Late night. The studio. A female sits on the couch, eyes fluttering between open and closed. Kembe X is smoking and waiting for her to fall asleep so he can start recording. He's not sure exactly why he needs her to be alseep, there's just something about the moment, about making music at this exact time with the exact feeling of watching her sleep that feels like....something. Something that he can only really describe through music. By the time she wakes up, it will only be a matter of time before the world hears "Poker Face."
Too often we attempt to frame music inside other frames: He sounds like this because he's from this place and that's how people from that place sound. He sounds like this artist mixed with this other artist. That's how we end up with Pitchfork-esque descriptions of songs as ambient electro Chicago drill rock hop. Before he told me the story of how "Poker Face" was created I might have been tempted to do something similar to Kembe X, and I would have been wrong. Over the phone Kembe describes himself as pretty quiet, a more subdued contast to his almost constantly talking partner in rhyme Alex Wiley, and he's right. Picture Diddy screaming at the beginning of "Nobody," then picture the opposite. That's what talking to Kembe is like. But that unassuming vibe is as much a product of his personality as it his insistence on truly living in the moment. Kembe's music is completely the product of how he feels and his environment, and how can you truly notice the world around you when you're talking too loud to hear it, or hear the inside of your own head?
Kembe's mother ran a deeply religious, Chicago area home steeped in Christian music, so it wasn't until his teenage years that Kembe got his first introduction to hip-hop through Kanye's jesus-walking. An older brother further blew open his ear to rap's full range, from Lupe to Soulja Boy and everything in between, at around the same time his home life took a turn for the worse. Typical teenage hormones coupled with a father who had lost his well-paying job and became sometimes violently angry lead Kembe to drop out of high school at 15-years-old, where he found a kindred spirit in fellow dropout Alex Wiley. The two first started making music as a joke before it gradually dawned on them that they might have a real talent beyond shit talking raps. Writing came easily to Kembe, music was a place to channel everything swirling in his head, and in just a few years he went from early bedroom recordings and a 2011 Self Rule mixtape to a move out to L.A. designed to springboard him from aspiring artist to full-time, professional music maker.
That L.A. studio is largely where the music Kembe's released, most notably his Kembe X EP, has emerged from, but as tempting as it might be to draw a direct line between Southern California and the music on the EP, that's a far too blunt connection for Kembe's always shifting creative method. He's insistinent that he moves solely off inspiration, drawing in the thoughts and feelings of those around him, grabbing a specific feeling and then channeling that feeling as intensely as possible. As he says, if a song is the purest expression of a mood possible, his audience can be truly global. Not everyone can relate to a specific place or scene, but everyone knows the feeling of watching a girl sleep.
Perhaps fittingly in Kembe's case, there's no formula to how we select DJBooth Top Prospects. It's about where it feels like an artist is at at this moment in musical history, how their music makes us feel when we're listening to it driving home from the grocery store late at night. Is Kembe X the next [insert forced comparison to other, shallowly-related rapper here]? Does fortune and fame await him? Maybe. He's aiming to release a full-length album in the late fall that could really open the world's eyes and ears to his music, and he says he's got enough material already recorded to drop three or four other projects. Given his ever-growing track record with TDE artists like Ab-Soul and his long relationship with Isaiah Rashad, signing to TDE doesn't seem out of the question, and his The Village crew is also getting bigger by the day. But for now that's all in that hazy placed call the future Kembe tries not to reside in. He insists he doesn't focus on a long term vision, only on the people around him and the people who connect with his music, and I believe him.
After all, music's nothing if it doesn't make you feel something. So if Kembe X is all-feeling all the time, no matter what happens in the music industry, how could he possibly fail?
[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. He also occasionally talks in podcast form and appears on RevoltTV. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]