Kweku Collins is sitting in Studio A of Soundscape Studios, the recording space and home base of his record label Closed Sessions in Chicago’s Humboldt Park. Two weeks ago, the 20-year-old Evanston rapper released a nine-song EP grey, his most cohesive collection of moody, adventurous music to date and follow-up to his critically-accalaimed 2016 full-length Nat Love. In just a matter of days, he’s embarking on a small US tour to debut and he couldn’t be more excited: “Friends have been asking me when I go out on the road for so long that I’m used to it being months out but I just realized, it’s a week away. I love tour life so much.”
Just as likely to mention bands as disparate as Electric Wizard, Tame Impala, or Whitney as well as his favorite rappers, Collins’ music has always pushed the boundaries in genre and gleeful experimentation. While not from Chicago, Collins has been lumped in with the city’s young acts like Chance The Rapper, Noname, label mate Jamila Woods, and Joey Purp, artists relentlessly creative and independent. But as a product of the suburbs, he doesn’t consider himself a Chicago artist: “I treat Chicago like I’m in somebody’s house,” Collins recently said in a local news interview.
Though he’d been working on new material immediately after Nat Love dropped last spring, he came up with grey while touring Europe last fall. “There was a specific moment, I remember. It’s a picture, actually. We were in Copenhagen just walking around and took a picture. When I saw it, in my head the name ‘grey’ kind of popped out me.” He adds, “I don’t know why but I think it was just a very accurate portrayal of what I wanted the atmosphere of the music to be like.”
When you released Nat Love, there was a lot of attention coming your way. How did that affect your creative process for this EP?
It doesn’t really affect me in like a negative way, it’s just incentive to work harder. The pressure after Nat Love wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. I look at it as a good thing: that pressure I just kind of put that on myself and it’s always been like that for me ever since I was a kid. As long as I work hard and try to keep going and try to be better, then it’s going to keep moving.
So there was no anxiety surrounding putting something new out into the world?
There is a point usually in the month before I put out a project, that the anxiety gets really bad because I’ve been living with the project for a while and I start to hate every single song. Where I’m like, ‘This is is not good enough, this is a failed launch. F*ck, it’s too late to abort the mission and we’re about to watch the ship blow up.’ With this project it was in the last week that I just kind of came to terms with it and thought, ‘Nah. Maybe I’m tweaking but even if I’m not, there’s no point in freaking out now.’
You talk about how your career has shifted on “International Business Trip,” traveling the world and performing to music for fans in places you’ve never been before, It must’ve been an eye-opening experience.
That’s that’s where I feel it the most. It’s my favorite part. It’s so tangible. The only way that I’ve been able to describe it is it’s ‘career fulfillment.’ When you do your job well and you can see that hitting somebody. Like when somebody does something that they’re supposed to be doing, that is done with care, attention, and love, seeing that impacting someone is the most gratifying part of all this shit.
One of my favorite songs on grey is “Oasis2: Maps” where you reimagine the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Maps.”
I was either in fifth grade or middle school when I first heard the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Fever To Tell and I just I fell in love with the whole album, so when I’d go out, I’d wake up at 8 and be skateboarding outside my house at 9 every morning and I’d put in that project. I would and listen to it front to back over and over again. ‘Rich’ was one of my favorites, ‘Pin’ was one of my favorites, but then ‘Maps’ was always the king favorite, you know. It’s always been one of those songs I wanted to cover.
All of the beats on this project are yours. What was the most challenging thing on the production-side?
Probably [closer] ‘The Continuation’ because that was literally the last song we finished. That was when the pressure of the project got to me, not any external pressure but it was more that I had a week to make the song that’s going to end the project, not the song for the beginning or the middle — but the end all-be all of the project. I needed to take the whole project and sum it up this sonically, lyrically, and conceptually so I knew what I wanted to say but I didn’t know what I wanted it to sound like.
Does that mean when you say “While things crumble around us / We build again” to close out the EP, it’s more internal?
It’s both. That’s what a lot of that song is: Dual-sided evaluations, like me talking about what’s going with me but also what’s going on out here. With that line, there’s of course the big picture shit: Donald Trump got elected last year. That’s happened so recently! The cracks in the political system are fully formed and they are ready to go. Racial and socio-economic tensions are hitting a boiling point and shit is ready to spill over. Kids die every day and people are hungry every day.
Even in our personal lives, shit happens to the people around us. But even though things can be awful with destruction comes reconstruction. And that could go for you as a person and things in your life but also things here. So yeah, Donald Trump got elected and that’s a win for racism, sexism, patriarchy etc. but look at what’s happening now: with a heightened level of ignorance, a part of this country has hit a new level of awareness and social awareness. Awareness is great and it’s a great first step to action but can the momentum keep going? But that’s really all I was saying. Things are falling apart but we’re trying to keep this ship running.
It ends on a hopeful note.
Exactly. We’re not done.