Rap chameleon, and overall sensitive guy, KEY! is back. He wasn’t gone long, but he certainly was missed. His 2018 release 777, made in collaboration with future all-star producer Kenny Beats, was one of the year’s best. It felt like a victory lap of sorts for KEY!. He talked his shit over crazy, kinetic and flat-out awesome beats with the sort of panache unexpected from a rapper of his status. So unexpected that many (including myself) completely changed their opinions about him. Before, KEY! was the goofball that would occasionally feature on his “real” rapper friends’ tracks. Now, KEY! is still a goofball, but it’s clear he deserves to be taken seriously.
On SO EMOTIONAL, KEY!’s attitude is the same, but this time around, he decided to open himself up to the world. He raps about heartbreak, unrequited love and the downfalls of the rapper lifestyle. It’s nice to see a rapper be earnest like this. That’s not to say that he totally eschews the typical slick talk, but he does try to keep it to a minimum. It’s a captivating breath of fresh air in a sea of releases focused on trapping, getting money and winning at life.
Rarely, if ever, is a rapper seen making himself totally vulnerable on his songs, but KEY! is not a normal rapper. Lead single “MIAMI TOO MUCH” serves as the perfect introduction to KEY!’s new approach. The track, assisted with an ethereal beat from the Working on Dying collective’s Oogie Mane, begins with a phone call between KEY! and his woman of interest, and clearly it does not go the way he intended. He raps, “Baby, if I lose you, lose my damn mind / Psych, baby, I was just gassin’,” putting on the facade that he doesn’t really care if she wants to be with him, but he knows that he will be deeply hurt if she does leave. At the song’s bridge before the final chorus, though, he realizes that he can find someone better for him, someone that wants to stick around with him. This idea of finding a new girl is nothing new, but in this context, it seems groundbreaking.
Standout track “WHY” pushes this idea into a new dimension; not only are his lyrics more emotional, but his delivery, too. Over a sunny and bouncy TrapMoneyBenny beat, KEY! transforms his lyrics into a conduit to pure, unadulterated emotions with his bombastic and deliberate delivery. As he belts out the chorus, singing, “Why, why, why, why? / Why are you taunting me? / Coming and leaving (why?) / It’s haunting me,” it’s hard not to feel exactly what he’s feeling. KEY! certainly doesn’t have the best voice, but the emotion he conveys makes it so endearing, it’s hard not to love.
Of course, this new approach does not always hit. Despite its phenomenal hook, the verses on “WHY” begin to feel flat toward the end of the song. They’re decently catchy, but they lack substance, often repeating what has already been said. What’s more, much of the EP falls prey to this. “FALL HARD” attempts to make the emotion of this album feel lighthearted with references to popular fashion and culture, but it just feels insincere and breeds awkward lines like, “Japanese denim, this Undercover man / Skull on my hat, her skull in my lap.” Sure, it sounds good in the context of the song, but man, is it wince-inducing on second thought. The same goes for “HARD SOFT,” a song about appearing tough on the outside while being vulnerable on the inside. Its ludicrous non sequiturs and strange allusions to getting head, which often appear within the same bar (“The car American, she blow me like a clarinet”), make this song and a few others almost unlistenable.
However, the EP’s closing track “JUMPING OUT THE WINDOW” brings it all back. It’s pure KEY!: silly at times, but genuine. He raps about a woman that makes him to drop everything and run after her, which is in strong contrast to rappers claiming that women are chasing after them and hardly ever the other way around. With his earnest, crooning delivery and an impeccable beat from Fki 1st, KEY! paints a picture that will resonate with the many rather than the few.
Had all of SO EMOTIONAL followed this trend, it surely would have been a standout release like last year’s 777. However, KEY! still managed to put out a record that is uniquely himself. Sure, it has dull and errant moments, but largely, SO EMOTIONAL showcases KEY!’s softer side, and in today’s rap landscape, that deserves to be celebrated.