Brooklyn rapper Kota The Friend may seem atypical compared to the average person’s idea of a hip-hop star. For one thing, he says his ultimate goal is to help other artists surpass him — an ostensible no-no in the hypercompetitive world of rap. But Kota didn’t join the game to be on top — instead, he wants only to make music to encourage others to pursue their own dreams, hyping them up all the way and living up to his genial sobriquet.
Kota’s seemingly counterintuitive approach has endeared him to rap fans of all stripes though, as he grew his audience from the low thousands to garnering millions of streams on Apple, Spotify, and YouTube in the few short years that he’s been active. His 2019 full-length Foto was a critical favorite, proving as well that hip-hop still has a niche for low-key personal music in a time where it can feel like everything needs to be supersized just to get noticed.
The amiable rapper followed up his shining moment in 2020 with an EP titled Lyrics To Go, Vol. 1, displaying his lyrical prowess in a series of one-minute, freeform verses. He plans to follow that with another full-length, Everything, dropping on May 22 and featuring appearances from fellow New York breakouts Bas and Joey Badass, as well as Chicago upstart Tobi Lou.
Over the phone with Uproxx, Kota turned out to be as approachable as his name suggests as he broke down the albums features, being vulnerable in his music, and being okay with having “fame, not clout.”
How have you been keeping busy during quarantine? What have you been up to?
Honestly, during this quarantine I’ve been tightening a lot of loose ends that I’ve been letting off because I’ve been working on an album. I’ve been trying to make time for my son and right now, I’m doing pretty much simple stuff — getting my health insurance in order and now that the album is pretty much wrapped up, getting my life together so I can roll out the album the right way and in a very peaceful way.
Right. Adulting is hard when you actually have stuff to do, but then when you have time to slow it down, you can just catch up on all those little things. So, talk to me about this new project, Everything. What have you been working on? What is the difference between this one and Foto?
I wasn’t even going to make an album this year and out of nowhere, I just made a good song. And it always starts like that with me — I make a song that inspires me to keep going in that direction and creating a project. I think the difference between this one and Foto is that this one is just a lot more up tempo. It has a lot more bops than Foto does.
One thing I wanted to focus on with this one is, I wanted to make it just a really feel-good album. I didn’t want one song to be a downer. I wanted every song be uplifting and just really get people hyped and get people in a good mood or feel a really good version of nostalgia. So, I think this one is definitely more positive then Foto and less heavy but still meaningful and it still represents who I am.
The title is Everything, which you said is “less heavy,” but that’s heavy. What inspired the title and what does that mean to you, and what do you think it’ll mean to the average listener?
When I was in college, I was in a little hip-hop trio and I named the first album Anything. I named the second album that we did Everything. So, it’s not only bringing it back because I feel those are just great ideas for names for albums, but Everything is really, “Yo what means everything to you? What does having everything mean to you? What does it mean to have everything?” So, right back to me just making a really positive album, I wanted to make a project that was about manifestation and manifesting the things that you want as an individual and only speaking good things.
Because as an artist, when you’re really speaking your truth, your words are powerful and you bring a lot of stuff that you talk about in the music, it actually comes true and it comes to life. So this album, I’m pretty much talking about all the things that I want, what means everything to me, what’s important to me, and what I put before everything else. We have other people on the album — fans, actors, and artists — just talking about what means everything to them on the interludes.
That’s fire. That makes me do some thinking. How have you manifested this position in hip hop? Because you do occupy a very interesting space. You aren’t a major label artist but at the same time, you really built a following and a movement and people are really checking for you. How did you manifest that and what does that position mean to you?
It means a lot to me because I think one thing that I represent to a lot of people is freedom, to do what you want and to say what you want and just to do what makes you happy. I manifested this by just working hard and keeping my head down and staying on the grind. This is one of the things that means everything to me. I used to write about being where I’m at and traveling the world and touring.
Coming back to the concept of the album, “what means everything to you?” That’s a daunting concept to try and be that vulnerable and that honest. What are some of the challenges that come from trying to express such a complex idea and what are some of its rewards?
