Kota The Friend’s Refreshing ‘To Kill A Sunrise’ With Statik Selektah Makes Rap Sound Fun Again

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It’s a formula we’ve all seen before; one rapper, one producer, 10 tracks. There’s a reason for this: It works.

The latest example proving this aphorism is To Kill A Sunrise, the concise collaborative project from burgeoning Brooklyn rapper Kota The Friend and veteran Boston producer Statik Selektah. Released just two months removed from Kota’s last project, the quick and dirty Lyrics To Go, Vol. 2, this latest effort makes an ironclad case for the aforementioned recipe with crisp, inventive rhymes over inviting instrumentals that show what traditionalist hip-hop can be at its absolute best.

Over the course of his surprisingly productive five-year career, Kota has proven to be one of the genre’s foremost advocates of the bars-first mentality endemic to his hometown’s musical philosophy throughout the mid-’90s. To put it bluntly, whenever someone shouts out “real hip-hop,” they usually mean rap in the vein of jazz-sampling, puffer jacket-wearing, Timberland boot-stomping, cerebral rappers from the lyrical bloodline of acts like Gang Starr, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, and A Tribe Called Quest.

Kota has this, yes, but he also adds his own unique, plainspoken perspective to the simile-ridden rhyme style of his forebears, leavening their rugged machismo with a vulnerable, confessional, emotionally intelligent bent to his raps. He displayed as much on his breakout 2019 album Foto and on its 2020 follow-up Everything, but whereas on those albums, he displayed that honest tendency over beats that toed the line between modernism and his natural, jazz-rap instincts, on To Kill A Sunrise, he fully indulges the latter, partnering with their perfect foil in Statik Selektah.

For instance on “Hate,” Statik laces Kota with a stripped-down, hand-clap-and-key-stab sample pack over which Kota can “have some fun,” as he says on the song’s introductory instrumental bars. On the song’s opposite, “The Love,” Statik scratches in over a tinkling piano sample, throws hella swing on the drum kit, and channels the spirit of 1991. Kota dives in headfirst, ruminating on intergenerational responsibilities and working at mediocre jobs before attaining his dream of supporting himself through his music.

The combination of Statik’s throwback beats and Kota’s straightfoward, lyrics-focused rhyme style certainly evokes nostalgia for a certain era and place in hip-hop history but they’re not stuck in the past, as so many rhyme-first rap conservatives can be. They don’t thumb their noses at modern trends so much as eschew them entirely; they aren’t here to scold rappers for humming or diss their gold-chain-flexing, trap-praising peers. The endeavor comes across more self-contained, as if to say, “This is us, in our element, doing what we like to do.” In short, it’s a rapper and producer having fun making music, which can sometimes feel rare these days.

Ever since Jay-Z first uttered that fateful phrase “I’m not a rapper,” it can seem as though many folks who do the job are only doing it to get their feet in the door at the places they really want to work, like waitstaff at the local diner who are really actors or web designers or CEOs in casual conversations. Within the past month, I’ve written about no less seven major rap stars securing their first acting roles, while a number of others have jumped into tech or become restauranteurs.

These are all good things! We’ve seen enough rappers go from rags to riches back to rags over the past four decades to understand that rap money doesn’t always last. “LLC Twitter” is quick to remind anyone unfortunate enough to stumble across their condescending messages that you should have multiple streams of income to ensure a comfortable lifestyle and we’ve both praised and criticized Jay-Z for his capitalistic ambitions. Entertainment’s a fickle mistress, so it’s best to make sure there’s a plan B, C, D, E, F, and G for the day the winds change and fans’ taste does too.

But it’s so refreshing to listen to someone make hip-hop because they enjoy making hip-hop. Kota raps about hustling his way out of poverty, yes, but not through socially destructive means. And now that he’s reached his level of comfort, there’s no castigation or roasting of his listeners or taunting of his enemies and haters. Kota raps like the money is assured on tracks like “Live & Direct,” but also secondary to things like fatherhood, community, health, and sharing his wisdom rather than lording it over the plebians who keep him in business.

Nor does he waste time berating anyone for making or enjoying that type of rap. He’s not a snob or an elitist. He’s not above employing a trappish beat himself, as he displayed on prior releases like Everything. But he’s a rapper’s rapper who truly enjoys the craft, working with an established producer who knows how to tap into his strongest impulses. The result is just like the sunrise: Enjoyable to experience, invigorating and easygoing at the same time, and full of promise for a new day.

To Kill A Sunrise Is Out Now via FLTBYS. Get it here.