Chicago rapper Kembe X jokes about having quarter-life crisis on his new album, I Was Depressed Until I Made This, and honestly, it’s understandable. After all, we currently live in the era of high anxiety and higher expectations, of unfulfilled promise and looming devastation, of commodified self care, and perhaps most importantly, of depression. We’re all going through it.
Maybe that’s why the 25-year-old — born Kembe Jabari in the Chicago suburb of South Holland — felt compelled to title his album as such — although he’s quick to point out that technically, it’s not about depression at all. Which might be confusing for listeners, but that joke — a throwaway on the intro to “Roblox” — might be the key to understanding how an album called “I Was Depressed…” can not be about depression, specifically, but about the circumstances that led to its creation.
If anyone has reason to be depressed, it’s Kembe. He’s seen the highest heights of unmet expectations, as he was tabbed in 2016 to succeed Kendrick Lamar in the minds of many and join Top Dawg Entertainment’s roster of rap vanguards. Going from being a touted member of Chicago’s critical favorite, poetic rap scene and being pulled onto the cusp of hip-hop royalty by a chance online meeting with Isaiah Rashad to developing a drink-and-drug habit and hating making music would be enough to sour anyone on the prospects of life.
But here Kembe is, after a three-year break prompted by a hotel room conversation with singer Kehlani, starting over fresh with a new perspective on music, life, and finding the balance between hoping for the best and letting anxiety take hold. Over the phone, he broke down the writing process for I Was Depressed… and his plans for the future as he navigates his second lease on life in the rap game.
If the album is not about depression and why is it called I Was Depressed Until I Made This? And what was it about the process of making the album that brought you out of that sense of “I’m depressed”?
I’m trying to put together an album and I really had these kind of abstract-ish album titles. I wanted it to feel like an update of what happened. That title was because I was going through like a super dark mental space until I started working in front of it.
To give you more background on that, the reason I use depression specifically is because whenever I go through these dark spaces, I would always wonder if this was me being weak, me having a weak moment or if I was having some depression, bipolar, manic. So it was a combination of all that sh*t.
You’ve been around since 2014, you used to rock with Alex Wiley and TDE. And then it’s almost like in 2016 you were just like, “Nah. I’m done.”
I did, I said, “F*ck music.” I developed a heavy drinking problem. I started doing drugs more regularly, and I wasn’t really noticing. I was feeling like I was getting old, nobody cared about my music. I was trying and trying and trying and I was just like, “F*ck this sh*t.” I started to hate making music.
Then me and Kehlani had linked up. She was in town at the hotel room, and I was talking to her about it. She was like, “You know, if you don’t want to make music, don’t because it’ll drive you insane.” I had never thought about that because I’m kind of a workaholic. So I took that approach. I kind of accepted the idea.
First thing that happened is, after a couple of months I would catch myself writing songs in my head. Just regular things in regular life. Like not in the studio, and not really sitting down trying to write. I would just be coming up with songs that I felt like I had to, as opposed to me trying to write songs on some “getting work done” type sh*t. I think that that changed my perspective on music.
So when I started making the album initially I was kind of trying to tap into more autobiographical songs. I feel like that’s never been my strong suit… So I think that’s big. That’s probably like element one of I Was Depressed Until I Made This because that process went from me trying to get across points in certain ways to me just expressing myself and however it came out, it came out and if I liked it this, I’m using it and if I didn’t like it, I wasn’t using it. It kind of simplified that process.
Obviously, the whole thing is important to you, but do you have ones that are just critical to understanding your new-found space?
“Body Language” is me, literally. That’s from what I was actually doing when I was writing it and the perspective I was writing from. It was me in the moment in the studio which is one of my homegirls, examining what is going through my head and all the moments between me and her talking about sh*t.
And then also “Move Around” because it gives a good portrait of my character — these reckless situations I was in as a kid going to my grandmother’s house and all this crazy sh*t that I was saying, but in a kind of slapstick, funny way.
So the new album is incredible and it’s got people talking about you, you got people buzzing about you again. So what’s the next goal from here?
Immediately is a tour. What’s your name? Aaron?
Aaron, I make so much f*cking music. I love making music like that. I’m like, a tour is coming in. I hope I’m not coming off the wrong way, but I’m confident in my standard and quality and I want to challenge that with quantity, like, how high can I have quality music can I make while I try to play this quantity game for a second? I want to make my magnum opus. I don’t know if that’s something I can do. And that’s something I feel like I need some inspiration to strike then I’ll have to decide if I want to grab on to that.
Right now, I kinda just want to strategically flood the streets for a little moment because I was gone for so long and I want to see what that does for my career. I don’t want to take this shit too seriously because knowing myself, what I tend to do is freeze up and I just don’t want to do it at all. I’m trying to find that balance.
I Was Depressed Until I Made This is out now on FocusGroup / EMPIRE. Get it here.