Key! isn’t much of a people person, and for that he’s sorry he’s not sorry. “I don’t even like trying to be personable with everybody,” he tells me over the phone. “I’m for the music. If you like my music or think I can help you in a way that makes sense it’s going to work, but other than that there really isn’t anything to talk about.”
To the contrary, when it comes to quantifying the 23-year-old Atlanta rapper/producer, and Two-9 co-founder’s story into words there’s actually quite a bit to discuss. After leaving the collective he helped build from the ground up, Two-9’s youngest and most outspoken member set out on a solo path distancing himself from what he calls old men trying to stay hip by investing in promising young talent they know nothing about. Whereas his longtime collaborators decided to join Mike WiLL Made It’s Eardrummers/Interscope imprint, Key! pushed forward with his goal to keep everything in-house, and the results, in 2014 alone, were staggering.
In less than a year’s time Key! followed up on his Mothers Are the Blame and Fathers Are the Curse projects with two of the biggest singles (“Look At Wrist,” “Give Em Hell”) and collaborative albums (Give Em Hell with OG Maco, and FKEYi with producers FKi) of the year. In the process, Key! went low on the raps and high on the singing, synthesized warbling, and a seemingly random array of adlibs that are a welcome but risky escape from the traditional style and delivery he showcased with Two-9. Key! 2.0 has spent the end of 2014 touring the country, working on his latest album, tentatively titled Screamin’ Dreams, and a collaborative EP with Grammy-nominated “Tuesday” producer Metro Boomin. His name has popped up in the shortlist for the next roster of XXL Freshman cover boys.
We caught up with Key! in between stops on his current tour to talk about how he’s changed as an artist, why ATL’s music scene is “annoying as hell,” going the independent route, and getting to Drake and Kanye West levels of music.
What about your sound has changed? You’re not the same artist as you were with Two-9 …
I really just think my voice got deeper. I was listening to my music the other day and I noticed that. I’m not the same person; I was a teenager back then. I just matured and have grown up. My interests aren’t the same from then to now. The content ain’t the same. I’m not partying every day with a young, energetic heart no more. That’s all we were doing back then; partying, acting a fool. It’s got meaning behind it now.
What changed for you personally?
I just started being myself instead of being heavily influenced by whatever was going on. When I started rapping I sounded like whoever I thought I was fire at the time. Now I have pride in myself, I get to be 100 percent me. It ain’t a dream no more.
Yeah, it sounds like you’re playing with different styles and cadences. You’re even singing a lot more now …
I got that from Gucci Mane. I saw in an interview where he said he doesn’t like using the same flow. He uses one flow; he’ll forget about it before he uses it again. I thought that was smart. I’ve always been singing, I’m just got more comfortable with it now. It’s more fun than rapping depending on what song it is. You get to use your more [animated side]. I know how to sing for real, I just be bullshitting and that shit be fire.
So then what’s your recording process like? Are you a writer?
Really it depends. If I have a song I’ve been waiting to do … like I don’t write so I just walk straight into the microphone. I don’t like listening to beats over and over again or nothing, so I just go in there. I just like it to be natural.
So you prefer to not write anything down?
Nah, I haven’t written in a long time. “Give Em Hell,” the whole song was pretty much done in one take. That song was fun as hell to do and everybody liked it when I did it. Everybody tried to throw verses on that song when I did that song. That nigga ManMan Savage tried to do a verse. Maco did a verse. I heard he just put his verse out. That song was fun to do and “Wrist,” that one I did all the way through.
One thing that’s always stood about you is that even as a solo artist you seem to have time to collaborate with everyone …
I like doing that. I like helping people out. It’s a job though now. It can’t be free no more because that’ll take away from me. I’m trying to get mine before I put everybody else on, but I don’t even see it like that when it happens. I just work with who I want to work with.
Is there particular artist or memorable time that stands out?
1st[Down] from FKi, that’s my favorite person to work with.
Yeah, the FKEYi project, y’all were both at your best. How’d that come about and what’s the recording process like?
The chemistry, the way he’s engineering, everything’s just clicking. Their music, that’s the funnest music to do for me. I can do whatever I want to do. It’s a bigger sound, a hit-making sound. So, I get to do whatever I want with it. I’m about to start working with them again.
When you’re working closely with others are you sharing ideas and criticisms?
Don’t nobody give me no vocal input. I don’t even like that. … 1st is the best engineer I know. He can make your shit sound perfect.
Are you finding it harder to distinguish yourself as Key! the solo artist as opposed to “Key! from Two-9”?
The only thing I don’t like is I’ve got to find a vibe when I go into the studio. I used to go to the studio and there’d be 20 niggas in that bitch already vibing. That’s it, trying to create a good vibe without getting high out of your mind. That’s a challenge right now. Sometimes it depends. I’ve gotten to the point where now I’ll have a song already in my head. That’s some new shit because I don’t typically remember shit like that.
So creating new music on your own is tougher now than before?
It’s challenging to the find the right vibe. I’ve learned I’ve got to be around the right people because that’s how I started off. I’ve got to be around people I’m comfortable being around. Whereas now it’s like big studio sessions with niggas in Atlanta and I actually like making [music] with those people but it’s like to make songs like “Give Em Hell” and all those old Two-9 songs, there’s people in that room that you fuck with, that you’ll get up with and punch the air out someone’s chest. I’ve done sessions when it’s just me with a producer and I don’t know this nigga from nothing. He might not smoke weed. He wants to load a beat up and make me listen to 10 beats. I hate shit like that.
Hate listening to beats?
Yeah, I be telling niggas I don’t even be listening to beats. I might listen to it one time and if it catches me I’m headed straight into the booth. If I think too much I’ll forget about some shit. I don’t like over-thinking. I like going with your gut.
