Key!’s rap moniker stems from his government name (Marquis Devone Whittaker), but it might as well come from his vehemently low key nature.
Around 2012, Key! effectively quit Two-9, the Atlanta rap collective he co-founded with Curtis Williams three years prior, due to growing interest from the industry. He remained friends with the rest of the crew, but his departure was made official when Two-9 signed to Interscope and Mike WiLL Made It’s Ear Drummer Records (without Key!) in 2014.
“I left because situations were changing, more people were coming in, the business started changing. That’s when it started getting real and I just didn’t want to take that route they were taking,” he explained in 2015. “Key!’s my brother but he’s kind of a loner,” Curtis added.
Since then, Key! has released a string of solo projects (including Martin Luther Key, Before I Scream and the hilariously titled Keyonce), collaborated with A$AP Mob, Lil Yachty and Skepta, and continued picking up checks ghostwriting for some of your favorite rappers. It’s not like he completely cut ties with his old crew—he appeared on songs with Jace and FatKidsBrotha in 2014 and 2015—but he’s been missing from all of Two-9’s mostrecentgroupprojects.
Last Friday, Two-9 released their long-awaited major label debut album, FRVR. Key! appears on nine of the 12 songs. It’s unclear what prompted the reunion (Key! has yet to respond to an interview request for this piece, and he remained tight-lipped when asked about it on the No Jumper podcast last November), but it’s a sight that should fill any longtime Two-9 fan with joy, not least because Key! is the star of the show—on the low, of course.
On FRVR, Key! lends his sought-after songwriting talents to more than half of the album’s hooks. On “Nick Cannon,” he sprinkles some mumble rap magic onto Phife’s famous request from Tribe’s “The Hop.” On “This Way,” he lets his “uh," "ay," "yeah” ad libs (the same ones half the rap game has borrowed) fly like birds in the trap. On “JFK,” he toys with multiple melodies and flows while showcasing his knack for coming up with sticky one-liners—in this case, turning JFK’s assassination into a moment of euphoria: “Top down! I’m feeling like Kennedy.”
While his slurred verses on songs like “Rackades” and “Used to Be Down” get lost in the sauce, Key! saves his best performance ’til last on FRVR’s curtain closer, “25/8.” Like Kid Cudi on Travis Scott’s “Way Back,” Key! comes in with subtle backing vocals during Lightskin Mac-11’s opening verse, adding a soothing texture to Childish Major’s slapping production (the kind of Neptunes-inspired beats you’ll find on FatKidsBrotha’s sorely underrated Eastside Paradise II).
Like Gucci Mane finding his pocket over a Zay track, Key! then makes the hook his own: “Every day, every day, every day / I see money coming, I see people fade away / 24 hours turn to 25 a day / Seven days a week, now it’s eight,” he croons. Each time he repeats “twenty five eight,” his voice grows wearier, the endless flow of cash and caskets taking its toll on an artist who’s seen his fair share of both over the last 10 years.
It’s little things like this that make Key! so good, even if he doesn’t want be heard by everyone, and the reason it's great that he's back with the group he co-founded, even if we don't know why.
By Andy James. You can follow him on Twitter.
Photo Credit: Instagram