Kemba is staring at the menu at Honeybee’s in New York City, clearly overwhelmed by all the vegan BBQ options. He’s trying to decide if he wants the burnt ends made of seitan or the “pulled pork” made with various veggies. He orders both.
“Whenever I go anywhere new, I always wind up over-ordering,” he chuckles, clutching at a glass of ginger beer.
It’s not like the artist born Matthew Jefferson doesn’t have a reason to indulge himself. Kemba spent the first quarter of 2019 opening for New York production duo Brasstracks on their nationwide Vibrant Tour, and is currently putting the finishing touches on Gilda, his major-label debut for Republic Records which is due out later this summer.
As the title of his lead single, “Last Year Being Broke,” makes abundantly clear, Kemba's path to success includes as many wins as it does losses. In 2017, Kemba’s mother passed away unexpectedly, leaving him adrift in real life.
“I had a hard time coming to grips with everything,” Kemba says. “I wasn’t good at talking about it with others. I was learning things about myself through writing about losing my mom and how it affected me and my family, so that was my grieving mechanism. It didn’t inspire me as much as it just took over my life.”
Those familial strains are present throughout Gilda, named after Kemba’s late mother. Interludes consist of voicemails from aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends reaching out to comfort a young man suffering in silence. “The Feels,” a standout selection on the album, airs dirty laundry as an act of pressure release:
“I welcomed my mama’s fakest friends with open arms / I know I strained some relations when I wrote this song” —Kemba
Now, more than ever before, Kemba affords himself the space to be both hungry and insular, sometimes in the same song, making Gilda a complete portrait of Kemba. “Nobody I Can Trust” and “Peter Pan” both veil facets of the grieving process behind jaunty 808s and stories of record label woes and rap elders acting (and dressing) like children.
Kemba’s pulled pork sandwich order is up. As we get ready to eat, I ask him if he’s proud of all his accomplishments over the past three years.
“I just appreciate still being here,” he says.
Our conversation, edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: After the release of your acclaimed album Negus three years ago, what did you feel you had left to prove?
Kemba: Right after Negus, I was kinda burnt out. It was months of not creating anything and not knowing where to go musically and trying to live enough life to have something to talk about. I’ve been actively trying to figure out how to prevent that from happening, but I didn’t have any choice at that time. I wish I didn’t have to do that. It was just the way the cookie crumbled.
What was your initial thought process coming into this project?
The first song I did was called “Captain Planet.” At the time, Killer Mike was talking about Black-owned banks a lot, and that talk of financial literacy and intelligence got me thinking about how some of the things we learn in hip-hop are kinda counterintuitive to that. It wasn’t until later that the bulk of the album started coming together.
How did your mother passing away affect the direction of the album?
I had a tough time coming to grips with everything. I wasn’t good at talking about it with others. The only way I could get through it was through creating music. I was learning things about myself through writing about losing my mom and how it affected my family and me, so that was my grieving mechanism. When it happened, I couldn’t write about anything else. It didn’t inspire me as much as it just took over my life.
The album strikes me as a more tangible parallel to the broader “Black boy becomes a man” story of Negus. How would you describe the progression of Gilda from start to finish?
The beginning of the album is similar to what you said, but instead of “boy to man,” it’s more of an innocent, carefree vibe transitioning to this life-changing moment that rocked me to the core. Then I had to rebuild myself and deal with the aftermath of it. It gets a little darker and more chaotic after that, which leads to me realizing that life is gonna continue on no matter what. And the rest of the album is me trying to find some sense of normalcy.
How important is it to talk about these feelings in public?
I feel blessed and relieved to be around at a time where people in general, but more specifically Black men, can be open about this kind of thing. I’m grateful to be around during a time where it isn’t taboo to talk about all the aspects of my experience. I don’t feel ashamed to talk about how I feel or things that have affected me and how they’ve affected me. I’m happy that everyone can do that, especially in rap music. It was also crucial for me to learn that it’s good to have fun within the framework of an album. It can be fun and still have substance and mean something.
