The Rap Star Online

Abe Beame on how rappers like Kenzo B, RXK Nephew and TisaKorean have harnessed the power of different social media platforms to broadcast the best, most authentic version of themselves.
By    March 28, 2023

RXK Nephew and a stuffed Rooster (Image via Scott Jawson)

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Abe Beame is imagining riding around in a truck on a Spring day with the windows down, blasting drumless rap.

For many artists too young to remember a time before Facebook, social media has become as important to their careers as their actual musical output. It offers a 24/7 marketing arm, the ability to communicate directly to their fans and construct their own narratives. The access that works in both directions is unprecedented in the history of the relationship between star and fan. Drake co-signing an up-and-coming artist’s single in an Instagram story changes their life. An artist’s social media footprint is the siren call that attracts major label attention, a proof of concept that assures these risk averse institutions that an investment in a given artist is well spent, because they’ve already managed to self-promote. They’ve already done the legwork of drumming up interest and garnered grassroots attention.

I’m speaking to a label head via Zoom who wishes to remain anonymous. We talk through the social footprint of a few rappers whose presence he is able to immediately bring up on his laptop and read like a pre-Columbian tracker interpreting paw prints in the mud. On Kenzo B, inspecting her daily Instagram adds over the course of the last few weeks, reeling them off like Aaron Judge in the midst of a Summer heater: “Her Instagram is poppin’… pretty poppin’, not crazy. Yesterday, 130. Day before, 160. That’s average. But August 26th, 680. Good, but it’s not crazy.”

Marketing tools like Social Blade allow labels to read how passive or active an artist’s streaming and social engagements are through every metric under the sun – ranging from plays to comments to subscribers on their YouTube videos – and whether their streams are the product of organic searches or being recommended via Shazam or playlisting on Spotify. Some stats are worth more than others, and the same stats on different platforms are weighted differently, like antiquated counting stats vs. advanced analytics. What labels are trying to discern is correlation vs. causation, whether an act is an artist or merely a song. To quote the anonymous label head, “It’s a gauge of stickiness. It tells you if I spend $10,000 on this, I’m going to get a certain return.”

For instance, if an artist has a sound tied to their song trending on TikTok, they may see a sudden and sharp bump in streaming numbers, but this is often the product of a user’s mindless scrolling, dedicating perhaps a single listen to the song once, then forgetting about it – and this happens millions of times. Algorithms can be gamed if an artist or label throws enough money at them, but labels have become sophisticated in sussing out what they consider empty calories.

YouTube streams are slightly more valuable, but also beholden to the byzantine alchemy of their respective algorithms. Instagram, in terms of weekly growth by percentage and engagement per post, because it’s understood as a real reflection of fandom in its commitment by the user, and because that can be extrapolated to future active repeat streams and concert ticket revenues, is the .OBP of social stats. Gaining followers at this point isn’t notable or impressive when it comes to label attention, but cultivating the right kind of following, as Kenzo is in the process of doing, can be incredibly valuable. On October 18th, Kenzo announced she had signed to French Montana’s Coke Boys Records under Warner.

There is a wisdom and a logic to how the labels view different social media apps, because the online universe is wide and unfathomable. Each app is a tool with different utilities, so I wanted to survey a few artists who have found interesting ways to promote their work through them.

1. Instagram: Beauty in the Beast

Mount Vernon is a distressed four square mile suburb in Westchester County, north of the RFK Bridge, off the Cross Bronx Expressway, roughly a 15 minute drive from the River Park Towers in Morris Heights. It is one of the great unsung cradles of hip-hop, the ancestral home of Pete Rock and his cousin, Heavy D, where they made music and community with fellow Westchester rappers from neighboring Yonkers and New Rochelle in the early 90s. Sean Combs grew up there, even as he was claiming Uptown. And on the last Monday night in August, it was where the 18 year old drill phenom Kenzo B met me to go live on Instagram.

The semi-finished top floor of the two family home in the middle of an unremarkable residential block would be familiar to Kenzo’s growing, rabid fanbase, who would instantly recognize it as the location of her last video, “Dump It.” The house has been provided by Paper Touchaz, two young men named Frail and Fetti who grew up and work together, the management team from RPT who are representing Kenzo and funding much of this early movement in her career. In a backroom they are constructing a booth, which will be a space away from the violence and noise of the Bronx for Kenzo to record in. But for now, it’s just an empty room, strewn with construction materials and tools.

