With increasing access to various forms of media, the choices a rap artist has in terms of individual literary preoccupations--whether with books, or TV, or films etc--are more expansive than ever. Taking in all these art forms has a substantial effect on how hip-hop is conceived and performed.
From the onset, hip-hop was deeply influenced (amongst a plethora of other things) by Japanese anime, East Asian martial arts films, blaxploitation features, and the writings of Malcolm Little and Leroi Jones. Hip-hoppers are intentional about the need to not only splice together parts of one's authentic life but to speak to the knowledge-food that substantiates the art. It's hip-hop's way of paying it forward. The endless homages to literary and visual curiosities rooted hip-hop as a form of reality--lived and imagined--placing it in the same cultural space as the genres it glorified. But the weaving together of cross-cultural, cross-medial understandings in rap music also displayed a level of empathy going beyond social classifications and borders both geographical and ideological. Attempting to employ similar levels of world-building as artists from the Wu-Tang Clan to the genius allusive dexterity of Los Angeles rapper, Blu; indie rapper, Kweku Collins represents the subtle differences between embedding and embodying the conceptual trappings of popular cross-cultural media.
Kweku Collins’ debut album, Nat Love, which released in April, is an album about crashing--or better, the public's hesitance to meet, interact, empathize and love one another (sorta like the movie but not as preachy, ya know?) In an interview with Pigs and Pigeons earlier this year, the Illinois-based artist urged listeners to "try to understand that all people kind of operate on the same plane as far [as] our emotions [they] are the same except for circumstantial barriers". This line of introspection brims on Nat Love. With the desire to break through racial and socioeconomic ills that defined his own troubled experiences of racial isolationism, the 19-year-old artist is a storyteller beyond his years. The interests--from Robert Frost poems to the film, Vanilla Sky--and sonic modalities he's been able to accumulate in such a short time are commendable. But even more is his ability to cover his ranging fascinations without becoming too obscure. This kind of balance isn't typical of a debut album, but what sets Nat Love apart is a lesson that many indie artists should learn from--invoking cross--literary concepts outside of traditional "rap" forms requires a highly specialized approach to creating a cohesive album. Nat Love accomplishes the difficult task of covering a lot of ground because Collins is skilled enough to hopscotch from spittin' flames on former flings to waxing poetic on the destructive costs of chasing an idyllic lifestyle without losing himself in some endless abstract loop.
For me, Nat Love is a spiritual successor to Blu's 2009 mixtape, Her Favorite Colo(u)r. On the latter's project, amidst the reflections on the pressures lofty expectations, Bille Holiday samples and notions of fleeting spirituality--the artist also includes clips from films like Buffalo '66, Closer, and Punch-Drunk Love. The dusty and nostalgic record isn't his best work necessarily--that honor belongs to the seminal Below the Heavens--but it's cohesive in its narrative, cross-medial, and poetic experimentation.
Collins does something similar: crafting a love story that heavily snatches concepts from other forms of media,though in less overt ways. Reiterating his emphatic empathy on his song, "The Outsiders,"(named after the S.E. Hinton's book that later became a film) Kweku tosses references ad nauseum starting off with Pat Benator ("Love me in the darkness/love me in the darkness/love is a battlefield/Pat Benator shit.") winking at John Legend and Chrissy Tegan on the way to countering Robert Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay" singing, "And stay gold for me". He follows by high-fiving Isaiah Rashad (he shouts out Rashad's West Savannah which shouted out Outkast's song of the same name). It's a wonder Collins doesn't get dizzy with all the hat tips. But while all the proper acknowledgments are made, Collins still spits meaningful commentary on adjusting one's perspective, "Can you see the sun set real good on the West side?/You can see it on the East side too/Can you see the sun set real good on the North side?/You can see it on the South side too". It's this measured approach to extolling simple ideas that ground his more niche abstractions. In some ways, like a novelist would in every chapter or director in every scene, Collins stitches common themes across the media he consumes then adds his own voice to the fray.
"Vanilla Skies" is superficially about a relationship that is too good. Framing the love as a lucid dream reminiscent of the illusory dream-craft of Tom Cruise in the Vanilla Sky film. "Play your part, pimp," Taylor Bennett raps alluding to the influence of the International Players Club anthem, the film itself, and the forewarnings of getting wrapped up in a glossy, deceitful love. The "play your part" acts as a thematic link between the two artists--as Collins later raps, "Scribble scripts in play/the part you always wanted/Simple Christmas lists/Like aye this is all I wanted." The song, then, falls in step with the movie's essential paradox. It's the fundamental idea that illusion is necessary--"In the eye of the storm/You're the only belief that I have found safety"--yet destructive "Never never land, don't settle/Don't settle for a falling heart kid" that places these two forms of art in conversation with one another.
The examples abound; his song "Everver (oasis1)" features a seamless transition from girl problems and drug-addled teenage angst to psychedelic-era Hendrix inspired melody and metaphysics ("Waiting for space and time to merge is a broken record playing at top speed, come spin around with me"). In between misquoting Edgar Allen Poe on "Death of a Salesman," Kweku illuminates black people's anxieties when it comes to the IRS, the police and the tragic paradox of increasing arms proliferation.
This model of album structure--appealing to all of one's curiosities and sensibilities-- seems like a great way for new artists to think about composition though it's not without its potholes. Collins, like Blu, has a lot to say. He damn near raps the tread off the tires with sprawling run-ons on "Stupid Rose," for example. Indie artists should be careful. They might be better served to be lyrically minimalists especially if their writing isn't up to par. Considering the skill of a producer, mixer, and studio crew more generally is hugely significant. Additionally, deciding whether or not to include full-on movie clips or dialectical nods is crucial. Remaining coherent is the major key for even the most perplexing concept albums. The 'concept' portion of the concept album cannot outweigh its actual articulation. If the common thread that grounds the cross-media additions is ungraspable, then the project is mere advertisement.
Kweku Collins is an artist to look out for, for certain. He's a nomadic deconstructionist with an attention to detail speaking volumes beyond his otherwise subdued disposition. Multi- and cross-cultural considerations make Nat Love a musical dreamscape calling listeners to not only grasp the need for a fuller, more humane portrait of authenticity but to take into account how the work of others leaves an indelible mark on your own sense of self. That's how empathy works.