An Interview With KEY!

Will Schube recently spoke with Atlanta's most underrated rapper about using music to process heartbreak and producers riding Kenny Beats' wave.
By    July 22, 2020

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KEY! has been Atlanta’s most underrated since Atlanta’s been the rap world’s hottest scene. From his emergence as a co-founder of the Two-9 squad to his collaborations with Father, Makonnen, and Kenny Beats, the ATL veteran has always seemed to be ahead of the curve and a few years too early. Sure, the world is finally catching up, but KEY! has been an innovator in terms of rap stylists since the early 2010s.

Not that this bothers him in the slightest. “I don’t fuck with anyone else’s career. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m in my own lane. I haven’t heard anyone that sounds like me, as much as everyone says folks do. There may be comparisons, but I don’t listen to those,” explains KEY!. I spoke to the mercurial rapper during the early days of quarantine, shortly after the birth of his first child. His new album, I Love You, Say it Back!, has been finished for quite some time when we speak, and KEY! is already itching to get back into the studio. ILY,SIB! is his third outstanding release in a row, a run that includes the Kenny Beats-produced 777 and last year’s aptly-titled SO EMOTIONAL! KEY! can’t really leave the house because none of us can leave the house, but his first born has added an additional creative block. “I haven’t been used to taking shit this seriously. My back is against the wall and I feel it more intensely,” he explains.

For someone who considers his output the mere result of fucking around, KEY!’s talent is breathtaking. His versatility has always been his calling card, which he attributes to his versatile taste in music. He was doing sad love songs before that became the norm in Atlanta street rap, and has been drenching his vocals in autotune since it became a default feature, not an accent. ILY,SIB! moves from anthemic emo ballads to guttural street rap. KEY!’s going for the stadiums on the album, and he isn’t afraid to spell out his pop aspirations. “I really wanted to make a big, commercial album more than anything. I’m going for a wider audience than ever before,” he says. KEY! has been sniffing at mainstream notoriety practically since he emerged (Two-9 was featured on Complex’s “Artists to Watch” in 2013), but a more mainstream appreciation has always eluded him. With I Love You, Say it Back! KEY! is swinging for the goddamn fences, and he’ll be the first to remind you that he called his shot. Will Schube

When did the idea for the new album come about?

KEY!: I’ve been thinking about this project since I finished the last one. That’s generally how I work. It’s been since last summer that I really started honing in on it.

Do you view your style as a particular kind of rap music?

KEY!: I just know that what I’m doing is different from anyone else. With something like that, I don’t know if there’s a point in categorizing it. I just know I’m different from anyone else out. I’m on my own shit.

What’s something you wanted to do differently on I Love You, Say it Back! than your earlier albums?

KEY!: I just wanted it to be less heartbreaking and more retaliatory. I’m not caring about my heartbreak on this one. I’m not crying about it. I feel evil on this one. It’s like, if you don’t want me, then fuck you. That’s how I approached the album. It’s definitely angrier and less romantic than the last one, where I was going for the girl and shit like that.

Does this come from real life? Or are you just making up stories?

KEY!: They come from real life, for sure. Making music is just how I deal with it. Men and women deal with each other everyday, it’s one of the things that we focus on the most. Why wouldn’t I write about it? It’s what we all think about.

You just had a kid. How does that affect the way you approach making music?

KEY!: This is my first child, so I’m more serious about everything. I wanna get my ass in the studio to get back to work, but I haven’t been able to with everything going on. I don’t know how my new music is gonna sound now that I have a baby, but I think it’ll be different, for sure. I’m just eager to get back in the studio and make new stuff.

What are you doing during the quarantine?

KEY!: Right now I’m just chilling, focusing 100% on this project. My main focus is just getting this project out. Once this is over, I’m gonna really start focusing on what’s next. I’m already wanting to get started, because I’ve been done with I Love You for a while now. I’m already treating it like it’s out in a way. I just want to be done thinking about it and move onto what’s next. That’s what keeps me going.

There are some different styles on this album in terms of production. What made you want to switch up and explore new lanes?

KEY!: I wanted to make it more palatable for everyone. I wanted to have more people understand me and where I come from. I think there are some more pop songs on here, too. I want to get even bigger.

Your career has sort of skyrocketed since 777. What do you think it is about this run that’s propelled you to a new level?

KEY!: It’s more relatable music. I’ve been talking about heartache for a while, but everyone’s been doing that shit for a while so I wanted to shift my style. It gets exhausting after a while, with everyone talking about the same stuff. So I just wanted to be more honest, and find something more relatable for people. I feel like I’ve started doing that better. You can only talk about eating ramen noodles every damn night for so long.

Does it get frustrating being ahead of the curve? You’ve been doing Autotune and love songs for a while now. What’s it like when newer artists get more credit and acclaim?

KEY!: Naw, I don’t really think about it. There’s no one else in my lane so why would I care about them?

What’s kept you in Atlanta your whole life?

KEY!: My city is the best. We’re the most creative and open as artists. I’ve been all over and everyone is so focused on scenes and other people. Here, artists are allowed to be artists. I’ve been here my whole life and I don’t know why I’d leave. You have free reign to be yourself here. I’m just not comfortable anywhere else.

Kenny Beats has a beat on this new record. He produced 777. What is it about his production that you like so much?

KEY!: Damn, I haven’t rapped over one of his beats in a minute. A lot of producers have followed his style since the Kenny awakening. He just has a really crisp and clear sound. When you get to the studio, his beats are damn near finished. He’s just on top of his game and does shit so crisply. A lot of new kids want to be him. I hear his production everywhere. There’s one song on this album with a Kenny beat, but that was from 777. We have a big-ass stash of music from that era that we haven’t released. I’d like to put that out, but it ain’t up to me.

There are some emo vibes on this album that reminds me of some younger rappers. Where did that vibe come from?

KEY!: I made that song a few years ago. I was going through an emo and punk-rock phase. I’ve been into that shit forever but I remember being in a heavy phase a few years back. I was probably sitting in my house on a gray rainy day and it just came out of me. Life was hectic at that time. When it’s like that, music just comes out of me in all different styles. I’ll never limit myself in that regard.

Yeah, the album is really versatile. Do you seek out different genres of music to integrate into your sound? Or are you just a naturally curious listener?

KEY!: I listen to everything under the sun. That’s why the project sounds so different. I hate listening to one thing over and over again. Because that’s the way I listen to music, I figured my fans feel the same way. I don’t want anyone getting bored. I’d get bored listening to the same shit for a whole album, too.

What do you hope people understand about KEY! after listening to this album?

KEY!: I’m here and I don’t plan on going anywhere. People have acknowledged me and praise me but I want them to be excited about what’s next. I’ve been around for a while and too many people have said, “I loved KEY!” I want them to be saying, “Damn, I love KEY!” I want people to always be wanting more.


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