Kenzo’s entrance immediately transforms the apartment into a makeshift soundstage. The show runner, writer, director, and star looks even younger than she is. In a cropped blouse, her hair pulled back in a somewhat puffy ponytail, and a pair of gray jeans, she looks more like a kid dressed for picture day in 11th grade than a rapper about to conduct an interview. She’s holding her phone, a portal to her many thousands of fans who will join us the moment she presses the button to go live. I wanted to witness this phenomenon I’d been transfixed by on the other end of her broadcasts. She presses the button.

Fetti, Kenzo & Frail (Image via Abe Beame)

I began following Kenzo on Instagram several months ago. I’d been covering the drill scene here in New York for some time, and though Kenzo has been rapping professionally for less than a year, and doesn’t have the catalog to compare to more established stars like Shawny Binladen or B-Lovee, I’d been drawn to the little music that she has made.

Kenzo raps like an assault rifle with immaculate breath control, at sub-Twista levels of combined speed and articulation. What really sets Kenzo apart is the lack of strain as she’s delivering. Because her flow is so unhurried and conversational, she comes off as uncommonly naturalistic in her verses, like a fast talker you might overhear on the bus, explaining some drama to her friend on the phone. She’s a direct refutation of the old head gripe that these kids aren’t as technically proficient as the OGs.

Kenzo doesn’t exactly fit in the lineage of petite, counterintuitively baritone New York rappers like Lil Kim and Cardi B she descends from. She doesn’t have the augmented, waist trained and butt lifted anime proportions, and this is at least part of her charm, more girl next door, tidily breaking up mids in a Grabba Leaf with her girlfriends. When dressed up for video shoots in colorful extensions of both hair and eyelash, outlandish press on nails, behind the wheel of an imported car and wearing designer gear, she liberally borrows from the female New York rap aesthetic, a blend of high earning stripper/gunmoll first codified by Kim and Foxxy Brown, but more often she presents herself to us as LL Cool J’s sainted, titular dream girl from somewhere off Farmers Boulevard.

Kenzo would go live on Instagram from humble and unspectacular locations at strange hours, a hookah lounge, a dashboard as she drives, her city government built apartment. She’d be dressed down on her bed in sweats and a bonnet, unboxing an expensive new camera bought for her to launch a YouTube channel. Other times her followers could watch her yelling at her Mom because she wasn’t in the mood for baked chicken for dinner or buying a chopped cheese from a local bodega. The friends she’d go live with didn’t seem to care that they were hanging out with one of the hottest rappers in the city. They’d bust her balls and give and take shit on camera as if there weren’t thousands of people watching. Kenzo would keep the feed on for long spells, close to an hour, semi-bored reading the comment thread and occasionally answering questions or telling her opps to suck her dick. Sometimes there’d be updates on music or a beef (or as Kenzo would downgrade it, a “politic”) that she’s currently enmeshed in with a rival female drill rapper.

The moment she began the sessions, between hundreds and thousands would join her, and through it all, Kenzo radiated a personability. She was funny and instantly likable, and crucially, knowable. The commenters have developed parasocial bonds with her boyfriend, the rapper Curly Savv, or whatever friend she’d be hanging out with, on a first name basis. The level of fandom exceeded the primal thrill of aspirational voyeurism you’d attribute to a reality production on VH1 or Bravo. But at some point, it dawned on me that I was watching a serialized television show.

Kenzo was Bronx Drill royalty before she ever recorded a bar. Her brother Bando, their childhood friend DThang Gz, and DThang’s blood cousin Kay Flock were all well established drill rappers with healthy social media followings when Kenzo’s first recorded freestyle turned first hit, “Bump It” was posted in December 2021. But that only partially explains her ascendence. By her account, she had a thousand followers when the freestyle dropped. In the week between when I was beginning to sketch this piece and meeting her, she jumped from 100k to 110k followers. But she had five total songs uploaded to her YouTube channel (with a mixtape I’ve been assured is coming at some point soon) at the time. The other half of her celebrity at the moment, aside from her undeniable talent, appears to be due to her gift for engaging with her growing audience.

But just as social media has become an incredible tool for young artists, we’ve also seen it turned into a weapon, wielded recklessly by feds and district attorneys. This hits close to home for Kenzo. Bando and D Thang were two of 22 people who were rolled up in a 65 count indictment in May that was the result of an 18 month investigation against the RPT Gang. The indictment contains no actual human bodies dropped, but famously, one dead pigeon (Kenzo: “If you’re in a car and there’s a pigeon in the street, don’t even hit the pigeon, no funny shit”), and much of the evidence was circumstantial, cobbled together from social media, rap videos on YouTube, and song lyrics.

