Jack Riedy had an EGOT by 25.
Winning a Grammy at age 24 might put undue pressure on an artist yet to release their debut album, but Knox Fortune seems too chill to care. Whether it’s the years of music-scene experience or a resilience forged from the whiplash weather of the Midwest, the musician born Kevin Rhomberg doesn’t seem affected by the golden gramophone he scooped up after lending his near-alto pipes to fellow Chicagoan Chance The Rapper’s “All Night.”
Paradise, his debut released last month, is a breezy collection of pop tunes that mixes modern hip-hop, ‘70s rock, and ‘90s sampledelica. Clocking in at under 40 minutes, it feels like a deliberately concise statement in an age when more tracks equals more streams equals more money. Fortune never transcends his influences to create something new, but there’s still low-stakes fun all around, like spending a sunny afternoon laughing out bong hits while surfing YouTube in your skater friend’s bedroom.
Paradise’s first single, “24 Hours,” plays like a platonic distillation of tossed-off jangle rock that filled the blog-to-iPod pipeline a decade ago. The song is built around an ascending riff, doubled on guitar and bass, that is literally a major scale. When Smokey and Ronald wrote “My Girl,” they at least got picky with the notes they played. The song’s nuance comes from the character Fortune sketches over that elementary melody, someone who praises a hookup for offering motherly intimacy without requiring any of that nasty commitment. “I love the way you know how not to use my time,” he sings, and he really thinks that’s a compliment.
The chorus switches to a purposely off-key chord, thudding like a video game error sound. Fortune sings “24 hours, open, I know, 4 in the morning, are you alone?,” as extra percussion deepens the groove. The song is basic and bold enough to own up to it. Bratty posturing that ends up charming despite it’s middle school guitar student simplicity.
Rhomberg is clearly a child of the Internet; he’s grown up with the history of pop music only a click away. He’s fond of referencing disparate influences like the Beach Boys and the Beastie Boys. When he talks about using the same 808 that Rick Rubin used on a Beasties project, can you blame him for naming the wrong album when all their songs can blend into one playlist?
Paradise crown jewel “Lil Thing” epitomizes that blend. The song captures the desperate thrill of a summer crush. The live drums propel forward with nervous energy like a sample looped a millisecond off beat. Long, flanging bass notes threaten to swallow the low end until they’re yanked back into lockstep with the kick drum. Percussive clanks add texture to the rhythm.
Fortune’s writing is sometimes impersonal, but the lyrics here are his most genuinely affectionate. Even though he may “say the same things over again,” he’s always willing to try again for a girl who gets him “out of a jam.” Whereas the self-deprecation in “24 Hours” comes from the narrator’s lack of self-awareness, the sweetness of “Lil Thing” comes from his embrace of his flaws. At least he’s smart enough to make the insanely catchy hook about her, not himself.
Despite our boundary-free musical present, Knox Fortune remains geographically rooted in Chicago. “Lil Thing,” after all, is local slang. Rhomberg grew up in the western suburb of Oak Park and opted to work for his father’s lighting company while his peers went off to Big 10 universities. A job at a local recording studio led to friendship with up and comers like Vic Mensa, who bestowed Rhomberg with his current nom de booth. Members of independent Chicago bands Whitney and Twin Peaks contribute instrumentation, while Social Experiment affiliate Lido also guests on production.
Paradise features only two vocal guests that nevertheless show the breadth of Rhomberg’s friends list. Fortune’s production background is evident in the way he shifts his sound towards hip-hop to meet his rapper guests on their turf, even though the beats can feel a little generic.
On “Strange Days,” Fortune croons about disorientation while sounding like he’s Skyping in from the moon, then KAMI spits a sing-song verse over the staticky beat. “I lost my soul, I lost it to paraphernalia,” he says, wallowing featured in every syllable. Joey Purp shows up on the anime end credits jam “Stun,” threading his rhymes between the enormous handclaps. Knox credits him as an executive writer on the entire album, and his stoned shit-talking sprinkled with timeless Outkast references shows how he earned the title.
Even with an assist from one of Chicago’s finest young writers, Paradise is not free from glitches. “I Don’t Wanna Talk About It” is an uptempo rock song built for Warped Tour parking lot moshing. The majority of the lyrics alternate from the title to “It’s not my place to talk about it,” but the remaining verses don’t bother explaining what it is. The opening verse alludes to “all those little lessons” that come from growing up, but it’s more interested in that faux-sage revelation than the substance of the lessons themselves. Coupled with the unremarkable music, the track feels like a bland Ramones knockoff commissioned for a commercial.
Paradise is a fun record, but it can feel slight. Rhomberg seems like a nice guy in interviews, and he’s clearly talented, but he hasn’t yet reached what he seems capable of. This is a debut, after all, one that you won’t cue it up everyday, but you certainly won’t be mad when it surfaces at the top of your feed.