Ken Carson Is a Leader of the New School

We caught up in the studio with Ken Carson as he put finishing touches on his new album 'X.' He talked about his come-up, getting signed by Playboi Carti, more.

Ken Carson press photo by Gunner Stahl

Photo by Gunner Stahl

Ken Carson press photo by Gunner Stahl

It’s a Monday night in mid-June, and I’m sitting on a couch in a studio at The Cutting Room, a New York studio where Cardi B, Future, DJ Khaled, and other stars have recorded. But today, I’m here to see rising Atlanta rapper Ken Carson

He’s only 19 years old, but he’s already emerged as one of the leaders of a new generation of “underground” rappers, alongside artists like SoFaygo, SSGKobe, Yeat, and more. The movement took shape in the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown, when a new wave of young artists put their own spin on the high-energy, moshpit-friendly sound that was first popularized by SoundCloud-era stars like Playboi Carti, Lil Uzi Vert, and XXXTentacion in the mid-2010s. 

Carson’s songs like “Yale” and “Hella” capture the same rebellious spirit of some “underground” peers, but he’s cautious about using that word to describe himself these days. After playing in front of massive crowds on tour with Playboi Carti, he says he’s grown past that.

“I definitely don’t think [I’m underground],” he tells me. “The underground thing, that word itself, I feel it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I don’t feel I’m underground because I can actually pull out shows. It’s different when you’re underground. I feel like I was underground [but I’m not anymore].”

Instead, Carson simply describes his sound as feel-good music, explaining, “If you’re down, it’s going to make you feel good.” He says his new album, X, which is dropping on July 8, will continue to bring his therapeutic sound to the forefront. In preparation for the new album, Carson dropped his single “The End” on July 5. The track, which the rapper describes as “super mellow,” immediately started trending on YouTube. 

Inside The Cutting Room studio, Carson takes a moment to greet everyone before putting on the NBA Finals game. Then after rolling a blunt, he sits down on the couch and begins to talk about his upcoming album, signing to Playboi Carti’s Opium label, and more. The interview, lightly edited for clarity, is below.

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You’ve talked about how TM88 and Southside inspired you to get into rap. How did you link up with them in the first place? 

I was talking to this girl and her best friend is TM88’s nephew. So I’m like, “Who is this dude you’re always with?” I’m in seventh or eighth grade. I was on the phone with his nephew and he was like, “What’re you doing?” I was just watching some 808 Mafia videos on YouTube. Normal shit. So he’s like, “Oh yeah, my uncle’s TM88. He’s downstairs.” I ain’t believe him at first, but then he put him on the phone, and they told me to come over there. So I went over there, and I don’t think I ever left.

How did that friendship evolve into rapping in the studio with them?

Well, they thought I was cool at first, but I wouldn’t let nobody hear my music. I was just really sacred about my shit. I wasn’t even putting no music out. I was just making shit. I let TM listen to some shit one day, and he was loving that shit. Then he took me to the studio with him and Southside. That’s when I met Southside—that same day I played TM the song. We used to drop TM off at the studio, but that day, I was going in there, too. So it was different. That one session, I met a lot of people.

After that session, how did you realize that this could be your career? 

I always had good confidence in myself. I just had to put myself in position to do it.

You’ve known Playboi Carti for a while. How did you two first connect?

Southside. Carti used to come to Southside’s spot all the time. I was younger, so I wasn’t in their convos and shit. But then I started [going to the studio] more later on, when I turned 16 or 17. When I first started getting around him heavy, I was in the studio with him and Southside. I showed him my Instagram and some music, too. It was all in one motion. 

You ended up signing with Carti’s label Opium. Did that happen naturally or was there a conversation of some sort? 

I don’t feel it never had to be that. We were just friends. I started making music, and shit just kept going.

Ken Carson press photo by Gunner Stahl

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You have a reputation for crazy live performances. What goes into a performance like the one you had at Gov Ball? 

First instinct. If it’s not lit, I’m not going to be lit. I’m giving the energy that they giving.

What are you most excited for on your tour coming this month?

I haven’t done a headlining tour before.

What do you think will be the wildest city? 

I feel like San Francisco. Every time I’m in San Francisco that shit crazy. It’s going to be a place in California. New York is going to be crazy, too.

What are your thoughts on the current state of rap in Atlanta right now? 

You know, they own hip-hop. Atlanta is kind of dominating the scene right now. I mean, it’s Carti, it’s a bunch of different people. It’s a lot of people from Atlanta that’s super talented. I feel like Atlanta pressures you to become something.

Who would you say are the most influential rappers out of Atlanta? 

Future, Carti… and myself.

We’re currently in the studio. What did you come here to work on? 

My album.

What can you tell us about this album? 

I don’t know. [The focus track is] “The End.” It’s a highly anticipated song. It’s the last song [on the album]. I mean, it’s super mellow. It’s a vibe, but definitely going to be crazy at the shows.

Are there themes or new sounds you’re trying? 

I feel I’m not on my mellow, usual singing flows. I feel it’s a rap album, because my shows will be crazy. My song, “Hella,” that’s my favorite song. “Hella” and “Clutch.” Those are my favorite songs. So I took those two songs and said, that’s how I want my full album to be.

Did you come to the studio today with ideas or themes already in mind? 

No, I pick out the beat first. I send it to Ben and he puts it up. I stay in the booth the whole time. Even if I’m in booth for three to four hours. I used to see Young Thug do the same thing.

And you already shot the music video for “The End?”

Yeah, I shot a video for “The End,” and I shot a video for this song called “Go.” 

Is there anything else you can tell us about the album and what you’re bringing to the table? 

I can do anything.

Aside from music, are you working on any other projects? 

Yeah, I’m trying to do shoes with DC. I’m trying to redo them. 

When it comes to social media, you’re not super active. Is that intentional? 

I’m not the most active person. I just be working. If it’s not music, I’m not really into to. I just go with the flow. Right now, I’m working on my album. When the album comes out, I’m definitely going to be posting.

What are your goals for the next chapter of your career? 

At the end of this year, I want to have my own label. I love music.

What kinds of artists are you looking to sign? 

Whatever I like. It doesn’t have to sound like me at all. I hope they don’t sound like me. Please don’t sound like me. Show me something.

What kind of music are you currently listening to?

I’ve been listening to Future. I don’t be listening to a lot of music like that, though. I’ve been listening to my album over and over. Everyday I wake up, like, “Do I really like that shit?” At the end, I’m like, “Yeah, it’s good.” I listen to it every morning.

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