Kwoli Black: An Exposition of Versatility
It’s hard to really think of a single song to introduce Kwoli Black; at least, it’s the impression that his discography strikes me with. He sings, he raps; it’s fast, it’s slow; his taste is eclectic, and it shows in his style.
Maybe the best song to show it, then, is Wake Up, a tasteful fusion of hip-hop and R&B with a lo-fi aesthetic that only brings out the emotion in it all. “And I don’t know if I need meds but I can’t seem to keep my head clear / sometimes I don’t wanna wake up, sometimes I don’t really care,” he sings on the chorus, backed by a minimal yet atmospheric combination of reverberated guitars and dusty drums.
Even though you can draw similarities between Kwoli’s sound and that of other artists - on Wake Up, for example, the general atmosphere reminds me of Mac Miller’s later works - his sound is still undeniably distinctive and individual. In our interview, he attributed this unique quality to his voice, and it’s not hard to see why; depending on how he leans on it, he can bring out a fierce urgency and hunger that remind me of J. Cole’s best moments at points like on the lush yet impassioned Cotch Freestyle, or even switch up to a sleek melodic flow on a track like Got You, which, in tandem with the great performances from Monét and Kway, really bring out the groove and watery ambience of the song.
Vocal talent is just one element of it, though; what might be most impressive about Kwoli’s music is the sheer breadth of his influences and the way in which he channels them. He’s an artist who refuses to paint himself into a corner and instead has ambitions far outside of his typical woozy UK hip-hop sound; in our interview, he said that he wants to never have a type-beat, instead staying unpredictable, keeping his audience on their toes. His influences range from sounds of vintage soul (saying that Lenny Williams’ ‘Cause I Love You is the greatest love song ever made), 90s’ hip-hop (like Mos Def, OutKast, and Wu-Tang), and rock band The Script to contemporary rappers and singers like Brent Faiyaz, Kendrick Lamar, and Tyler, The Creator.
He has interests in making a fully R&B album — which, to us, sounds like a blessing based on the singing he’s done so far — and also has plans to start self-producing some of his music. He’s dabbled with the likes of Afro House on Got You and Eldé’s Stay, effortlessly fitting into both songs without sounding out-of-place at all, yet he has also put out intense tracks like the grime banger Greatness or his feature on the relentless Rewalk by NPhil.
To call him a stylistic chameleon might be right in one way, but it’s wrong in another: Kwoli never blends into these beats, but leaves his mark on every song.
Of course, we can’t praise Kwoli without bringing in JSTRNGS. His most well-known work includes his incredible contributions to Ojerime’s most recent album on tracks like Nothing and Jetset, where ghostly guitar leads float underneath crisp trap drums. Extracting maximum atmosphere from minimal compositions of skipping keys and reverb-soaked guitar chords, he really is one of the most impressive producers in the underground right now. They have a close bond that not only makes their creative process streamlined — Cotch Freestyle was done in one take thanks to this natural synergy — but also makes sure neither of them are lacking; in our interview, Kwoli said he’s “a bit quick to wallow” and that it’s JSTRNGS who helps him keep faith and stay strong.
JSTRNGS’ talent and connection with Kwoli shows on the latter’s music: Greatness, despite being one of his harder-hitting tracks, is still rooted in a trippy soundscape, with some disembodied vocal samples against a shuffling groove and ghostly guitars and keys. The gentle female backing vocals on Cotch Freestyle layer with the grandiose strings and wavy synths to create a surreal yet luxurious atmosphere. Kwoli has spoken on the two’s natural creative synergy before and it shows: any emotion in his voice and lyrics is brought out more by the beats, while his rapping and singing are a perfect counterpart for the instrumentals.
And it’s crazy how fast Kwoli’s sound came together.
After switching from poetry to rapping (after all, in his own words, “poetry and rap are essentially the same thing with different deliveries”), he began releasing music in 2016 with some spoken word pieces on his SoundCloud account (his first being a version of Ab-Soul’s Sapiosexual), then dropping rap tracks on his Imagine.Free. EP before putting out tracks that would put him on the map. While his earlier stuff has more of a DIY aesthetic to it, his sound is still unmistakably there; a spacey fusion of R&B and hip-hop aesthetics, like on Pass Me By.
And what’s even crazier is what has happened since then: he’s a Converse brand ambassador, is planned to appear on Romesh Ranganathan’s hip-hop radio show, and has toured with Kojey Radical. Yet, his ambitions haven’t stopped there; he dreams of working with big names ranging from Masego to The Alchemist, of repping high fashion brands like Dior and Prada, of being seen as more than a rapper. He’s gone from small stages to the BRITs and a sold-out headline show, and has gone from feeling nervous on stage to saying that “being on stage is like being at home” for him.
Him shooting for the stars doesn’t mean that he doesn’t stay real, though. He’s humble and grounded, and when asked for his dream collaborators, the figures that he name dropped weren’t industry icons, but other underground UK artists like BINA., Ayeisha Raquel, Karl Benjamin, and Kway, as he seeks collaborations not for the streams that name recognition can bring in, but for the music-making experience that collaboration provides. It’s clear right now that Kwoli is one of the UK’s most versatile underground figures, and even if I couldn’t tell you one song that sums up Kwoli Black’s sound so far, his dedication to his craft tells us that what most definitely lies ahead for him is Greatness.
Written by Marry on Majoris Music's Becoming Major Mentorship & Development Programme.
Marry is a Coventry-based music journalist making his first break into the industry through Majoris Music’s Becoming Major mentoring and development programme. He writes with a personal passion, eloquent articulation and pure love for music.
Follow Marry on Instagram to keep up with his journalism journey.