No Reason To Pretend is a weekly column by Stephen Kearse that explores the intersection of hip-hop and pop culture.
Allan Kingdom’s story doesn’t roll off the tongue. Born in Winnipeg to South African and Tanzanian parents, relocated to Wisconsin, raised in Saint Paul, Minnesota, forged in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and managed by Plain Pat, the rapper and producer is a tangle of histories and dreams. His strongest influences are clear — Pharrell, Kid Cudi, Andre 3000, Kanye — but the lucidity of that lineage complicates his work. Even when he’s clearly following in the spirit of one of his influences, he writes and performs in nonlinear bursts, connecting ideas and traditions in utterly singular ways, his own personalized patois. On Lines, his latest album, Kingdom muddles his story while clarifying his purpose, memoir sanded into a mission.
Future Memoirs and Northern Lights, Kingdom’s previous mixtapes, openly rep Minnesota. Greenery appears on both covers and the albums’ songs and videos revel in the novelty of Minnesota as a setting. “Know that I’m in Minneapolis breaking new ground while I roll up the cannabis / They never thought it would happen, man / Fuck it I’m up for a challenge, man,” Kingdom rapped on “Interruption,” putting the city on his back. Minnesota was only one dimension of Kingdom’s music, but in those early videos you can feel the state’s remoteness being leveraged to ground Kingdom’s quirkiness. It was never a crutch or a cynical ploy, but the state’s status as a blank slate in rap and in culture at large helped lessen the shock of Kingdom’s genre-exploding work. And Kingdom played that up, portraying his home with the same wonder and magic with which he depicts himself.
Lines is placeless, more diaristic than documentary. Kingdom spends the album drifting through emotional states and chronicling his life as an independent musician. He generally avoids narrative, but the themes are palpable. “Been making mistakes, I just do ’em on the low,” he says obliquely on “Perfection.” “I need a new job that can fill my pockets though,” he raps on “Don’t Push Me.” “Should have known, it’s f*ck the industry,” he sings on “F*ck My Enemies.” There’s little storytelling in these lines, but Kingdom’s reticence itself tells its own story, of doubt, of anxiety, and of paranoia. When he stretches out his words on “Don’t Push Me,” you can feel the uncertainty between the lines, Kingdom acutely aware that telling his story in full could mean risking never telling it at all.
The sparse writing is swathed by dense arrangements that buffer Kingdom’s sprawling doubts. His music has always had a wintry edge to it, but in the past he himself served as the source of the warmth that makes his music so rousing. On Lines the production takes on this role, humidifying the air that Kingdom finds suffocating. The title track builds dancehall from air, building riddims from the sparest sounds. “Vibes” is built on vapory synths and wispy distortion that slink around Kingdom’s morose vocals. You can feel Kingdom liven up as the sounds enshroud him; it’s like he’s hot-boxing with sound. “F*ck My Enemies” is just as breezy, using bouncy bass, undulating synths, and airy background vocals to buoy a track otherwise propelled by spite and disillusionment. “F*ck all of you…I love you,” Kingdom says as the track begins, bitter but unbeaten.
Kingdom’s weariness with the false starts and shaky promises of fame can itself be wearying without context. “Leaders,” for example, is plagued by dull Cudi-isms like “I got problems and f*cked up sh*t” and “every time I want to speak I just swallow my breath.” And the targetless subliminal shots on “Loner’s Anthem” come off as vague moralizing. (“You don’t care ’bout the people, you just care ’bout the profits,” he raps into an unspecified Youtube comment field). “Leaders” still works though, due to its gorgeous composition and a strong second verse where Kingdom grounds his anxiety in the disconnect between his meticulous observation of his idols and the pitfalls he didn’t anticipate. “Never thought that I was special, but I know I’m not naive,” he says in disbelief. Moments like this give his general reticence more weight.
Abstraction works in Kingdom’s favor on album highlight “Know About It.” His already exaggerated pronunciations take on a new life when he uses auto-tune, and when that combo is paired with a bevy of veiled flexes, he sounds less like he’s reaching and more like he’s entirely above the fray. “Had to post the status from thirty thousand miles up,” he says to no one and everyone at once, his own voice cooing and gurgling in the background. Pettiness rarely sounds so effortless.
Allan Kingdom’s bandcamp page has been defunct since 2014, but it’s tagline still captures his sound — “I make stuff I really like,” it says simply. The appeal of this approach is how tangibly honest it feels, even when Kingdom himself is obscured from view. Lines is less about Allan Kingdom and more about what he can do and what he wishes to do. His story doesn’t roll off the tongue — even his own — but the throughlines that link his melodies and flows and rhythms are their own language. There’s no telling what he’ll be capable of once he masters it.