Kodak Black's debut album arrives amidst personal chaos and an ever-changing rap landscape. Did the Finesse Kid trick us all, or is he truly worth the hype?
Across America, street rappers who obsess over detail and storytelling with grim realism are launching their careers, but in today's melody-driven rap landscape, it feels a lot harder for any of them to become stars. Just ask the Bay Area's Lil Yase, Louisiana's Tec & Maine Musik, Alabama's OMB Peezy, or Detroit's Bandgang collective how far the pen gets you in 2017, when it's increasingly becoming about the clicks, the shares, the views, and such. If anything, it's that world to which a rapper like Kodak Black, “The Finesse Kid,” seems beholden.
And yet thanks to the interests of internet tastemakers, he's become an often controversial crossover star that often feels out of step with the company he keeps. One merely needs to look at the 2016 XXL freshman cover, in which the dark mind of a teenager who blew up off songs as bleak as “HollyHood” and “No Flockin” stood alongside colorful wunderkinds like Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Yachty.
One could argue that Kodak's music is another mode of modern trap purveyed by more rugged, media-savvy artists, a la 21 Savage, but if there's any record that feels like a predecessor to Kodak's debut album Painting Pictures, it's T.I.'s often-cited but rarely revisited sophomore album Trap Muzik. The big difference that weighs on the mind is that the T.I. of 23, also plagued by legal and personal trials, needed a second chance to demonstrate his artistic capabilities while Kodak is approaching 20 and setting a standard for himself that's surprisingly high for a newcomer.
Painting Pictures is going to go down as a record that will stick out in 2017 for a number of reasons. For one, Kodak is mirroring the careers of rappers to whom he's often compared, such as Lil Boosie and Gucci Mane, in that his legal imbroglios and erratic behavior hamper his opportunities for commercial breakthrough.
Another reason: given the way hip hop production has amped itself up in recent years, most of Painting Pictures feels stripped down by comparison. Ben Billions produced the majority of the album (with occasional assists from trap luminaries like Southside, Metro Boomin, The Honorable C-Note, Wheezy, & Mike WiLL Made-It), imbuing it with a consistency that few street albums have achieved in recent years. It sounds antithetical to much of the current rap climate while still remaining familiar enough to feel appreciable by modern fans. Cinematic loops on tracks like “Why Do They Call You Kodak” or “Corrlinks and JPay” should be the envy of everyone in rap right now. The album also throws a handful of curveballs, like the bouncy “Patty Cake,” that are surprising and welcome interludes to the prevailing long, moody stretches.
If anything threatens to dilute the album, it's how few of his guests work to compliment Kodak. Early Kodak hits like “Skrilla” and “Lockjaw” thrived off of Playboy Carti and French Montana trying to work around the rawness of Kodak's flows. On one hand, A-Boogie Wit da Hoodie's R&B hook on “Reminiscin”, Jeezy's elder's wisdom on “Feeling Like,” and Future's stoicism on “Conscience” provide an extra dimension to Kodak's vision, allowing him to delve into introspection when sparing him some of the heavy lifting.
On the other hand, nothing good comes from Bun B's verse on “Candy Paint." Bun turns in an embarrassingly uninspired performance, sounding less like a co-sign to a rising star and more like someone desperate to play off being washed and thrive off a younger artist's shine. And inexplicably, the wildness of Young Thug on “Top Off Benz” actually feels like it detracts from the song with his showboating, as if Thug wants listeners to leave remembering him and not the album's owner. That said, the features are scattered along a 18-track record, allowing for more than enough opportunities for Kodak to shine on his own, which he does.
That's also not to say that Kodak himself is above reproach on his debut album. Sex jams are not one of his strengths just yet, and takes up a pretty significant portion of an album that spans close to an hour's worth of time. And while he has his moments of evocation and depth, he is more likely to rely on elementary punchlines to get through a verse. Its funny to remember that the same dude who can coin perfectly simple pictures of street life will then lean on simplistic, amateurish bars. He's got the product (like make-up) and he likes the pussy bald (like Caillou). It's moments like these when one remembers that Kodak is still only 19 years old.
Kodak Black's Painting Pictures is an impressive debut from an artist who has defied expectations on numerous occasions. While his skills will have to improve with time if he wishes to continue to hold the levels of success he has achieved, he still manages to demonstrate a clarity of vision that few rappers possess. One thing is for sure, the Finesse Kid has proven before that he is impossible to predict . So any surprising results in the future, good or bad, just comes with the territory.