Has trusting your gut come easier as a solo artist?
It’s harder to do it when you’re solo. Like I said, it’s easier to do when you’re around your group or your clique. I still be with my folks and them sessions be the greatest sessions, but sometimes when I’m out of town or it’s a feature I’m trying to always figure out how to get into my own zone. Sometimes I’ll go into an awkward situation and kill it because the song is fire. Making music is really the easiest part of all this shit. That’s your art. I just don’t like when people try to force their opinions on me, and force their ways of doing shit, because we’re two different people.
Is there a situation in particular that bothered you?
I’ve just been in situations where niggas be asking for opinions a lot. I could never do that. I would never have anybody write for me—none of that shit.
How has your view of the industry as a whole changed being a solo?
I just see how much of business it is. I didn’t lose hope in anybody because I found out some weird shit. It’s like you’re working for the NFL but you don’t play football. A lot of people do weird shit in music. Everybody has a title. I know people who finesse niggas into doing shows and that person becomes a “booking agent.” I’m really just about to turn my head on everybody and let people I rock with do they job and stop worrying about it because this shit is irritating. I think a lot of musicians try and prove how hood they are because they see how weird this shit is, but like I said it’s a big ass corporation and there’s so many different personalities. If you try and pay attention you’re going to self-destruct.
So what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the last year?
Independent artists are hardworking beings. They’re just like your daddy working, fixing up cars. Being signed ain’t bad, but there’s a lot of start-up investments being placed. My plan is to get it on my own—my team and me.
Would you say that’s picked up in 2014 with everything you’ve accomplished?
Honestly, I’ve just got to keep going. I’ve got so many damn shows coming up, and all I’ve really got to do is just sit back and collect, and don’t be no dickhead about it.
What keeps you sane and out of trouble?
Going out of town. I live where everybody thinks they’re famous already so when I go out of town I be jockin’ to go to places that are more chill. At home, I’m mad or happy; it’s up or down. It’s the hip-hop Mecca for real; everybody in this bitch raps. I don’t give a fuck what you say. Nigga, you write papers? Oh you rap, too. You work at McDonald’s? I bet you got a studio at your house. I’m dead serious. That shit’s annoying as hell.
You talk a lot about being a fearless reveler who likes his drugs and other rebellious shit. Is there anything you’re afraid of?
A lot of shit scares me. I probably do say “fuck it” too much. I keep hearing things about people not liking my Twitter personality. How do you like my music but not what I’m saying? I guess it’s just the regular personality I’ve got already. I don’t live life on the edge, I just do what I’ve been doing. I ain’t no hipster nigga. I love the hipster world. That’s a creative world, but I’m not involved in that.
Your fan base seems pretty spread out across the board though …
I’m a diverse person. I want to be diverse. I was raised diverse. My head ain’t in no box. I was telling somebody recently, “Man I can’t be like the rest of these rappers.” I can’t enjoy the cliché way of being a rapper. That’s how they are these days. They’re fucking all the same girls, getting all the same money, smoking all the same weed, [and] drinking all the lean. I ain’t trying to do none of that.
So what irritates you the most about other artists?
Like I said, I’m an independent artist. I can’t speak on people who make a record and go straight to the label. I’ll never be able to speak to them. I don’t mean that to be disrespectful, I just know about myself that I wouldn’t sign to another man.
Do you like the direction you’re headed in now?
My short-term goal is to be more focused on the art. My long-term goal is to be everywhere with music. I want to be in a Drake position or a Kanye West position. I don’t want to settle for this.
And you’re constantly putting out content…
I was about to stop doing that then I realized how stupid that would be to stop doing that. It don’t make no sense. That’s what I’m here for. I want to get to the point where I can really sit down somewhere and work for a year. Take a year off from putting out content and focus on creating. I want to sit down, not think about shit, not worry about shit for year. Once I get to that point I’ll know, “OK I’m solidified.”
What’s the biggest misconception about you?
I’m a musician. I make music. I want my music to be bigger than me and I want to be respected for the person who makes that music but I don’t want people to read one interview and have that determine their outlook on me because they don’t know me. I want you to know me for my music, for what I do. The misconception is that ain’t all of me that you see.
Yeah I think the thought is you’re a wild dude, a musical livewire …
Yeah, they think all of that. I mean everybody’s going to talk and nobody knows shit. The people who know shit, they’re right here with me. I ain’t no weirdo. There’s a lot of motherfuckers that’s cool as fuck and they’re weirdo niggas. I be trying to chill. I don’t be listening to all that bullshit.
Do you find that the people you’re drawn to is changing as you try and keep yourself with more positive energy? You seem to have good relationship with Makonnen and Awful Records.
I always hung around a big variety of people. I’ve got friends from the projects; I’ve got friends from the suburbs. I bring them together and they start staring at each other and it’s funny as hell because they’re all cool as hell. I’ve got some nerd friends that’s friends with killers so I don’t be caring. It ain’t about that. If I fuck with you I fuck with you. We ain’t gotta be best friends. We don’t have to be brothers. I hate when people force people into working with each other. You’re going to end up hating each other.
Switching gears, the tattoo on your neck, what does that say?
Myeesha. That’s my momma name.
On “Give Em Hell” you say “RIP my momma, that’s the queen of Atlanta.” What’s the biggest thing you learned from her that you apply to your music career and life?
My momma died like 2005-2006. I was like 16 or 17 when my mother died. They need to do a movie on her or something. She did a whole bunch of dumb shit for a very long time. [Laughs] It’s not me praising that. I know what that shit’s about. I learned that doing all that dumb shit will put you where you don’t want to be at.