If you missed Bronx rapper French Montana's excellent "Wave Gods" mixtape from last year, you probably still heard a song called 'Lockjaw.' The duet with a young rapper named Kodak Black was repurposed for French's album, "MC4," hit #16 on the Billboard Rap charts, and eventually went gold. Bad Boy's Great New York Hope, who pals around with Kanye West and taps Nas and Future for guest spots, had pinned his commercial hopes on a 19-year-old from South Florida.
It didn't work as planned. "MC4" suffered through a thoroughly butchered rollout, and French remains on the peripheries of rap's mainstream in every meaningful way. But its show-stealing guest star has become one of the most discussed—and most divisive—figures in hip-hop.
'Lockjaw' sounds like bottle service in a haunted house. The video, which was shot in Port-au-Prince and Broward County, Fla.–Kodak is the son of Haitian immigrants who raised him in Pompano Beach— casts him as a superhuman figure, posing in front of Haitian flags with gold in his teeth and his left arm in a sling.
You see how skinny Kodak is in the video? He doesn't look like that anymore.
Now he's rounder, more stout, filling out a Polo jacket for his Breakfast Club radio interview (he also wore a ski mask) or white-and-black striped jumpsuits in court. His hair's longer, too.
At one point early in 'Lockjaw,' Kodak raps: "She keep looking at her drink, probably think the liquor laced/ Nah, bitch, I'm 1k."
When the song dropped, it was a colorful, off-kilter line—why would he need to slip something in some girl's drink?—but also a chilling window into something much darker. Nearly 12 months after the song's release, Kodak stands accused of sexual battery, stemming from an alleged attack last February in a South Carolina hotel. The details are grisly, you can find the affidavit online. He's out on $100,000 bail. His trial is slated to begin in February.
News of the allegations has sparked a series of splinter discussions about crime, race, sex, and rap music. The writer Michael Penn II laid out many of these threads in an excellent essay for Vice: At the core of the conversation are the competing impulses to claw back at the way the law enforcement and justice apparatuses target black Americans and to take seriously claims of violence against women.
It's understandable if the details in the affidavit turn your stomach to the point where mixtapes "Project Baby," "Institution," and "Lil Big PAC" are scrubbed from your phone and drift into the ether. It's also not difficult to imagine how the reflex to question the legal system (that, and the world's general callousness to sexual assault victims) has led to a stubborn band of "Free Kodak" supporters. The latter group is likely galvanized by the rapper's frequent, detailed, and deeply felt writing about his various incarcerations and legal problems, much of which makes for staggering music.
'Letter,' from last year, is a particularly succinct take: "Everything going smooth, then you just get caught slippin," he raps.
But jailhouse letters weren't the initial draw to Kodak. At times, he is joy distilled: 'Ran Up a Check' turned a mostly forgotten Yesi Ortiz song into an exuberant, anachronistic ride through the Florida dog days. He talks about life on the road, he calls for his friends to be freed, he says, "Y'all slide this shit 'til school start back" and then later raps "I'm going hard, I ain't going back to school." Or take 'I Just Might': "To my math teacher—you ain't gotta teach me shit/ I don't need you, bitch, I'm doing numbers with my wrist."
There are songs like 'Honest,' where he's forlorn, drifting through the Golden Acres Projects where he grew up. '4th Quarter,' one of his early breakthroughs, catches him on the cusp of adulthood, a grizzled would-be child star with fronts and an earnest desire to be known as "lyrical." Or there’s 'HollyHood,' where the pace is so languid as to be a dare, slow down to catch up.
The easy analogue is Lil' Boosie. Kodak's copped to this in interviews (and insisted that he and his neighbors feel more kinship to cities like Baton Rouge than to Miami). This holds, sometimes to a remarkable extent: Like a young Boosie, Kodak peppers his observational writing with parables about bootstrap success and Shakespearean failure. The younger MC's writing isn't as a naturalistic and, as a teenager, his lens isn't as refined. But like Boosie, Kodak renders his world in Technicolor, making Pompano Beach pop to life in a way few writers can.
Musically, Kodak is decidedly of his generation, perhaps more innovative with melody than he is on paper. He's not so much a singing/rapping hybrid as someone who's always on the verge of breaking out into song. In that vein, he owes a debt to rappers like Quavo from Migos, Future, or even late-aughts Gucci Mane. In turn, Kodak's flows have been cribbed by bigger stars, like Drake on 'Pop Style,' from last year's "Views."
Put simply: Kodak Black is a remarkable talent, but he has too often been treated as a cipher for larger, sociological discussions. There are those who use rap records to pathologize life in low-income neighborhoods, or among black and brown people; on the other side, there are perhaps well-intentioned observers who carry systemic arguments past their logical endpoints, stripping those from Golden Acres of their agency and identity, making them a monolith.
Kodak's legal situation today is not a Rorschach test. Neither he nor his accuser should be made into symbols. He is a young man accused of a heinous crime; she is a woman who has presumably suffered a serious trauma. (While Kodak is innocent until proven guilty, it's impossible to overstate how important it is that we take seriously women who report sexual violence.) No one can tell you whether you should listen to Kodak freely, guiltily, or not at all. I'm sure the answer as to how we can reconcile life and art lies somewhere between direct ties and hard-line separation, but I don't know how to navigate it. I'm not sure anyone does.
Kodak Black plays at Rams Head Live on Jan. 29.