“HELLO?!”

It’s Key!, and he’s answering my phone call with his own ad lib. The 23-year-old Atlanta rapper fielded calls perhaps 50 times throughout the day, so it’s easy to assume where the signature comes from. But he doesn’t take credit for it. “Who invented the telephone?” Alexander Graham Bell. “He gets the credit. When they first started using phones, they needed a word to answer it. I’m about to switch it up on these niggas though. Hit them with the ‘Konnichi wa.’”

I scoop Key! at his grandmother’s townhouse, where he’s been staying indefinitely, and we head to the other side of town. On the way, he points out to me just how small of a world Atlanta is. We pass Soulja Boy’s old residence. We pass the mall where he saw Waka Flocka Flame just a couple days prior. I ask where Fabo is. “You know spaceships on Bankhead?”

F**k, I want to be Hollywood. People talk s**t about going Hollywood, but that just means you’re making it.

He’s talking about the D4L song, “Scotty.”

“That’s real. People see spaceships here all the time.”

Key! started Two-9 with Curtis Williams in 2009, when he had been working at a skate shop since dropping out of high school. The collective itself had been in the almost-on category since then, but just signed to Mike Will’s label earlier this year—without its co-founder. Key! does not seem upset by this. According to him, he has quit the group several times. Their recent deal cements the separation on paper, but his relationship and willingness to collaborate with them remains. He wants to be a solo artist. 

Such is the way that Key! operates—he serially extracts himself from situations (even ostensibly good ones) that don’t fit his terms. He’s been in talks with the music industry and dealt with shady contracts since Two-9’s inception. For years, he put in work for a major artist as a ghostwriter, which was supposed to be his big break. But your name as an artist doesn’t grow unless the rapper you’re writing for puts you on. And he operates within that awareness now, working only with what feels genuine while scrapping that which no longer does.

Today, Key!’s solo career is abuzz. He’s a feature on two underground hits, “Look at Wrist” (with Father and ILoveMakonnen) and “U Guessed It” (with OG Maco), both of which are representative of Atlanta’s recent wave of minimalism (a trend that feels like an alternative if not a direct response to the intergalactic space-war sound that has characterized Atlanta’s state of production for the last few years). “Father’s a genius,” says Key!, who met him through ILoveMakonnen earlier this year. I ask about the one-take video for "Look at Wrist," and how he doesn't even bother to lip sync his verse.

"'Cause we didn't know the words to that shit!"

Key! missed a FaceTime call from ILoveMakonnen while in the car with me. The recent OVO-signee jokingly accused him of having gone Hollywood (the two are each other's number one fans). But Key! is just busy. “Fuck, I want to be Hollywood. People talk shit about going Hollywood, but that just means you’re making it—you’re busy. If you weren’t busy, motherfuckers wouldn’t be calling you anyway.”

What becomes clear very quickly with Key! is that he is the opposite of what people would call thirsty. He isn’t reaching for co-signs (even though Wiz Khalifa tweeted recently that Key! is one of his favorite artists, and had sent rap socialite Ian Connor to Atlanta to scout him for Taylor Gang). His collaborations are thorough, as in, he tends to stick with one or two producers for each project, and works with them in person as much as possible. He isn’t scrambling back to Two-9 since their deal. He isn’t running to Makonnen for OVO recognition.

Such characteristically non-thirsty behavior is especially apparent in his relationship with OG Maco. The two came together for their recent Give Em Hell EP, from which the runaway success of “U Guessed It” was born. “Man, I don’t even like that song.” Why not? “Well, I like my verse. My verse on that is retarded.” He chose not to appear in the music video, which as of now has exceeded a million views. He also took Maco off of the EP’s title track, for which he just released his own video. “He did a verse for it, I just didn’t like that shit.” As such, Key! has extracted himself again. He’s willing to continue doing shows with Maco to promote their music on a professional level, but wants little to do with him on a personal one. “I called him I was like, ‘Ay bruh, everything cool, let’s do what we got to do for this tape. But personally, I can’t rock with you.’ He was like, ‘What don’t you like, bro?’ You know, it’s just like if we work at McDonald’s and I don’t like my co-worker.” Maco has since signed a deal with Quality Control, the Migos’ label. Key! doesn’t seem to care. 

