Where’s the line between telling a story and glorifying it? That’s the question plaguing violent music made by young artists, particularly rappers who specialize in trap music. As with the breakthrough of Chief Keef in 2012, Kodak Black’s slurry, bleak cadence — painting portraits of tumultuous, violent lifestyles and prison blues — feels particularly unsettling because of the fact that Black recently turned just 18. These are valid feelings, but at the same time, anyone who knows about the conditions that produce the many young men at risk like him all over the country, poverty doesn’t care how old you are and ultimately, an artist should be able to share the life that they know.
Born in Pompano Beach, Florida as Dieuson Octave, Kodak Black rose to prominence with his two tapes: Heart of the Projects and Project Baby. Despite hailing from Florida, Black’s rapping style feels most influenced by Lil Boosie and early Cash Money records, with his clear-eyed, engaged storytelling and throaty Southern drawl. He spends a large portion of his latest tape, Institution, meditating on his stints in jail and showcasing the range of emotions that incarceration can bring out of you: anger, melancholy, disappointment. On “In Too Deep,” he successfully makes you feel for him trying to stay occupied behind bars (“They found a contraband in my mat / I had to sneak a pen in my cell to write a rap”) while simultaneously asserting his dominance, how he’s still on his gangster s**t even when locked up.
Black can come off as celebratory to a particular lifestyle. But in truth, it’s just a mask used for protection against a very real pain that comes with a particular brand of inner-city plight. On “Fed Up,” Kodak exasperatedly states: “I’m so fed up that somebody might die / I’m so fed up with these niggas in disguise / I keep my head up ‘cuz I’m too strong to cry” — the somber bellowings of a young man in dire straits. Black’s music isn’t Scarface; it’s a horror film where the monster in the closet is internal.
Still, even in its grim outlook and vindictive aggression towards double-crossing friends and supposedly two-faced women, there is a streak of tenderness. On “I.M.Y. (Miss You),” he raps to a lover he’s hoping to be reunited with soon: “Girl, you know that I just wanna kiss you and hug ya / Hold me down when I’m gone, I got in a lil’ trouble.” Black is not afraid of his emotions; these moments are almost childlike in their wide-eyed expressions of longing. The same wonder is front and center on the title track, which acts as a letter presumably to the same lover: reflecting on his recent incarceration and the day that he’ll get to see her again. Those pieces walk hand-in-hand with the street poetry of his desolate environment and gang-hardened life. Kodak Black calls himself “the Project Baby,” and for all his bravado as a rapper, there’s a youthful sweetness on the surface.