I don’t think it’s possible to have a career where you say things and people listen to you without feeling some obligation or responsibility. [J.] Cole, more often than not, is directly telling us what he believes and what he doesn’t. Kendrick [Lamar] has been clear that he doesn’t want anyone to think he knows any better than you. He’s not the teacher; he’s the peer. I tend to lean toward the latter; the fact that I don’t know everything and that I’m only speaking from my personal experience, whether it’s right or wrong. Somebody could be prone to being more direct, and they have people who look to them for that sort of thing, like KRS-One.
Speaking of balance, what is the backstory behind “Nobody I Can Trust” and its music video.
The director Tomson [Tee] came to me with the idea for the video. I met him through email when he wrote a treatment for another video that didn’t pan out, but I knew that I wanted to work with him long-term. I sent him “Nobody I Can Trust” and he sent me back a quote that went something like, “When they came for these people, I was quiet. When they came for me, there was nobody left to speak for me.” Right after that, he sent me the treatment, and I fell in love with it. It fit the song perfectly, and I’m super happy with it.
We shot it on Coney Island over two days starting at 4 AM. An hour away from where I live. It was tiring, but it was awesome. It was a bunch of white actors that had a faint idea of what we’d be doing, but when they started, I got a lot of apologies: “I’m so sorry we’re doing this. Is that okay? Is this what you go through daily?” for two days straight. It was fun to make people uncomfortable [laughs]. We ended each day with me running behind a car moving at full speed to get the final shot in the video. It was nuts, and it was hot, but it was worth it. Everyone who’s seen it either loves it or is a racist—no in-between.
How did you wind up signing with Republic Records?
I started working with Brasstracks right after both the Kendrick Lamar and Hot 97 freestyles happened. They reached out and wanted to work. Their manager is this super OG incredibly accomplished British-Jamaican Black guy named Tim Blacksmith. He came by the studio while we were working one day and he was a cool guy to be around. He had a story for everything, so I figured that this was the guy to keep close by. Ivan [from Brasstracks] sent him some of our music, and we just stayed in touch.
One day, we met and [he] suggested that I should be on the label and that he knew a guy named Solomon and that he would reach out. One day, when I was upstate, they both reached out to set up a meeting. Solomon was already singing the words to my song and seemed super excited about it. Usually, when I’m at labels, it’s often some kinda bureaucracy. Solomon’s approach was refreshing; he asked who my lawyer was and helped get the deal done. That passion drew me to him more than anything else.
Have you changed your approach to making music since the signing?
It has no impact on how I create music at all. Everything else, like how we promote and package music, how we plan tours and shows, has changed significantly. But the way I create is the same. I write to beats, usually by Frank Drake or someone else the label sends over. If I listen to a beat and like it, I take it. I have no pressure to create any specific type of song. It’s super cool. I’m not in everyone else’s shoes, but it feels like the time where labels are trying to change artists severely is past us. All of these artists are doing it on their own, anyway. Why would they bother if it isn’t a good fit?
Working with Brasstracks kind of elevated everything, though. Ivan is such a genius that he understands exactly what's needed for every specific song, mood, and vibe. And he works so quickly. He just knew if a song needed an organ or someone to play percussion. It took everything to the next level without changing the intention of the song.
This album is the start of the next chapter of your career. Where do you want to go from here?
I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do thus far. I’m blessed because I know a lot of people who have been in similar situations and had just as much, if not more, talent than I do didn’t work out for whatever reason. I don’t get too high ever, because I know there’s a lot more work to do. I think the sky’s the limit, but there’s a lot of work to get there. I wanna maximize my career. Not to put a number on it, but I wanna get to a place where I’m living comfortably from creating. I wanna be able to go to any city and do a show full of people. That’s my baseline of success. I also wanna do arenas and shit. But at the end of it all, I appreciate still being here.