Everybody I asked the question to, they’re taken aback by the question. Like you were saying, it’s a heavy question, but I feel, once people get to answering, everybody’s answers are very similar. Once people actually think about it, everybody has a similar answer, which is, “My family or my friends or I want to travel, I want to get to know other cultures and I want to understand people.”
I think that, especially in times like this where there’s rich, poor, middle class, whatever, everybody values similar things. I think it doesn’t really have any challenges when once you think about it for a little bit. But at first, I feel like people are taken aback.
This album also has some interesting guests. You have Bas, Tobi Lou, Joey Badass — those are names that I’m personally a huge fan of. How do you navigate these relationships within hip-hop when you’re doing it on an independent level, as opposed to you have an A&R who can reach out and plug you in? Do you ever run into resistance or is it just a natural process?
It’s a very natural process for me, but there are people that I wanted on the album that may not be able to get on it. Whenever I’m making a project, I want to get people on it that I’m a fan of. It’s not always about getting a big name or anything like that. On my last album, Saba was the only rap feature, period. He was the only one. I did that for a reason: Because he is one of the most talented writers that is rapping right now. So I wanted him because his pen game was just that strong and I wanted him on that track.
But this one, it’s just everybody that I know. It’s people that I know, people that I’ve met, I met Bas in Vegas. Joey, he’s from Brooklyn, so I used to see him on the train. I’m just a big fan of Tobi Lou. I’ve always spoken highly of him and we met over the internet and have gotten cool. I try to keep all my relationships just regular. If somebody can’t do the album, then that’s cool too. It’s all love.
Earlier this year, you dropped a project called Lyrics To Go, which is not only the name of one of my favorite Tribe Called Quest songs, it’s an incredible concept. What led to the recording of Lyrics To Go and why did you feel it was so important to put out something between these two more fleshed-out projects?
I was like, “Yo I want to put out something before I put out the album,” because I wanted to put out a ton of music. That’s all I knew that I wanted to do in this year. I actually used that name to create a video series on YouTube that I would just do for my fans. I would put it on YouTube, I put it on Instagram, and it was just something I did when I had no fans.
I just stood still and I rapped a verse over any beat, over a popular beat or a YouTube beat. I would do a one minute verse and those started going viral and that’s how I gained momentum and that’s how I picked up fans. So a lot of my day-one fans know me for “Lyrics To Go,” the video series that I used to do. All along, people were like, “Yo, you need to put out an album or a project with just Lyrics To Go’s on it.” That was the perfect time in between projects to just drop that for the people.
Do you ever have moments where it just hits you that, “Oh sh*t, I’m famous,” or do you feel you’re not famous yet? If not, then what gauge do you use to determine whether or not you’ve become famous, whether or not you’ve made it?
I look at fame like, “Drake is famous.” I remember, he just said it in one of his new songs, he said, “This is fame, not clout.” For a minute I looked at that and I was like, “Yo, that makes sense. Fame and clout is different.” So I would say I’m popular and people know about me and people like the music, but I do have those moments where I’m like, “Wow, people actually know who I am.”
If I posted a picture and 40,000 people like it, you sit down and think about what 40,000 people actually is. It’s a lot of people and so it’s definitely, I don’t think I ever want to get that much more famous than I am right now. I think at this point I just want to make music and then fade into the background and help other people do what they got to do and get to the point where I’m at and beyond me.
When you drop this album, what is the ideal outcome for you?
Whenever I drop an album, I try hard not to have any expectations. Right now, I just want it to be heard. You never know how people are going to take it. I would hate to go into something thinking that, “Yo, this is a home run,” and then nobody’s fucking with it, so I just go into it like, “Yo, I made this project and I really put my all into it. I put everything I had into making this album. I made so many calls, so many late nights, overnights working on beats, I produced the whole album. I recorded myself the whole time. I tried to get the best engineer, I invested money into it, so much money and just to make sure it’s good.”
At this point, I’m just going to give it to the people and whatever they say is what they say. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I just hope that people listen to it, digest it, and just appreciate that I made an album.
Update: Everything is due May 22.