KAYTRANADA’s ‘99.9%’ is proof of what Black boys can do when we let them live (Review)

99.9%

I feel better than I ever have, you know? I’ve been sad my whole life, but fuck that. I know I have good things ahead. I don’t know honestly if I’m fully, 100 percent happy, but I’m starting to get there.”- Kaytranada (The Fader, 2016)

A few days ago I turned 23, and I’ve never been more terrified in my life. As proof of my terror, I decided to share a little excerpt below, a quick doodle from one of my many journals (yes, I do have a crazy impulsive journaling habit).

At this point in my life, 23 just kind of feels like sitting on the brink of “what the fuck is this.” It’s scary. For the first time in a long time, I’m unsure. I don’t feel accomplished. I’m noticing that I’m less driven by the desire to be great these days, and more-so driven by my anxiety. I don’t feel innocent (even though that might sound like a silly thing to say). I feel like time is slipping away too quickly, like I’m running backwards on a treadmill. I want it all to stop.

But then God said, “let there be music.” Within weeks of each other, I got Coloring Book and 99.9%. What do these two projects have in common? Answer: fire ass projects, both created by hopeful 23 year old guys like myself that are pushing a message of perseverance to Black boys everywhere.

In the context of his April 2016 Fader feature, Kaytranada’s 99.9%  is a miracle. I mean, let’s really think about it. Kaytranada began his journey living in the basement at home. He starts to earn music popularity on sites like Soundcloud, and while blessed with the opportunity, he’s constantly on tour to make money to support his family. All the while, he’s battling depression driven by the suppression of his sexual identity. On the surface, he has everything. But all he really wants is to be comfortable in his own skin and to drop an album. How often have we seen pressures like these break artists? Despite the obstacles in Kaytra’s life keeping him from reaching “100%”, on his debut album he proves that no matter what you may think, he is almost there.

I stumbled into 99.9% under the impression that I would never be remotely house or electronic music fan adjacent. Instead, what I found was genre reclamation in it’s most beautiful form and in the hands of a Black producer. Kaytranada’s music is a deep reflection of his Haitian roots and what I left with was a reinforced understanding that all of this shit is ours. All of these sounds belong to us.

“TRACK UNO” opens the album with infectious rhythm, setting the tone from the jump. It’s at this moment that the listener understands that Kaytra isn’t interested in abiding by any rules. It’s glitchy, yet organized and I live for the breakdown at 3:25. Kaytra is not the first, but he is a glorious addition to the roster of Black artists and producers who could give two fucks about genre limitations. In fact, iTunes has categorized this album as “Electronic”, but those of us who appreciate it know better.

“BUS RIDE” feat. Karriem Rigins & River Tiber has a super jazzy feel, heavy on the cymbals. I’ve kicked back to this one many times, using it as the soundtrack for the mini movie of my imagination. It sounds like James Baldwin & Kendrick Lamar sitting down in a coffee shop to discuss race theory and their favorite strands of weed. In some ways this track functions as an interlude: it’s something different that doesn’t offset the vibe and is the perfect length.

“Got it Good” features a groovy R&B beat, married with the soulful vocals of a familiar childhood favorite. I was sitting in my room blind listening to album and my first thought: “what the fuck, is this Craig David?”  As David serenades us with a song about spoiling the woman who’s been by his side since day one, I could not get past the amazing production on this song. David’s lullaby-like vocals sit in stark contrast to the unrelenting beat that drives the song forward. This track is appropriately placed within the album to recapture the attention of listeners who might not be quite as familiar with Kaytra’s overall sound. It’s also a gentle reminder of his versatility as a producer. While many may be sleep on Kaytranada, categorizing him as “experimental”, he proves he can produce classic R&B beats to compete with the best of them.

Drums continue to move the album forward on “TOGETHER” featuring Goldlink & AlunaGeorge. Aluna’s voice is refreshing and compliments Kaytra’s production perfectly. Goldlink rides the beat with standout bars like I got new goals, got new wishes/ Be a better father stop calling my women bitches. Those lines within themselves sort of capture the kind of carefree progression that I think themes this entire album– it’s a an attainable kind of growth that says “we should be better” but doesn’t scoff at others who choose not to be. The culture needs more of this.

Flawless transitions are common among this album and Kaytranada smoothly flows from track 4 to 5 with “DRIVE ME CRAZY”. One of my personal favorites, “DRIVE ME CRAZY” features Vic Mensa, another soon to be 23 year old. On this track, Mensa discusses that barriers and distractions that have come with the new state of his career. Here is where I draw the first parallel to this theme of perseverance and Black boys that I mentioned earlier. We find Mensa bonding with us over the feeling of being in a place where the fame (the progress) isn’t new anymore. If you had everything you’d ever wanted/ Right in front of me, what’s it gonna be?/ The lights and the drugs and the girls finally drives me crazy. It is here, that we hear Mensa express frustrations with growing pains that come with advancement. How many of us haven’t felt that? The vulnerability in the album is subtle, but if you listen closely, the entire project is a barbershop moment.

Kaytranada-bb13-2016-billboard-650-1548

Track 6, “WEIGHT OFF” featuring BADBADNOTGOOD is probably as melancholy as the album gets at any point, which says a lot because it is in no way a sad track. That’s another point of praise that I have for the album; at no time does Kaytranada allow us to wallow or sulk. We move forward with the beat.

