We know Kirk Knight as the Pro Era producer extraordinaire. With a 2015 debut album (Late Knight Special), a bevy of feature verses, and impressive collaborative album with Nyck Caution (Nyck @ Knight) under his belt, we still prefer to know Kirk as the wizard behind the boards. Borrowing from Madlib in form and tone, Kirk pays homage to the past by not living in it, by lacquering up classic sounds and motifs and making them 2018-ready. Heading into his sophomore album, IIWII (It Is What It Is), the production should be a secondary question on our minds.
The itch Knight must scratch with this album is, of course, his rapping. Not only do we need Kirk Knight to continue finding and refining his voice, but we also need him to bridge the gap between his dynamic range as a producer and his more hushed rapping. Only a few minutes into IIWII, and we realize he knows all of the above and is feverishly chasing that sweet spot between intent and execution.
IIWII is a stronger and better-conceived album than Late Knight Special. Immediately, the album is a show of growth, competence, and developed personality. The haunting “Intro” reminds us that Knight has an uncanny ability to craft moods from the jankiest of building blocks. Much like Late Knight Special, he uses the opening seconds of his album to make a statement of artistic purpose, but unlike the debut, IIWII does not go on to decline in quality and direction.
The inflections and cadence used on “M.O.” are a welcome attempt to transfer the menace of Kirk’s production into his vocal performance. Steeped in confidence, the vocal tricks are second only to the infectious quality of Kirk’s lyrical flexing. He feels like the shit, and we feel like the shit. It’s a very rewarding and nicely symbiotic relationship.
“Leverage,” with its dynamic grunts and huffing, showcases Kirk Knight’s full pocket: blending dark melodies with brooding lyrics and a light grit to his delivery. Where the song opens with the rabid need to be remembered, “Leverage” is a nice set-piece for Kirk Knight to be exactly that. It is Kirk Knight fully formed. It Is What It Is becomes a proof of concept for the rapper-producer; he can tell stories with his snorts, his words, and his arrangements.
Perhaps no song is as emblematic of Kirk’s creative process as the standard but thrilling bar-fest “Run It Back (Freestyle).” The record is reminiscent of his energy on Nyck @ Knight, and reveals the truth that Kirk might still need a second hand in the studio to push him as a rapper. His most successful rapping comes when the pressure is on, be it by way of a freestyle or when he must share, and thusly work to dominate, the spotlight.
For all of Knight’s ambition, we do encounter some growing pains. “Different Day” struggles to keep up the energy of “M.O.” and plays like a flat reference track to the preceding song. The deep melodies are welcome but lack the springy feel of the rest of the album. For a song claiming to be so dripped out, Kirk has to rap like it. The hook of “Duffel Bag” suffers from some of the same.
Yet, neither of these songs showcase the fallout of IIWII quite like “Never Again.” Meant to be an emotive moment, the song comes across contrived and is a hard gear shift after the candor and energy of “Run It Back.” The track feels like a shoehorned slow cut, something “for the ladies,” as the saying goes. Thankfully, we’re back on course with album closer “Not For Nothing,” which is just emotive and cutting as “Never Again” intends to be but without any contrived love talk.
Kirk Knight does achieve something special in IIWII. He has a handful of Kirk Knight Moments: songs to point to that define who he is and who can grow into all the same. He does have his growing pains, but the exciting note on this album is the pronounced quality of it. Where Late Knight Special felt like a toe dipped into a sound pool, IIWII is a head-first dive. Kirk Knight bets on himself with this sophomore album. His conviction is what allows him to deliver more highs than lows. As a man of many skills, and still a better producer than rapper, Kirk Knight is his own life raft on this album. That will remain both his gift and his curse.
Three Standout Songs
This is the perfect Kirk Knight song. Dark, brooding, hustler bars and production meet incredible melodies with Kirk’s cadence being nothing short of enchanting regardless of the form of his delivery. For anyone still asking what Kirk Knight sounds like, it’s “Leverage.”
An incredible lead single, “Downtime” has the makings of a radio hit without the sour taste of obvious attempt at radio play. We get a nice look into Kirk’s psyche, some ferocity in his double-time flow and the best hook of the album.
“Not For Nothing”
Endings are difficult for all manner of artist, but Kirk Knight gets it right with “Not For Nothing.” The track is nicely emotive without drowning in sentimentality, doesn’t lose the sonic thread of the album, and leaves us feeling satisfied with Kirk’s growth and ability. He sticks the landing.
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