Don’t Overlook Kota The Friend’s Dark Horse Album Of The Summer, ‘Protea’

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There’s been a lot of talk of late about “Album of the Summer” — a lot more than usual. Perhaps it’s a function of the dark times we’re living through, but most folks just seem more eager than ever to designate a work of art as thee definitive escape from the drudgery and chaos of everyday life. I could write a whole other essay on why this way of approaching art is not just inane but futile, but instead, I want to draw your attention to a project that has all the hallmarks of an “Album of the Summer” that you might have missed.

I’ve written before about Kota The Friend, the Brooklynite hip-hop traditionalist whose music veers less aspirational than inspirational. And you might have seen that he had a new album out and, perhaps expecting more of the same, kept scrolling by since the sort of music he usually makes is not your cup of tea. That’s understandable, but here’s the thing: Protea, Kota’s latest album, is not the sort of music he usually makes. Riding the wave of joyful, uptempo dancefloor-filling tunes that has overtaken hip-hop lately, Protea not only presents a fresh take on those sounds but also perhaps the best version of them of the year to date.

You’re probably aware of the sort of sounds I’m talking about. Spurred by the ongoing Black reclamation of dance music that was accelerated by Drake and Beyoncé with their much-lauded projects last year, more entertainers in hip-hop and R&B than ever have embraced the booty-moving (and soul-sustaining) grooves of latent Black genres like house, funk, and jazz, updating and fusing them in new and exciting modes with more contemporary rap and soul.

The results have been crowd-pleasing fare like Aminé and Kaytranada’s joint project, Kaytraminé, which was awash in tropical sounds and poolside aesthetics, much like the funk-hop of Ric Wilson’s Clusterfunk. We’ve also seen Coi Leray embrace the exuberant energy of jock jams with her self-titled sophomore album, and even Lil Uzi Vert dabbled in Eurohouse alongside Nicki Minaj on “Endless Fashion” from his new album Pink Tape. And then, there’s the continued dominance of Beyoncé’s Renaissance, particularly tracks that combine genres, like “Virgo’s Groove” and “Plastic Off The Sofa.”

This is the climate into which Kota introduces Protea, which opens with the declaration, “I wanna hear love songs. Don’t wanna hear no more sad songs… What about the good times? What about love?” You really have to love an album that puts its thesis right out front; there are no heady metaphors to wade through here. Kota tells you what the album is, and with that out of the way, proceeds straight to the ecstatic two-step of “Super 8”: “Let’s have it all,” he semi-croons on the chorus. Kota wants to shake off the blues and invites listeners to join him in doing so.

There are certainly plenty of blues worth shaking off. Dotted throughout the 16-track set are interludes of Kota in conversation with his wife in which they refreshingly excavate the highs and lows of their relationship. It’s like a therapy practice but without the ostentatious jargon or obvious staging that so often accompanies mental health discussion within the genre. Meanwhile, there’s consistency between the theme and the lyrics, another area in which hip-hop consistently tends to come up short in recent years.

Even on the sole scuffing, hip-shaking nu-disco take “Barcelona,” Kota raps about overcoming tribulations and sharing his successes with the people he loves most. I hate to say it, but this is the album Chance The Rapper was trying to make with The Big Day, capturing the exuberance and optimism of newlywed life — it’s a take on Chance’s “I love my wife, EUGH!” music that remains focused on the feeling instead of The Big Day‘s didactic approach to its “find a good one and settle down, my brother” messaging.

The thing about Protea that makes it so much fun is its commitment to presenting the good vibes in such a way that it feels freeform and engaging — bursts of saxophone and joyous belting from its who’s-who of guest vocalists give it the underpinnings of a jazz jam session, but the four-on-the-floor beats and disco strings keep the mood lively. You could throw this on at a party or nightclub and let it play from end to end (save the interludes, of course) and no one would ever stop dancing.

So when Kota chants “They gon’ try to bring you down” on “Forget About It,” he captures the same spirit of rebellious intent behind early house that made Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul” such a revelation, particularly when the hook switches the focus to the positives of life while maintaining the refrain. This is music made for forgetting your problems, if only for the moment; the defiance in its message of uplift is sublimated within the music itself, making the jazzy keys and snaking basslines a stealth delivery system for words of love, affirmation, and resistance.

Like the summer itself, Protea is a break from the routines, it’s the splash of sunshine cascading through the window to remind us that there is more beyond the office, the struggle, the anxiety and depression of our modern times. It’s the knowledge that today brings at least one good thing, the hope that tomorrow can be better, and the beach of better days is waiting.

Protea is out now on FLTBYS Music and Venice Music.