Music

Kodak Black Goes To War With Both His Demons And His Better Nature On The Uneven ‘Dying To Live’

Atlantic Records

Even a broken clock is right twice a day. This is an old adage that means that even a dubious, unreliable, or flawed source can be a font of wisdom or have valuable information to share. Sources of wisdom don’t come much more flawed than Kodak Black, but on his latest album, Dying To Live, he still has plenty of it to share amid the stark trauma, redemptive hopes, and compensatory stunting. Under the right conditions, some of it even lands.

The reasoning behind Kodak’s flaws is well-documented at this point. The 21-year-old rapper has proven himself to be deeply problematic, dangerously misguided, and tragically institutionalized by the forces of inequality at work in American systems. He recorded his earliest, precocious material in a trap house. He’s spent almost the entire duration of his short musical career under arrest, in prison, or on trial, with the most serious of his many charges relating to the sexual assault of fan after a show. He goes on trial for that offense next spring; in the meantime, he’s drawn criticism for his reckless use of social media and his refusal to accept counseling for court-mandated anger management issues.

On the other hand, he’s been described by interviewers and journalists as “smart.” His music oozes intelligence and — on more occasions than some skeptics would expect — self-awareness. His biography details his autodidactic nature; while he was expelled in fifth grade for fighting, he says he spent his youth reading dictionaries and thesauruses to improve his vocabulary, which is often on display in his fluid, recursive rhyme schemes and at times, hyper-lucid feats of wordplay.

Despite the charges laid on his head (and those of similarly-reared rappers who found early success on Soundcloud) due to his sometimes mush-mouthed, Floridian-accented delivery, he’s as good a lyricist as any of his southern fellows, like a younger, higher-pitched, early Gucci Mane. His current success is as justified by his talent as it is hampered by his stubbornly self-destructive behavior. His mind is a finely-tuned instrument, seemingly irrevocably damaged by rough and careless treatment by both himself and the conditions in which he came of age.

That flawed-source principle about broken clocks relates as much to the product Kodak is responsible for putting out on Dying To Live as it does Kodak himself. While his lyrics are as affecting and self-effacing as ever, the delivery is marred by the flawed choices on display which betray even more of that trademark carelessness. It’s distressing that it’s also deliberate, by Kodak’s own admission; out-of-place features from Juice WRLD, Offset, Travis Scott, and even fellow Floridian Lil Pump are calculated bids for streaming relevance rather than extensions of any sort of viable chemistry. Even the songs that they feature on (“Gnarly” features Lil Pump, “MoshPit,” Juice WRLD, and super single “ZEZE,” Offset and Travis) sound more like the guest artists’ songs, relegating Kodak to feature artist status repeatedly on his own album.

Likewise, he makes bizarre and lazy choices regarding the beats as well. “Identity Theft” features integral themes of redemption, regret, and survivor’s guilt, but laid over a beat that sounds like it was constructed entirely of Casio keyboard presets. “Zeze” is completely outside of Kodak’s usually soulful pocket, with a sunny, California-inspired beat that sounds more like one of Tyga’s recent, resurgent singles than anything that best lends itself to Kodak’s delivery. Where the fiery Floridian’s best tracks often sound like sermons — or maybe benedictions — the beats here sound incredibly mass produced, even in a year marked by literally hundreds of 30-minute, disposable trap productions.

But when Kodak hits his mark, his songs can be every bit as evocative and sympathetic as his defenses in court. Of “Testimony,” you can almost buy that he really is just a product of his environment: “Shot a n—-, took a shower with the bleach, Yahweh / Mama, I fell victim to the streets, I’m sorry / I’m in middle school sellin’ weed in the hallway.” And while the analogous comparison of Kodak’s late, estranged friend and fellow problematic rapper XXXTentacion to civil rights leader Malcolm X on “Malcolm X.X.X.” may read as a stretch on the surface, there’s clear thought behind the bars, weighing potential against the judgement of a system set up for the Kodak’s and X’s of the world to fail. “First they screamin’ my name, then file a lawsuit on me / You would hate to see me reach my full potential / You want me robbin’, poppin’ Mollies, poppin’ pistols / I’m goin’ to college ’cause to the youngins I’m influential.”

The problem is balancing this apparent yearning for redemption with Kodak’s seemingly endless litany of abuses and violations. It’s almost like he’s not just at war with his demons, but also his better nature. It’s skin-crawling to hear him rap about sex on cuts like “In The Flesh” considering what he’s going on trial for in April, and the contextual subject matter he refuses to engage with, either on record or in interviews. It’s understandable that he wouldn’t want to say anything that could be taken as evidence, but he seems more invested in hand-waving or sweeping it under the rug than expressing anything that resembles penitence or shame. It’s impossible to hear the potential without feeling more shamed than he apparently does for even believing in it. He seems perfectly fine with only being right twice, because it doesn’t seem that he’s ready yet to pay the cost for repair.

Dying To Live is out now via Atlantic Records. Get it here.

Kodak Black is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.

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