heavy.
In that case, do you find it’s easier to dive into your darker experiences? Would you ever pursue a happy album, or something more along the lines of a few tracks on a more serious project?
I write about darker stuff a lot more than anything else, for sure. It’s easier for me to make music that’s therapeutic. When I’m happy, I’m more so just living in it. I never think to write about it. Maybe I will one day. But I’d rather make an album about heartbreak than one about being in love. And I’m more likely to listen to one too. I’ll probably even out the ratio more in the future though. Songs will be brighter, for sure, even if it’s not happier.
Speaking of the type of music you want to make, is there a certain artist or project you listened to while making Negus that helped you develop your sound? I know you mentioned avoiding listening to TPAB, but was there an album with the opposite effect? One you HAD to listen to?
I listened to whatever was new, just for comparison. But there were waves within those 3 years. I started out listening to Hip-Hop, Funk, and Soul albums that were considered classics. Then there was a time I listened only to Channel Orange. Only Gnarls Barkley. There was a Tetsuo and Youth wave. There was a Kanye discography wave. And then Malibu towards the end.
The album is really direct with its political themes, were some songs just plain difficult to write given the struggles they portrayed?
I think it was the opposite. It was a relief. It was an emotional experience, especially whenever I sang. A lot of people are already dealing with these PTSD-like symptoms though. I’m really just lucky to have this outlet.
I love that you mentioned PTSD-like symptoms, because I’m working with this theory that the state of hip-hop right now is like the deep middle of coping with trauma. We’ve got much more violent hip-hop in the past to symbolize the anger phase, and now we’ve moved into these more self-reflective types of tracks. Care to speak to that?
That’s really interesting. If you think of Hip-Hop as a living breathing organism is in its early 40s (which it kinda is), that sounds about right. That would be an age where anger turns to introspection. I agree with you too, there’s never been a time where we could reflect on ourselves, our experiences, and our traumas as openly as we can now. At any other time, it would’ve been relegated to some weirdo sub-genre.
Now that we can be so much more open about our wounds, do you see any room for your sound to go in a brighter direction overall, or are lighter moments meant to act as tools to balance future projects?
I don’t think I’m headed in a brighter direction overall, but I definitely want to have more range. With both sound, and subject matter. I want to do a little less reporting and more introspective stuff.
What would you call the main difference reporting and getting introspective? Maybe there’s value to having the observations really inform the introspection that happens after the fact?
Of course. Our observations influence our introspection. I think the difference is me telling you what’s going on vs. me telling you how I’m affected by it. That point of view is a lot more personal. It’s relate-able.
Negus is rife with great storytelling elements, especially in the samples. How did you arrive at using the classroom scene from the NBC documentary as a big feature of the album?
You found out where I got it! Dope. Everyone keeps asking. I just saw it online. I was in love with it. I’ve never seen such radical teaching. It’s funny, that teaching kids to love themselves is radical, but yea. It was powerful. Very harsh. Some people don’t agree with the teaching method, but I saw it as important. The moment I knew it was perfect was when Frank sang me the “if you teach that boy to fly you saved his life” intro. That brought the whole theme together.
And for fun, if you had your pick of any artist, who and where would you place features on Negus?
I would place Pusha-T or Kanye on Greed. Ab-Soul on Hallelujah. Jay Electronica or Nas on Brown Skin Jesus.I asked Hannibal Buress to get on the end of Already. It didn’t work out, but he’s shown love from early on so it’s all love.
Now that the project is out, and has been discussed, are there any changes you would make to it in hindsight?
Not really. The project was created slowly, with a lot of love. Everything done was intentional and every mistake we made our peace with. I would change some things on the promotional end, like going more direct-to-consumer instead of focusing on blogs, but that’s another story.
Still looking back, what’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned about yourself while making Negus? About the industry and promotion?
I learned more about myself than anything. I learned about what type of music I wanted to make, and how I wanted to get better. About the industry, I learned that blogs are not the (only) prominent tastemakers anymore. I got a good idea of where to go in the future, both creatively and strategically.
Last question, if you had to sum up the journey your music career has taken you on so far, how could you go about it?
I’d say it’s been the best of times and the worst of times. Really extreme peaks and valleys. Fulfilling moments and empty gestures. It’s a constant learning process with a lot of visible growth to keep me going. I’m at a point now where I know exactly what I have to do, and I’m inspired to do it. So, let’s see.