Kirk Knight, east coast rap crew Pro Era‘s Swiss Army knife, doesn’t have a hit single on the radio — at least not one you’d know was his. But you’ve definitely heard his production, thanks to the cultural ubiquity of ASAP Ferg’s massive Quran-quoting single, “Plain Jane.” It’s Kirk’s first Billboard Hot 100-charting single and second charting overall after Joey Badass’ “Devastated,” despite being in the game since 2012 producing tracks for everyone from close associates Pro Era (which includes Joey Badass, Nyck Caution, and the late Capital Steez) to fellow New Yorker Smoke DZA to Chicago rap philosopher Mick Jenkins. If he’s flown under the radar, it may be due to the way he and Pro Era introduced themselves to the world, via Joey’s nostalgic 2012 debut, 1999.
Where 1999 established the group and their larger Beast Coast crew (which includes Flatbush Zombies and The Underachievers) as staunch boom bap revivalists, with later works expanding on that theme, Kirk quietly tweaked and tinkered with his style, updating his sonic palette and polishing his Big L-inspired flow on his own debut, Late Knight Special, which dropped in 2015, and his joint follow-up with Nyck Caution, Nyck @ Knight, which landed last year. Going from boom-bap to goth trap in the space of the past six years was a painstaking and deliberate process, which culminated in the breakthrough success of Ferg’s club-demolishing anthem.
However, Kirk wants to be known as more than a producer and is ready to shed the blanket throwback categorization with which the members of his crew have been shrouded ever since their introduction. His latest album, IIWII, eschews features in favor of solo displays of lyrical virtuoso, stripping back his long-established wordy delivery in an effort to prove that his raps can be just as effective and thoughtful without the accouterments of fancy rhyme patterns and ’90s-evoking cadences to bait “real hip-hop” heads’ throwback sensibilities. With his profile as high as it’s ever been, this is his chance to introduce himself to the world for real, and first impressions still matter, even when they’re really your third or fourth.
And so, he’s incorporated melodic delivery on “Downtime” and double-time flow on “Run It Back (Freestyle),” chilly synths and spare, rattling snares on “M.O.,” and spacey soundscapes and ear-catching ad-libs on “Duffle Bag.” It’s a thoroughly New York project despite its breadth of production styles, and surprisingly diverse-sounding for something that also hangs together so cohesively. He attacks every beat with the same level of hunger we always heard on those earlier productions, but his evolution is clearly an effort to balance that serious, art-minded aesthetic with the commercial potential of his work on “Devastated” and “Plain Jane.” It speaks to his skill and experience, even at the age of just 23 years old, that he pulls it off so well.
That evolution formed the foundation of the conversation we had when I checked in with Kirk via phone to discuss the new album, the truly ridiculous success level of “Plain Jane” after his five years being primarily marked with the “underground rap/boom-bap” tag, and why “real hip-hop” doesn’t always have to be super lyrical to get its point across. His sharp observations echoed the sense I got listening to IIWII that the album was made with a very specific sort of fan in mind — one who appreciates hip-hop’s rich history, but always looks forward to the next wave, while living fully and mindfully in the present.
Your album is coming out in a couple days and it doesn’t have any features listed. Does it have any features? Are you keeping it a secret?
Nah, it has no features, it’s just all me.
Why did you want to do it that way, as opposed to maybe bringing in Pro Era or other Beast Coast artists?
I just wanted to stand on my own two. It’s not like I’m not open to collaborating because I actually am to the fullest extent. I love collaborating. But on this project I really wanted to just really be extremely personal and I wanted to show the type of efforts that I love. I love R&B, I love house and garage music, so there’s a lot of instances on the album where you hear my love for certain genres.
So that’s basically what I wanted to get off of this project was something to really engage with my fans, who have been rocking with me for mad long, like at the end of the day my job, late nights, started three years ago, you feel me. I just wanted to have something that could reconnect with the fans in the most honest, simplest way which is just giving them just me.
It’s been a while since your debut three years ago. I wanted to ask how would you describe your sound evolving over those three years.
My sound evolved just off the fact that like I was in a camp that is predominantly known for making boom-bap and hip-hop and then I made “Plain Jane” when Ferg came back into the game double platinum. So, people don’t know what I could do and that’s what I want to keep expanding on. I think other ways that I evolved was just my songwriting. Instead of me trying to sit there and try to figure out how to make this double entendre and being this lyrical, I literally just sat and down and really just wanted to make a good song at the end of the day. You have battle rappers that can out bar you ’til you’re dead but at the end of day, they can’t make a good song.
I say that all the time!
Yeah, you get what I’m saying. That’s why, for example, I love [Kid] Cudi. Cudi was one of the first rappers, in my opinion, that came out and didn’t really give a f*ck about bars. [He] really just cared about the feeling and making a great song. With this project, I was just really focused on what sounds I can reach that’s not just some fucking boom bap sh*t or some “classic” sh*t. What is the definition of a classic? [It’s a classic] if you’re initially getting the feeling that the record was supposed to make you feel. I feel like it’s not about how much bars or double entendres you have.
Speaking of Cudi, did you happen to watch the live stream from Flog Gnaw last night?
Nah man, sh*t, shout out Flatbush Zombies, because I know that they tore that sh*t up. I know they tore that motherf*cker up, I already know.
So, what do you say to those people who kind of look down on rappers who aren’t focused as much on bars? They are what I call “rap formalists” who want it to be all about bars and rhymes and double entendres. How do you convince somebody of the importance of doing something other than just rhyming?
Because it’s more creative. Cool bars is definitely creative because you have to think about the bars and think about how the beat these three different type of ways, that’s definitely creative. The fact of me altering the way I sound for you to even like it — that takes a different type of risk. It’s all about how risky you are as a person. But there are some people like Young Thug who takes the complete risk. Sometimes he doesn’t even get a good song out of it but the fact that he tried to high pitch his voice to this and do that, it makes you listen to the record different.
It also makes you think about different pockets that are not reached sometimes. We have punchlines and bars, it’s only fitting for a certain type of pocket, but when you just focus on your voice and just how it sounds, you hit pockets that you never knew were a thing. Sometimes you might harmonize and say a word that, like on Cudi’s album when he is like, “and I feel free” — that’s not my favorite song, but I understand the effect of him singing, “Free.” Like your singing to the whole free world. You understand what I’m saying.
It’s like sometimes like when it’s all bars it’s dope, but it’s not having a setting. For example, when I listen to Lil Uzi [Vert] and he’s like “gave my watch my best friend,” I already know what the setting is about to be. I want to turn up, I’m sassy. I got a lot of racks on me, I got VVS [diamonds] on me, I’m feeling great. To me, it’s like you don’t really need words at that point to give off that feeling; you’re giving off that feeling with the record the way it’s mixed, the way the reverb is smacking.
So, what will make you happy in terms of your album, It Is What It Is, in terms of your career, in terms of your production? What’s the ideal outcome?
Well, for me it’s just more hits, man. That’s sh*t that’s going to make me happy. It doesn’t necessarily have to be some of more “Plain Jane,” it’s just a hit to the person. I just want to make people feel like they got they hit. That song that they can play that they’re just proud of. Then I want to make my song be as big as “Plain Jane.” I’m literally competing with myself. That is my biggest goal. Everything else falls into place after that, like all the money, cars, women, whatever the f*ck. All that sh*t falls into place after. I just want to be able to say, ‘Okay, Kirk did this for Ferg and himself, that’s crazy.’
IIWII is out now via Cinematic Music Group. Get it here.