Kenzo says, “Anything could get you in a f*cked up situation: Song lyrics, Instagram posts, I could be talking about shooting three people on Call of Duty and they’ll be like, Kenzo just caught three bodies, and now I’m indicted, now I’m in jail. And that’s the thing with social media, they construct their own narrative. They’ll put together something that makes so much sense, but it’s so wrong. It’s like putting a puzzle together, and all the pieces fit but there’s no picture. It’s f*cked up. You still don’t know what you’re looking at.”

In regards to the aforementioned politic and how she contends with it online, “Mindful? Yes. Overly mindful? No. I’m young. I’m 18 years old. It’s only gonna be so much I can be grown about. So I do think like, f*ck the cops, this b*tch is not gonna play me. But I have people around me, like even my brother, who calm me down.” In her current politic, she will get heated, sometimes leaving the shots up in stories or on the Instagram grid if the situation warrants it.

Kenzo understands that politic creates content – it’s more B plot for the show. “All clout is good clout, it brings attention. I could diss Cardi B or Nicki Minaj, and I’d look crazy, but then the Barbz is on me. But they’re watching me. My stories is at 100k views, my videos is hitting a million in a day. It’s a strategy, so I understand it.”

2. TikTok: A Million Friends

The first thing that jumps out about TisaKorean is his personality, which shines through both on and off record. There’s an idiosyncratic, aviary quality to TisaKorean’s mic affect. His voice is helium squeaked, rapping in yawps or chirps – other sounds you’d ascribe to birds disturbing your sleep. If rap doesn’t work out, he could make a career for himself as a voice actor in direct to streaming CGI kids movies.

It’s not just that Tisa is funny and strange – his specific brand of wacky is what makes him a standout in dance rap, a particularly faceless and disposable medium of one hit wonder crews. Tisa emerged on a new millennial wave of dance rap in the 2010s, alongside groups like the New Boyz and fellow Texans Lil Will and 10k Cash. The parentage is still disputed, but Tisa broke “The Woah,” which went viral courtesy of his song “Dip,” as did “WERKKK.” But his abundance of personality makes him a dance rap anomaly and is why he’s an interesting test case. His success, beyond the initial hits he released as distant as five years ago, has as much to do with how he’s utilizing his social platforms as the music he makes. He consistently blurs the line between rapper and content creator/influencer, and forces us to question what meaning is left in that distinction.

Texas dance rap is particularly well suited to TikTok as a soundmine for virality, because the sizable choreo contingent of the app shares traces of dance rap DNA. The dance clip, a piece lasting anywhere from a few seconds to two minutes, is perhaps TikTok’s purest and most recognizable form. Dance rap’s instructional songs are generally composed of a few relatively simple phrases that can be embellished and made elegant and complex by a trained dancer with rhythm. But it can also be clumsily aped by a suburban adolescent without rhythm, and this is the exact recipe for a dance going viral.

Tisa’s TikTok success was the perfect storm – he was making the exact right style of music at the exact right moment in history. His latest work has found the rapper attempting to evolve past it. As Pitchfork’s Alphonse Pierre wrote of subsequent efforts like last year’s mr.siLLyfLow and 1st Round Pick EP, “He puts a freshly weird spin on Southern snap music smashed with sonic touches from Houston, Dallas, Memphis, and the online communities of SoundCloud.” And this impulse makes sense, from a pragmatic standpoint.

Rap has always been a singles driven medium, but streaming has been an anabolic steroid, pushing the medium away from the album with great force. Dance rap is well suited to the strikeout or homerun nature of hit song writing, so it would appear once again to fall into Tisa’s wheelhouse, but this discounts a key ingredient an artist needs to achieve longevity. You don’t get a story like Jay-Z’s, or Kendrick’s without a story for fans to attach to your work. Tisa suggests the possibility that the solution to this problem could be posting. In turning himself into a brand, he could be extending the historically brief half life of the dance rapper’s relevance.