We meet with another familiar voice on “ONE TOO MANY” featuring Phonte of The Foreign Exchange. This song has an authentic early 2000’s R&B vibe that would lead you to believe that it’s practically been made for Phonte. As a Foreign Exchange fan, I was pleased to hear Phonte’s voice, and saw this as further proof that Kaytra is working to earn a spot among our generation’s most revered curators. There is literally something for everyone on this album, as I’d let my dad hear this one. I also found it extremely refreshing to hear a lifestyle song that isn’t rapey and is minimal on the misogyny. “ONE TOO MANY” holds a beautiful ambidexterity that sounds like it could get love in a club like Kinfolk in Williamsburg, but also at any upcoming black family reunion.

“DESPITE THE WEATHER” has a very light and jazzy feel. If elevator music wasn’t so fucking bland and uneventful, this is what it would sound like in it’s optimal form. In some ways, this track seems to pick up where “BUS RIDE” left off, narrating the journey the listener would discover after hopping off the bus. It ends with a skit from a Skrillex interview on the Sway in the Morning show, where Sway mistakenly forgets who Kaytranada is.

My favorite song on the album, “GLOWED UP” featuring Anderson .Paak, is a theatric follow-up track to Sway’s little mishap in the previous interview clip, a complete embodiment of the 99.9% that Kaytranada is developing the album around. “GLOWED UP” is an aspirational track in a sense: you have 30 year-old Anderson .Paak talking his shit amidst my 23 year old woes, atop a fire flame beat produced by 23 year-old Kaytranada. There is a silent mentorship within this track and it’s inspiring. While Paak is floating all across Kaytra’s production, literally screaming “THINGS DO GET BETTER, YOU WILL GLOW UP!”, the beat is going off and all I can think about is how bad I need this in the whip. “GLOWED UP” is exactly how I want my summer to feel, making it an automatic summer anthem. On “GLOWED UP”, Kaytranada sends the message loud and clear that he has perfected crafting hip-hop beats as well. No one is safe. 

As Kaytranada continues to probate all over this album, he really flexes his muscle as a producer on “BREAKDANCE LESSON N.1.” Typical for his production, this track is driven by a bass guitar in a way that reinforces the Blackness of the album. Listeners are sure to let out a hearty “bruh” by the time they reach track 11, “YOU’RE THE ONE” featuring Syd of The Internet. With yet again, more incredible production, “YOU’RE THE ONE” is a feel good song, perfect for a New York Fashion Week runway or a popping ass pool party. “VIVID DREAMS” featuring River Tiber (bro got two tracks on the album, peep the sharing and collaboration here) creeps in perfectly afterward with a hypnotizing beat driven by maracas. This track was made for sparking up.

We see collaboration and risk taking as major parts of his identity, reflected all throughout this album. However, Kaytranada refuses to let his production be overshadowed by features, as heard in “LITE SPOTS.” This song contains an appropriately used sample of “Pontos de Luz” from Gal Costa’s 1973 LP India. I almost didn’t realize I was jamming to a song entirely in Portuguese until I looked it up. That’s just how good this song is. It feels happy, and lyrically the sample beautifully and literally translate to “I’m feeling glad, I’m feeling very glad.” One of my favorite things about music is when artists are thoughtful, deliberate and thorough. Kaytranada proves to be all of those things here.

“LEAVE ME ALONE” featuring Shay Lia is continued proof that there is truly something for everyone on this album. “LEAVE ME ALONE” is a groovy, up tempo song about that moment you realize you’re truly over someone. I’m predicting now that this will be Tumblr favorite, and that it will certainly ring off in all of the cool kid clubs. It is bass guitar heavy, once again off-setting how “electronic” this album might feel for listeners who are trying to transition into a new sound. My favorite thing about the album is that it’s different, yet familiar. The features are black. The drum kits are black. The horns are black. The bass melodies are black. The chords are black. 99.9% is truly where old school musicality meets beat making in 2016.

First impressions and last impressions are everything. Kaytranada concludes the album with “BULLETS”. It’s a perfect ending and I couldn’t have asked for better sequencing. Kaytra uses persistent bass drums and a funky ass bass guitar with a Little Dragon feature in a song that promotes peace and an end to gun violence. “BULLETS” is a song where the beat drives the message and not the words. This was another flawless integration of positive messaging into a track that is subconscious and doesn’t come across as corny. Kaytranada proves there are ways to finesse these kinds of things.

Kaytranada-Lite-Spot

“I feel better than I ever have, you know? I’ve been sad my whole life, but fuck that. I know I have good things ahead. I don’t know honestly if I’m fully, 100 percent happy, but I’m starting to get there.”

From one overwhelmed, slightly awkward and hopeful Black 23 year old guy to another, Kaytranada, I thank you. I thank you for reminding us that creativity is our way from up under ourselves. 99.9% is a ravishing example of what Black boys are capable of creating when we set aside our self-doubt and the standards of hyper-masculinity that have been imposed on us. This is what happens when we truly know and believe in ourselves. 99.9% sounds everything like what would happen when a man says “fuck what other men think my album should sound like.”

99.9% sounds like a utopia where Black artists are no longer burdened by representation (or the lack thereof). From beginning to end, 99.9% is a celebration of self-liberation. It is a reminder that the things we think we lack don’t make us worthless. Kaytranada, we know the journey to self-acceptance may be longer and harder than anticipated (hell, sometimes impossible), but thank you for rejoicing with us anyway. We all may be closer to 100% than we think.





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