“Talent comes everywhere. Everybody’s talented, fucking everyone in this bar is talented at one thing or another. But having something to say and a way to say it so that people listen to it, that’s a whole other bag.”–Jack, A Star Is Born (2018)
I will never forget the feeling of my lung spontaneously collapsing as my first “official” day writing for DJBooth came to an unexpected halt. The mild pain was like having paper cuts all over your windpipes. Breathing became uncomfortable, but it wasn’t excruciating. I was sitting, so instinctively, I tried to walk off the sudden pain. Then, I decided to lay down. No matter what I did, the constant ache would not subside.
I think about this moment whenever I write poorly. It’s a sensation that doesn’t feel like death, but it’s physically unbearable. Hours suddenly blur together into a neverending backspace. Sentences become repulsing. Sleep becomes restless. The sound of the clock’s second-hand ticking, each tick drawing closer to the deadline, is a taunt from an unseen tormentor.
Consistently, over the last five years, nothing has made me feel as sick as poorly telling a story.
A few weeks ago, I conducted a phone interview with rapper K Camp. I asked the 30-year-old Platinum and Gold hitmaker about his songwriting. My interest stemmed from how writing songs and writing essays are two different mediums that typically have the same function: storytelling.
The question inspired him to start at the beginning of his journey, by telling me about HBC [Head Busser Clique], a 2012 high school rap crew that he was in, and how fellow group members were “hooping, trapping, and rapping.”
If the other young black men dreamt of game-winners and ganja packs, K Camp, born Kristopher Campbell, envisioned GRAMMY Awards. Unlike his friends and collaborators, the North Atlanta rapper viewed the music they were making seriously. He was the group member always trying to motivate the collective to get in the studio. He was the one who always wanted to do the hooks.
“I didn’t know my pen game was crazy until I got signed,” K Camp told me of his 2014 record deal with Interscope Records. “I kept hearing it from different A&Rs and OGs in the game.”
“It’s crazy people say I got a crazy pen game because I don’t write,” K Camp admitted, viewing the practice of sitting down and writing a song as a time-killing reaction to boredom, not a requirement of the craft.
K Camp can count on one hand the number of records made by putting a pencil to pad. Everything else came unscripted, straight from the mind.
To K Camp’s credit, there’s a naturalness to his work that feels untouched by wordy overthinking or self-doubt. For example, the single “Ice Cold,” released in December 2019, has the seamless fluidity of a smooth stone skipping across a crystal lake. “I shoot shots like Reggie Miller,” he raps on the hook in a singalong cadence.
It’s a captivating yet straightforward song, one that gets stuck in your head with each play. By my third listen, instinctively, I wanted to recite the second “Shoot!” or the perfectly orchestrated “Feel like Wesley, feel like Wesley!”
“Ice Cold” appears as the sixth track on K Camp’s recently released album, K.I.S.S. 5. His K.I.S.S. series dates back to 2011, created to showcase his melodic, R&B-leaning records, which, musically, weren’t compatible with the more anthemic club records that made the “Cut Her Off” and “Money Baby” rapper a household name.
“I took my time with K.I.S.S. 5 because I gotta be in that bag to make a whole project full of women records,” K Camp confessed, before adding: “Honestly, the way I record, man, I got tons and tons of records, so it wasn’t a thing to put it together.”
When I asked K Camp how an artist knows when the time is right, he elaborated with a great explanation:
“Honestly, I didn’t realize it was three years since the last one. We put out a couple of little projects in-between that time. I dropped Slum Lords 2 (2017), RARE Sound (2018), and Wayy 2 Kritical (2019) trying to get the clubs back; tapping back in with what we originally came out with. K.I.S.S. 5 wasn’t on my mind. I didn’t want to slow niggas down, I wanted to turn niggas up. After you turn them up, you slow it down again.” —K Camp
Our conversation eventually shifted to discussing the process behind making K.I.S.S. 5 over several months in 2019 while building his RARE Sound recording studio in Atlanta.
“I need y’all to understand, bro,” K Camp begins with a touch of seriousness in his voice, “I don’t just make music. I engineer. I damn near executive produce the entire thing. I’m in there every day hearing these songs a million times. Back, to back, to back, to back. Every little piece of it. I done heard the ends and outs of these songs.”
Originally, K Camp wanted to release the project at the very beginning of 2020, not April. It had been complete since December, after all.
“I ain’t even tripping,” he said. “Everything happens on God’s time, so it is a perfect time [to release the album].” Still, he admitted to feeling “antsy” as each week went by and the album still wasn’t available for public consumption.
K Camp’s desire for a January release date makes sense. Four months ago, the fever pitch mania surrounding his single “Lottery (Renegade)” was reaching the apex of viral attention. The catchy song became attached to a worldwide dance phenomenon thanks to the micro-video app TikTok. The record was even recognized in The New York Times by technology reporter Taylor Lorenz. In his excellent profile, “The Original Renegade,” Lorenz covers the dance inspired by the song, stolen from 14-year-old Georgia dancer Jalaiah Harmon. It is the best coverage of K Camp’s quietest hit record.
I use the word “quietest” because “Lottery (Renegade)” has yet to appear on Billboard’s US Hot 100 chart. Although it is the backdrop to a dance, the Reazy Renegade-produced song was a successful, organic TikTok hit. New, unknown rappers who have nowhere near the profile of a rap artist like K Camp have charted and earned million-dollar record deals for sparking trendy challenges on the social media site. Those rappers weren’t at NBA All-Star Weekend performing at half-time alongside Jalaiah Harmon. Still, K Camp’s big “comeback” record felt invisible outside the app.
“She wasn’t kicking and screaming about the fact that she wasn’t getting credit… But I could tell it had affected her,” Stefanie Harmon, Jalaiah’s mom, told Lorenz. ”I said, ‘Why do you care whether you’re not getting credit? Just make another one.’”
As a writer, I understand the difficulties of trying to create. Lung collapse or not, art takes time, and time is work. There’s a mental, physical, and spiritual strain to make something good—which is why I respect an artist like K Camp, who makes it look easy.
Just listen to his aptly-titled 2018 song “Do It Again.” There’s a confidence in his music that can only be described as certainty. Not only does he believe he can pen a hit, he knows he can do it again. It’s also worth noting K Camp has been around long enough to have his past brought back to light through the age-old art of sampling and interpolation.
In April 2019, Lil Uzi Vert released “Sanguine Paradise,” a loosie that interpolates pieces of production from Atlanta rapper Mykko Montana’s breakout single “Do It,” giving 47 million YouTube viewers a sample of the anthemic music that came out throughout the 2010s. “Do It” features a hook written and sung by K Camp, one that Lil Uzi pays homage to at the 30-second mark of “Sanguine Paradise,” when he stops his fervent rapping and sings the six-worded chorus. A perfect trick.
For years, K Camp was among the young hitmakers who maintained Atlanta’s reputation as a hotbed for hits, but he wasn’t the most known newcomer when “Do It” peaked at No. 48 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 2012. I didn’t think to ask K Camp about Lil Uzi Vert or “Do It” during our phone call, but they’re worth noting. As an originator who writes all his music, there will be more sampling of K Camp’s past work.
Speaking to K Camp reminded me of what Ernest Hemingway wrote on page 71 of his 1935 non-fiction novel, Green Hills of Africa: “Dostoevsky was made by being sent to Siberia. Writers are forged in injustice as a sword is forged.”
He may not be the most visible rap star, but K Camp has survived. His hurdles have sculpted him into a mighty sword—a sword that is always one hit away from being stuck in your head.