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.