A Deep Dive Into 'Atlanta' Star LaKeith Stanfield's Rap Career

LaKeith Stanfield can make you laugh, cry and nod your head.
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LaKeith Stanfield can make you laugh, cry and nod your head.

I first saw LaKeith Stanfield in action in Short Term 12. I can’t remember what made me watch it. Maybe because it was in Netflix’s “Critically Acclaimed” section (the film boasts a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), which is always good for a late night tear-jerker. But I was blown away by Stanfield’s performance and instantly fell in love with both him and the film. 

Stanfield’s role as Marcus, a soon-to-be 18-year-old living in a group home for troubled youth, was so convincing you’d believe he was abandoned as a child in real life. His eyes, watery and sullen, were like windows into a soul tortured by the past and terrified of the future. Every time he appears on camera, you just want to give him a great big hug.

“Halfway through the first scene he was doing, he had me in tears,” director Destin Daniel Cretton said about filming Short Term 12. “It just felt so real.”

The performance earned the 25-year-old San Bernardino native nominations for Best Supporting Actor and Best Breakthrough Performance at the 2014 Black Reel Awards, as well as Best Supporting Male at the Independent Spirit Awards. Short Term 12 was his feature film debut.

Since then, Stanfield has established himself as one of the hottest new actors around. In the last two years, he’s had supporting roles in Selma, Dope, and Straight Outta Compton (as a young, eternally wiry Snoop Dogg). Don Cheadle cast him in his Miles Davis biopic, Miles Ahead, while Donald Glover personally recruited him for his FX series Atlanta. You’ll know him in the latter as Darius, the philosophical, oddball stoner who’s become something a cult favorite, and closely resembles Stanfield’s IRL personality (minus the weed part).

Like Glover, Stanfield is a multifaceted performer. Aside from being a gifted actor, he’s also a quietly talented rapper.

Stanfield first showcased his rhyming ability in perhaps the most compelling scene of Short Term 12, where his character, Marcus, performs a rap song he’s been working on for one of the group home supervisors. “Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like to live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like,” he raps with such raw emotion that leaves the supervisor—and the audience—speechless. The song, written by Stanfield and Cretton, was nominated for Best Original Song at the 2014 Satellite Awards.

Away from the camera, Stanfield is one-half of the rap duo MOORS alongside Los Angeles-based producer HH (real name Hrishikesh Hirway). The pair met during the making of Short Term 12 and after trading ideas over email for a couple of years, they dropped their self-titled debut EP in 2014. The six-track project showcases Stanfield’s poetic, politically-minded pen game and HH’s electronic-influenced production.

On “Gas,” Stanfield channels real-life tragedy into a hard-hitting song inspired by a dead homie who was always out of gas. “He had just broken up with his girl and really couldn’t take life day-to-day,” LaKeith toldNoisey. “We got in a drunken fight one night when it snowed in Victorville. I picked him up out of the snow and we started walking back to the car. He just all of a sudden broke into tears. It was a beautiful moment for him and I, and shortly after that he died.”

Where MOORS really hit their stride is on “Asphyxiated.” Over HH’s bleak backdrop, Stanfield raps about being disillusioned with sex, success, and society, so much so that he wants out. Just like on the big screen, he’s able to tap into an almost endless well of inner darkness and play around with your heart strings like a puppet master. “Asphyxiated, I can hardly take it / I’m suffocating / Fuck trying to make it,” he sighs while staring at a swimming pool before jumping in. It’s a song you’d expect Marcus to have written.

Outside of their EP, MOORS have released a handful of remixes and loosies on SoundCloud, including a call-to-arms response to Michael Brown’s murder called “Wolves at War.” Dig deeper on YouTube and you’ll find a channel called Keith Karosive (presumably Stanfield’s earlier rap name) featuring more than half a dozen uploads under the name “Moore” dating back to 2013.

Most of the songs are lo-fi and unpolished yet strangely intriguing, as wordy as Earl Sweatshirt and as abstract as Capital STEEZ. The visuals are equally obscure: the heavily filtered “PYRAMID REDS 100s” sees Stanfield smoking a cigarette, looking longingly into the camera while “FUCK N*GGA KILLER” finds him wandering the desert wearing a gas mask. In the video for the fiery “Vigil Antè,” he throws up a middle finger at a copy of Rolling Stone magazine featuring Barack Obama on the cover. It’s like stumbling across Darius’ early rap career.

Since dropping their debut EP two years ago, MOORS have been quiet—maybe the only downside to your frontman’s acting career taking off. However, the duo made a comeback earlier this month with the release of a new single called “King.” Combining the energy of his early Moore releases and the emotion of the MOORS EP, Stanfield unleashes his anger on the very same world that created it: “Never had a thing all I knew was hate life / Fuck the world with the bomb lit pipe.” LaKeith calls it “a piece on internal conflict and a sense of self worth in America.”

Though he lacks the polished delivery and songwriting skills of other full-time artists, Stanfield is clearly passionate about music. He’s known to completely immerse himself in his acting roles, to the extent of ignoring his fellow cast members while shooting a film (“I didn’t start to get to know people until we started actually promoting the film and I was back to normal,” he said of making Short Term 12). And you can hear that same authenticity in his rhymes—whether he’s contemplating suicide or gearing up for war.

It remains to be seen whether LaKeith Stanfield will—or even wants to—follow in the footsteps of actor-turned-rappers like Childish Gambino and Drake. “I rap just to get things off my chest,” he toldInterview Magazine in 2013. “If there was something that came out of it where I could do it professionally, I probably would, but I’m not really aiming to do it, not particularly. I really want to act.”

That last part was never in doubt, Keith.


By Andy James. Follow him on Twitter.

Photo Credit: Instagram