Kemba Finds Life After Death On His Powerful New Album, ‘Gilda’

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When Kemba arrives at Urban Myth Studio in Brooklyn on a late summer afternoon in August, he wants to make sure everything is perfect for his album playback. The idea behind shooting this Youtube visualizer is that Kemba’s friends and fans will come to the studio, spaced out by the hour, to hear Gilda for the first time and react to it on camera. Understandably, Kemba’s issue with the studio’s speakers is that the sound gets muffled at times, not crisp and clear enough to play a new record that he’s worked on for several years.

After making some adjustments through an app on his iPhone, Kemba settles for a slightly improved sound while his day-to-day manager works on an improvement, making calls to a nearby equipment rental store and to friends who could lend their speakers for a day. The first arrival is an artist named Cast from The Bronx. Kemba simply instructs him to do what feels natural. He then presses play and leaves the room, allowing the fan to experience his upcoming release without any distractions.

As the opening track plays, Kemba steps out into the hallway and sits across from me. On September 20, the 28-year-old rapper born Matthew Jefferson will be releasing Gilda, his Republic Records debut that shares the namesake of his mother. Executive produced by Brasstracks, it’s a time capsule of Kemba’s state of mind during a very painful life transition. He’s more open and vulnerable than he’s ever been on his latest album, as he works towards peace and tranquility in order to grow as an individual. Whether it’s capturing the exhaustion of dealing with family conflict (“What a Day”) or facing his insecurities of being a successful rapper without his mother (“Dysfunction”) or simply not having any faith in humanity (“Nobody I Can Trust”), Kemba goes through the good, the bad, and the ugly. Eventually, everything is going to be okay.

The genesis of Gilda, using music as therapy to get through a difficult time, is something that many people can relate to. Kemba and I share losing a parent in our 20s. My dad died in 2014 when I was 26, while his mother died in 2017 when he was the same age. Though it affected us at different moments in our lives, there’s a bond in talking about what we went through in order to get to this point of acceptance, even if you’re not completely 100 percent again.

“The music was the main thing that helped. I’m not good at talking to people about stuff,” Kemba says. “I don’t know, you kind of just keep trying every day. You’re never really completely over it and you can be happy with your life and still think about that. I would say the main thing that helped was the music and the support of my friends.”

On “Dysfunction,” Kemba paints those feelings with his lyrics, using a distorted voice to work through his toughest thoughts of being lost and feeling guilty as things slowly return back to normal. “F*ck a doctor, what’s the point of it? / Cancel all appointments / Life is just a coin to flip / I lost my mother to a motherf*cking stroke / Maybe I could have avoided it / Sh*t, maybe I could have avoided it / This is dysfunction,” he raps.