TisaKorean will never make “You Must Love Me,” or “The Bigger Picture,” or “I Miss my Dawgs.” His work is transactional fun, a quick hit high to bounce to, laugh at, then keep scrolling. This is why it’s good business for him to turn his social media feeds into a network with several channels. He’s the star, an outsized and exaggerated character who is giving goofy, and almost nothing else. He dyes the bizarre island puff of hair floating on the back of his head bright colors, and is constantly trying to get his own versions of “Fetch” off the ground in hashtag form. His feed on TikTok, currently followed by nearly 600,000 people, is composed of skits that take their cues from Nickelodeon’s All That and MTV’s Jackass, along with clips of people dancing to his music, and McDonald’s sponcon.

But what sets Tisa apart is his inclusive, community driven approach to his fanbase. The best TisaKorean content is a patchwork quilt of people taking his original content, be it a song or video, and adding to it, piggybacking and bringing their own style and creativity to it. In terms of fan engagement, Alphonse believes Tisa is at a perfect level of fame for these kinds of retail interactions. He’s not yet a superstar, but popular enough that his platform has reach that his fans could glom onto, to receive acknowledgment from the artist they’re into, and perhaps gain some followers and attention for themselves in the process.

Tisa uses his feed to generate trends and memes, making neo-snap songs that are little more than shouting random phrases like, “BAGGY!” or of course, “SILLY!” and seem more like load bearing structures for TikTok skate and dance videos than viable “pop.” A viral Tisa clip could be seen and reshared at levels that exceed Hot 97’s listenership by millions. Tisa encourages and even manufactures direct fan interaction, taking his fan engagement from TikTok and amplifying it to his 57k followers on Twitter and the 220k he has on Instagram.

It’s not unlike the communities that grew up around Star Trek and Star Wars mythology, seeded and nurtured on fan art canvases, in the pages of fan fiction, in convention halls, and eventually in message board threads online. For TisaKorean, every Tweet is a prompt, every TikTok a potential duet, every IG post a Droste effect meme that can be quote tweeted by fans and those quote tweets reposted by Tisa himself in an echo chamber he’s built for his fanbase. The promotion of this fan content is a symbiotic and mutually beneficial game of exquisite corpse, a clout recycling unit.

3. IRL: His Struggle

RXK Nephew presents as a scythe of man, tall and thin, with a blade of twined dreads spilling out from under a fitted with the trigram in his moniker emblazoned on it. On June 18th, before a show at Elsewhere, I met Nephew at nearby Roberta’s for drinks to discuss his music and social media footprint. Despite being from New York, Nephew doesn’t bear many stylistic markers that would help a first time listener figure out where he’s actually from. This is perhaps because he hails from Rochester, a small post-industrial town of approximately a million often cold people on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, 300+ miles from the city. But the answer for why his music is both so regionless and distinct is more complex than that.

Alphonse Pierre produced a list ranking the 100 best Nephew songs of 2021. The list was an exhaustive exploration of what makes the rapper great and a commentary on what it’s like being a fan trying to keep up with Nephew’s manic production. That there even was 100 songs to rank, with some fans in Alphonse’s mentions fairly complaining their favorite tracks didn’t make the cut, was the point. Nephew’s preferred method of releasing music is dropping songs directly on YouTube, which he does almost everyday. The songs themselves can be anywhere from a minute and change to 15. They are often a cocktail of anger, humor, bravado, and heartbreak, hookless and without structure. He fires off hilarious punchlines and slice of life observations alongside disturbing personal tragedy which isn’t always real shit that’s actually happened to him, mixed with pop culture takes, theological and philosophical inquisitions, and perhaps most famously, conspiracy theories.

Nephew describes his music as “a suicide mission. I’m saying shit they want to say, that they’re thinking but they’re not going to say. If they say the shit I say, they’re going to have to fall out with their mom, their brother, their cousin, their sister, everybody is going to feel some type of way about it.” I ask him why he equates honesty and truth with death. “It’s a big risk. I’m expressing things in my raps. I don’t live by them. I never once got domestic violence charges, but I talk about slapping a bitch up. I said it! And in my mind I’m thinking, now they’d never book me to perform here or there or wherever, but I said it.” And he’s right. The vicarious thrill of Nephew’s fearless content, both on record and on social media, is an intrinsic component of his appeal.

Can being your most authentic self at all times be a bit? There aren’t many rappers that make one question the idea of the performance of personality like Nephew does. He occasionally has the aura of a joke that fans and onlookers are unsure whether to laugh with or at or both. It’s outrageous Kaufmanesque performance art that makes it difficult to discern exactly where the character ends and the person begins. I speak on the question to Scott Jawson, Nephew’s publicist who says, “Nephew knows what he’s putting out and what other people think of him, and he’s able to give fans what they’re expecting and play into a joke. Sometimes, maybe he takes it too far and it gets his account banned, but I think there’s a certain level of self awareness that comes into the things he does online.”

