Northern Lights clocks in just under 45 minutes, but plays even faster. “Believe” benefits from a pulsing house beat, and the production as a whole is more concerned with forward motion than with virtuosity.
Last February, Kanye West brought 40 hoodied-and-masked-up men (and at least a couple of flamethrowers) to the front of the O2 Arena in London. They were assembled to perform “All Day,” which was then slated as a single from his still-unreleased seventh album. The song had been teased, in various unfinished states, for more than a year, but Allan Kingdom, the key player in the song’s final cut, made the trip abroad with less than two days notice, and hadn’t even unpacked when he hopped onstage. Kingdom’s affecting bridge on “All Day” helped turn the song from a sleek ode to out-of-season shopping to a carefully pointed political screed, one where all the parole hearings and Farrakhan meetings are grounded in something immediate and human.
On Kingdom’s new mixtape, Northern Lights, the obvious connections between West and the Winnipeg-born, St. Paul-bred Kingdom are stylistic. The younger MC favors a musical atmosphere that marries the brooding, synth-backed minor keys of 808s & Heartbreak to the more spare and visceral sounds Kanye has explored with Yeezus and “All Day.” Kingdom also enjoys some of Kanye’s everyman appeal circa The College Dropout and Late Registration, though he mines this territory less than the elder rapper. Here, weighty existential worries and simple practical hangups are allowed to simply exist next to one another; most of West’s music has dealt with, in some form, the tension between Benzes and backpacks. Allan Kingdom acknowledges both, but moves quickly onto other concerns.
When he does deal in moral panic, Kingdom is at his slickest. On “Hypocrite,” he laments, “You got fatter thighs than the one that I lied to”; on the title track, he says he’s “Trying to stack some fucking funds, fuck a lot, and have some fun,” and encourages his guest, “Leave your questions at the door, and your dress, like, half-undone.” A few songs later, on the Auto-Tune-drenched “I Feel Ya,” sex is far less trivial. The coda that includes “Tell me when to stop/ Tell me when to stop/ Feeling for you” and a warbled “I can make you feel better” is his strongest vocal performance on the tape—confused, guilty, defiant, naked.
Northern Lights clocks in just under 45 minutes, but plays even faster. “Believe” benefits from a pulsing house beat, and the production as a whole is more concerned with forward motion than with virtuosity. Kingdom’s time with the Stand4rd—the four-piece St. Paul collective that also includes the producer Psymun, the rapper, singer, and producer Bobby Raps, and Corbin, who was originally known as Spooky Black—has clearly served him well. His 2014 mixtape, Future Memoirs, was mostly excellent, but it was on the Stand4rd’s self-titled debut that he codified his raps into something that bent and cascaded into sharp, half-crooned records. While he surrenders hook duties a few times here (most notably to D.R.A.M., who sings about changing his cell number on “Renovate”), he’s more than capable of starting and finishing a dynamic song without ever leaving the booth.
Still, the strongest song on Northern Lights is the most autobiographical. “Interruption,” which is produced in part by the Minneapolis mainstay Ryan Olson, looks back at when Kingdom was darting from Hennepin Avenue through the city’s freeway system, lying that he’d lost his wallet to avoid paying for meals, and meeting Plain Pat, the manager that would eventually link him with West. Allan calls himself “the son of some immigrants, ‘bout to son ‘em like Africa.” And when he puts his life into plain language, it starts to come into light—the tension between the backpacks and Benzes is what set him in motion in the first place. What matters is where he goes next.