Kodak Black proves he's a Southern legend in the making on "Lil BIG Pac."
Last summer, in what seemed like an oddly coordinated effort, hip hop listeners began solidifying the first-string lineup for the next generation of trap stars. Migos had been around the block, Kevin Gates was well on his way to a huge debut album, and hell, even Young Thug was enough of an established star that he no longer seemed as foreign as he used to. Enter four buzzing kids under legal drinking age: 21 Savage, Playboi Carti, Lil Uzi Vert, and Kodak Black. At first, all were on the same playing field-- saying "SKRT" a lot, writing songs that were as threatening as they were catchy, getting spins on OVO Sound Radio-- but twelve months later, it's clear that one of these dudes isn't like the others. Kodak's the youngest, having just turned 19 last week, but on his new tape Lil BIG Pac (released on his birthday), it's become clear that he's got more in common with veteran legends of the South than he does with his contemporaries.
Two of those legends, Gucci Mane and Boozie Badazz, make up two-thirds of LBP's features. The ominous club banger "Vibin In This Bih" is just the third feature GuWop's given since his release from prison, and as the other two were for Drake and Kanye, respectively, it's a huge stamp of approval for Kodak. "I'm just tryna stay focused, Ain't tryna go flex" raps Kodak, sounding more like a 36-year-old wearing an ankle monitor than a reckless kid, but at such a young age, he's already gotten a glimpse into that world. Boosie and Gucci are on the other side of years-long legal cases that left them locked up, and trying to stay clean; Kodak's already been to jail twice this year and is beginning to realize that he can't keep this lifestyle up. That clear-eyed maturity colors all of LBP and renders it far less hedonistic and nihilistic than the music of Kodak's contemporaries. Youth is the time to act reckless, but Kodak doesn't have that luxury. At 19, an age when most people are still acting like entitled ingrates, he's introducing his tape with the words, "Life ain't tied with a bow but it's still a gift."
Kodak carries that fatalistic-but-optimistic mindset throughout the tape, praying he'll be able to give his son what his own father didn't, asking for a day off where he can just be "Lil Bill" again, eagerly responding to a letter he got from a friend while in jail. He's still dealing predominantly in trap subject matter (how could he not when it seems to be all he ever inherited in life?), but in contrast with his track "No Flocking," which only came out 18 months ago, he's not glorifying shit. Cold baths in jail, no time to chill, no male role models, close friends plotting on you-- does any of this sound fun?
Also bucking predominant trap trends are LBP's beats, which veer between DJ Toomp and Pimp C-style lushness ("Can I," "30," "Blood Sweat Tears Revenge"), left-field outliers (the salsa of "Today" and singing wine glass sound of "Purp") and even Dungeon Family-style live instrumentation ("Everything 1k"). The only producers of any national recognition on the tape are Honorable C-Note and J Gramm, with the remaining eight all turning in performances that should result in full inboxes of beat requests from other rappers. There's no single track that's jaw-dropping in its arrangement or production tricks, but as a whole, LBP is hypnotic and intoxicating in its music as well as its melodies, which is the perfect backdrop for Kodak's impactful-but-restrained bars.
People looking for hyper-focused speed rap will be similarly dismayed by Kodak's growing reputation as a lyricist as they've been in the past by the cults of Gucci and Boosie, but for fans of that school of bald-faced, no-frills rapping, Kodak's the heir apparent. You won't find SAT words or extended metaphors here, but instead lyrics with power that's only palpable when Kodak's delivering them-- nothing on LBP looks particularly pretty or impressive on paper. There are little nuggets of wit like "How a young'n posted on the street and call it Sesame?" littered throughout, and the way he plays with internal rhymes and repeated syllables on the hooks is impeccable, but there's still a few moments that could benefit from rewrites. "Big Bank" in particular has a couple of lines where Kodak rhymes the same word twice (without any double-meanings or innuendos)-- "‘Cause I be staying out the way, them n*ggas in the way," for example-- where a perfectly good hook and beat seem to be squandered by a lack of focus in the verses. Kodak's rapping better, more effortlessly, and more singularly on LBP, but he's got a ways to go before he arrives at the geeked-up brilliance of GuWop or the illustrative genius of Boosie.
It was a wildly audacious move by Kodak to title this tape after two legends and rip off one of the most iconic covers of all time, but the message he's sending is clear, and not that far from the truth. He's the only 19-year-old who could pull this shit off, whose street cred, buzz, and talent all come close to the sky-high "must be this tall to ride" requirements inherent in invoking 2Pac and Biggie to this unmistakable degree. He's not there yet, but that means he's also got that precocious hunger-- the type that led Weezy to call himself the "best rapper alive" on Carter II, Gucci to deify himself as the "Trap God," T.I. to crown himself "King of Atlanta," André 3000 to boldly proclaim "The South's got something to say"-- that's come to characterize the brash Southern counterparts to the Northeast and West Coast's more established, time-honoring traditionalists. Right now, Kodak's indefinitely locked up, another characteristic that's plagued his region's superstars but increased their infamy. "Free Kodak" could become the next "Free Pimp C," "Free Boosie," or "Free Gucci"-- a rallying cry that gets plastered to t shirts and chanted at concerts-- but, learning by example, that's the last thing Kodak seems to want.