The only thirst Key! does seem to exhibit is for the adoration of Dej Loaf, Detroit’s young, rising star. Key! really only fucks with younger artists, at least in today’s rap landscape. The CD I had in the car was a mix of Chief Keef’s lesser-known recent catalog, but Key! was able to emphatically sing along to every song. “I love Chief Keef. He can do no wrong. I love these young niggas’ careers. Keef and Thug.” I ask about Young Thug’s influence in Atlanta. “It’s hilarious man. You see the most hood niggas wearing the type of shit he wears now, everywhere. But he’s been like that. He used to wear like, an extra-small Angry Birds T-shirt.”

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We’re now at Sonny Digital’s house. If anyone could have gone Hollywood, it’s Sonny. But since becoming one of Atlanta’s premier producers, he lives in the same house, and just bought a couple of others in the same area for his family. He’s gracious with his guests, a company of young artists rolling blunts and watching old boxing matches upstairs in his studio. He and Key! have a relationship that stems from many years back, and the two interact like the old friends that they are. At this point, Key!’s grandmother has turned off his phone’s data service (she was upset at the way that he had rushed out of the house), and his Adderall is just kicking in, leaving him to talk with Sonny for a while about the music industry, strippers, and baby mothers (Key! is now a father of three). Key!’s producers love him. Frequent collaborator TrapMoneyBenny (responsible for most of the beats on Key!'s notable Fathers Are the Curse mixtape) FaceTimes in for a moment to say “fuck em.” Key!’s most recent project is an EP with production duo FKi, another member of Atlanta’s beatsmith illuminati. First, one of the duo, is waiting for us at The Metropolitan studios, where people like Rocko work adjacent to art school painters. First is mixing the EP and putting the finishing touches on 2 Chainz’ “Lil Boy.” When we get to the studio, Key! bounces back and forth between the mixing session and the rocket launchers he's using to blow up police cars in Grand Theft Auto V.

I’ve been in every New Atlanta class since they started saying that.

He’s like an older brother who never passes the controller. Such is actually not a bad way to describe his role in the Atlanta rap community. He seems to play older brother to a lot of both up-and-coming as well as already successful artists, even though he’s only 23. He seems like Makonnen’s “big bro” even though Makonnen is a couple years older than him. This is probably because of just how long Key! has been almost famous. “I don’t give a fuck about being New Atlanta. I’ve been in every New Atlanta class since they started saying that.” That, and he’s been in the real Atlanta this whole time. I tell him how shocked I am at Atlanta’s relatively low population (the city proper has about 400,000 people, while Chicago, for example, has about 3.5 million), considering its stranglehold on hip-hop. Atlanta is the soccer team from a country with fewer than a million people that still takes the World Cup. He tells me the numbers don’t mean much because a lot of these rappers don’t actually live in Atlanta. “Migos ain’t even Atlanta.” Apparently, they’re from a more country neighborhood north of the city. Year after year, though, Key! has been right there in the middle.

As big brother (and real father), Key!’s time has come, or rather, it has to come. Everyone around him is either on already, or is being snatched up in a deal. He lives at his grandmother’s house, doesn’t have a car, yet his fingerprints are all over a lot of what has everyone excited about Atlanta right now. With no hesitation nor joking tone, he declares, “In the next year, I’m going to surpass Kanye West.” When we went to Magic City later that night, there was this moment when he kept saying, “I’m Non-Sway. I’m Non-Sway,” over and over.

What do you mean?

“I’ve got all the answers.”

Written and photographed by Alex Russell (@alexrussellglo).