In twenty-six year old emcee Kelechi’s coming of age, he’s been a fly on the wall as Chance the Rapper ascended to superstardom in the summer of 2015, crashing on the couch of the Chicago phenom’s manager Pat Corcoran. In his coming of age, he’s won J. Cole’s praises. He’s won $50,000 to produce his first album.
And like millions of African-Americans cross the country, in his coming of age, Kelechi has had to reckon with the state’s destruction of one young black body after another: Rekia Boyd’s, Tamir Rice’s, Mike Brown’s.
“That one really hurt me,” Kelechi says of Brown, who’s solid frame favored his own. For the Atlanta based rapper, the murders of Brown and his ilk acquainted him with his own mortality and provide the framework for his ambitious new album ‘Quarter Life Crisis’. Through cunning metaphors, clever easter eggs, and sharp storytelling, we hear Kelechi’s life flashing before his eyes. We hear this because the album opens with a police officer killing him.
Soon after proclaiming he’ll “live forever” on the earnest intro, “Flowers,” Kelechi’s quick-witted bars are cut short by the blast of a gun and the thump of a body. “I’m black man in a white world,” starts the following song, “#000000,” declaring Kelechi’s true cause of death. While in “#000000”, Kelechi paints an angry picture of police abuses and black plight from his own distinctly Nigerian-American perspective (I’m a Naija boy/told you I ain’t black like them/police handcuff me/put me in the back like them), on the following track “Bang With Us,” he viciously takes law enforcement to task by becoming one of them. The standout track, sampling both The Notorious B.I.G and Tupac Shakur, is as energetic as it is creative:
Serve and protect?
Nah we murk and neglect
My gang bang MLK out in Memphis
Rodney King, now Ferguson next
What you talking bout guns?
Talking bout drugs?
Talking “click clack” just to earn some respect?
Talking bout bloods?
Talking bout cuz?
Tellem’ look at us, they gon’ learn from the best
“I channeled my fear and rage against law enforcement into my music because law enforcement is fearful and rage-ful towards me,” Kelechi explained as a shy stylist twisted new life into his slender locs at a salon outside Atlanta. “And I would definitely say I’m more scared than angry. I think the anger just comes from the fear. You’re super vulnerable. And there’s no winning — you can never win when you have an interaction with the police.”
Photo: Mankaprr Conteh
And while it is the external threats from police that animate the album’s opening, Kelechi uses his canvas to wrestle with inner demons as well. He tackles self-doubt on the solemn “Momma I’m Good’’ and enlists angelic vocals from VanJess to question faith on “Heavenly Mother.” He admits that he was considering suicide as he began recording elements of Quarter Life Crisis in 2013. Though the rate of suicide for black men has declined in the past thirty years, it has almost doubled for black youth ages 5 to 11 since the early 1990s. In 2013, the CDC reports that nearly 2,000 black boys and men died by suicide at a rate more four times higher than black women and girls.
As he picked at the corner of a burrito verde at a local taqueria after leaving the salon, Kelechi recalled the way poet Neil Hilborn’s suicidal ideation mimicked his own: “[it’s] like a glowing exit sign at a show that’s never been quite bad enough to make me want to leave,” Kelechi shakely recited. Still, he imagined his burial and translated his vision to Quarter Life Crisis’s moving outro and intro.
Though Quarter Life Crisis ends and begins with black death, it is not an album about despair. The project spans Kelechi’s evolution as a son, a lover, a dreamer, and a doer. At it’s core, Quarter Life Crisis is an album about one black boy striving to live a life that transcends his inevitable demise.
In that pursuit, Kelechi has taken a unique approach to ensuring as many people hear his story as possible. Starting in September, Kelechi rolled out the album’s twelve tracks song by song, hoping to amass attention each week.
“I’m still very much in the foundational stage of building a fanbase. It’s about building credibility with the listener, because no one wants to just give an artist an hour of their time anymore,” he explained. “I understand that when someone is introduced to me, I have one chance. I have one song–and I’m confident in how good my songs are. If I can put you on one song, you’re gonna listen to two. Acid Rap may be the last full project that catapulted a brand new artist into superstardom.”
However, Kelechi isn’t seeking immortality through his music out of vanity.
“It’s like, I might die at any point in time over something stupid or over something great,” he said with a wry smile. “But while I’m here, I’ll just say important things. I have words.”
And he uses them well.
Wake keepings for the young boys/ Make my momma hold tight to me, Kelechi spits, opening the album:
So I pray that I leave the world better because of me
Instead of in spite of me