A few days before we sat down, Nephew posted something on Twitter speaking to suicidal ideation, and the ensuing thread played with that tension. Some laughed it off as a joke. Nephew would quote tweet, telling them to get help for making light of his pain. Some would respond with genuine concern, and he’d roast them for being corny and dramatic. I ask him about the thread, wondering how much of it was genuine and how much was shock jock boundary pushing? He responds with a blend of heartfelt yet contradictory sentiment: “It’s real life, but the real fans know, they’re not going to approach me on a tweet… I really do feel like that all the time, but I’m not going to do it. I know the fans might be like, is he gonna do it? But I’m too strong, I came too far. That’s just an expression. It’s like, ah man, they brought my food late. I’m bout to kill myself.” And we all laugh involuntarily. Jawson says, “I think he likes playing around on the internet. I think he enjoys the call and response nature of the internet and it helps him navigate through life emotionally and psychologically.” And you can feel that sense of play and discovery being done by the artist himself in moments like that, figuring out who he is and what he wants, both on and offline.

Following Nephew on social media is a carnivalesque experience, specifically an heirloom roller coaster like the Cyclone, where part of the fun is the danger of the rickety ride itself, rather than the thrill of the dip or the turn. At any moment, the car could veer off the track and sail into the Atlantic Ocean. On the last iteration of Nephew’s since banned Instagram account, there was the possibility of checking into his live in time to watch him doing a buck behind the wheel of a luxury sedan, holding his phone in one hand and taking liberal pulls from a bottle of Henny (the martini to his Bond, or the spinach to his Popeye). He would finish then discard the bottle on the floor of the passenger side already carpeted with empty bottles of the cognac.

At one point Nephew tells me, “The tweets is just the raps bro. The tweets are the same shit I’m saying into the mic. So you take my Twitter, and take all those tweets, and spit them into the mic? It becomes a song.” He is in constant dialogue with his fans through his music and his phone and its several apps, with one project bleeding into the other because it’s all just one big project.

Nephew didn’t have an Instagram account during our Bushwick lunch – it had been suspended again after already being salvaged once, and he was rebuilding his Twitter following after that had been erased as well. This is why, despite having 24,000+ subscribers on YouTube, and nearly a quarter million views of “American tterroristt,” he only had 7,548 Twitter followers at the time of our interview, not ideal for a rapper attempting to land a deal with a major label. It’s a fraught situation for Nephew, whose brand is built on pushing boundaries and testing limits.

The problem, which Kenzo B had also been grappling with on Instagram (Author’s Note: On Monday September 12th, Kenzo’s main Instagram was banned, please follow the new account, which she has already built back to 106k), seems to be the sensor algorithm monitoring these platforms works like a sensitive word triggered cleaver rather than a scalpel with the ability to parse nuanced context or satire. Any sort of content that can be interpreted as threatening or violent can imperil an artist’s account. Anonymous haters can mass flag a harmless post and twist the meaning of the author. The process of retrieval from these largely inhuman customer service arms of multinational tech conglomerates that operate these apps can be complicated and near impossible with multiple infractions, putting dollars and even careers in jeopardy.

I caught up with Nephew a few months later. He was re-established across platforms and on the verge of releasing his first album. He tells me he’s leaning into more accessible, danceable material. Rumor has it, he’s even written a hook. He appears, at least on the surface, to be in more positive spirits, and displays a maturity in how he thinks about his past issues on social media and how he’ll be approaching it moving forward. The goal is to stay online, off the sentinel censor’s radar, and maintain his online presence. I asked Nephew how he viewed social media. “Instagram is heroin, Twitter is crack, Snapchat is fentanyl,” he said.

At first, I thought he meant the apps had the addictive and harmful properties of the respective drugs he referenced, but he means he could utilize them the same way he would with drugs to sell. He sees the platforms as bandos to trap his respective products out of, the “product” in this case being compartmentalized aspects of himself, the artist, RXK Nephew. It’s a fascinating view of the marketing potential of the respective social media apps and their different uses, and a perspective not so different from how the industry views them. The question isn’t whether RXK Nephew, or Kenzo B, or TisaKorean are stars. The question for now, haunting their respective fanbases, and their teams, and the artists themselves, is how to harness their light and heat.

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