Since 2014, Kweku Collins has been releasing small, intimate, and subdued hip-hop-informed bohemian rhapsodies on self-worth and the meaning of life. His perspective wobbles hazily between navel-gazing and philosophical musings, in a way that can only be conveyed by a late ’90s-born suburban kid living just outside one of the most violent inner cities in the US.
Since 2014, Kweku Collins has been releasing small, intimate, and subdued hip-hop-informed bohemian rhapsodies on self-worth and the meaning of life. His perspective wobbles hazily between navel-gazing and philosophical musings, in a way that can only be conveyed by a late ’90s-born suburban kid living just outside one of the most violent inner cities in the US. His output has been all bedroom music (literally: he produced, recorded and mixed everything himself; in his Evanston, Il bedroom) and he seems willing to save the world, but only if he can get past his own self-doubt and willing alienation. “My momma told me I am a king/ And I believe her/ Why I used to think that I wasn’t shit” he sang on “Kings” from last year’s rewarding Say It Here, While It’s Safe EP. On the song he also said “R.I.P [to] my demons” and confessed that “today we feel like Kings/ I ain’t never been this happy.”
But euphoria is not Collins’ constant companion; melancholy and second-guessing introspection are. And on his new LP, Nat Love—the name references the former slave, cowboy, Black folk hero, and author also known as Deadwood Dick—his tendency to turn inward and re-emerge with poetic reveries are strengths that serve him well. Thematically, Collins is more about observations than declarations, inquiry over polemic. As a former slam poet, he tends to write in circles of wordplay or elongated strands of thought that seek meaning through journal-like streams of discovery. On “Nat’s Intro” he confesses that, “Well, I listen to Future and lay up/ Playin’ like I am a student / I know no future is proven/ But I know some people that prove it,” before repeatedly asking, both confident and unsure: “Is this what you wanted?” (His answer: “There is no answer/ “Til you answer.”)
None of the music sounds as dreary or as downtrodden as the lyrics would suggest: the tracks are light and bouncy, even when they’re somber. There’s a celestial and cosmic grace to “Ego Killed Romance,” a charming playground swing to “Vanilla Skies,” and a sublime flip of D’Angelo’s “One Mo’ Gin” on “Stupid Roses.” On “Death a Salesman”—the lone track on the project which Collins didn’t have a hand in producing; instead passing off duties to his Closed Sessions labelmate oddCouple—there’s an inspired and melodic take on the sentiments expressed by Ice Cube’s “I Wanna Kill Sam”: “See, I have this Uncle Sam/ And I hate his ass so much/With a finger in my face/ As if I should give a fuck/ He said he’ll give me a gun/ And he think I should shoot for him/I say, ‘Sam, I think you right’/ Then I turned the gun on him,” he raps with a chuckle.
This is the kind of music that’s made by someone who was a toddler when André 3000 explored a love below and k-os dropped his first LP. There are hints of trap, folk, and neo-soul coming together to form a new micro-genre of hip-hop that’s part part Chance the Rapper, part Wyclef, part Future, part Chief Keef. The sounds here are immersed in the dance of lingua franca and colloquialisms and tastes and cultures defined by a generation raised on playlists and the ability to stream the history of music on their phones for less than the price of a single CD. When Collins sings, he’s not singing by R&B yardsticks; when he raps, his vocals sound like rambling rocks in a river of thoughts, more indebted to spoken word than rap, but still more rap than spoken word.
“If I’m a rapper then she’s a bad bitch,” says Collins on “Stupid Roses,” a song about marijuana that doubles as a meditation on a love half-remembered but still felt. It’s not the full-on ode that D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar” was—Collins seems conflicted about his “love for cannabis”—and the double narrative and sense of self-hate and addiction feel like they’re talking about his greater conflicts with love and self-acceptance. On “The Outsider” he posits that “love is a battlefield/ Pat Benatar shit” and declares “I’ma be a legend/ I’ma be a Johnny to your Dolly.” Those aren’t the kind of references typical to a hip-hop song; they’re the observations of an insider walking the line between finding and defining himself.