“I think I need a change of scenery—not permanently, or anything.”
Marquis Devone Whittaker, a self-described creature of habit, wants to uproot his life. The 32-year-old rapper, who’s more commonly known as KEY!, has just claimed a curbside seat at a trendy lower Manhattan restaurant called Lucien’s. On this breezy September afternoon, the leaves haven’t turned yet, but the vivid orange glow when the sun sets signals that Autumn is near. Taking in the scenery and the sounds of rush hour traffic, he mulls over the idea of moving to New York City: “Don’t get me wrong, I'm always going to want to go home.” KEY! proudly adjusts the collar of his Magic City strip club jacket and then gestures towards his espresso martini and Moules-frites. “I’ll always miss something about Atlanta—I mean, can't even eat anywhere else.”
Four years ago in fact, at this very restaurant, KEY! contextualized the story that’s followed him his entire career: He’s the “New Atlanta” pioneer that laid the groundwork for SoundCloud rappers, unofficially A&R’d some of his generation’s biggest stars, and has ghostwritten for major artists, all without a label, at his own pace, and before the age of 27. That interview he gave me, where he confirmed (and at times challenged) the narrative in question, was one of the very few he’d done for a publication. “I'm trying to write this next chapter myself, and not let anybody else write it for me,” KEY! tells me now, more than a decade since he began making music. “But the path has changed every day. I’ll think I know something, and I don't know shit.”
Since releasing The Alpha Jerk, a collaborative project with New York-based producer Tony Seltzer in 2021, KEY! has gotten behind next generation Atlanta artists like Tony Shhnow and Bear1Boss, and signed his first deal with Third + Hayden, a label headed by his once-manager Kei Henderson. Before recording his latest album, Marquis, which is a polished “reminder of who he is” produced by DJ Marc B, KEY! took a break from music for an entire year and admitted himself into rehab for 30 days this past February: “I still drink once a week,” he admits. “But I think the most important part is that I don’t need alcohol or drugs to make music anymore.”
Below, and in his own words, KEY! tells BRICK about the major changes he’s undergone in the past year, the process behind Marquis, and where he’s headed next: a period of time he believes will mark his prime as an artist.
“About a year ago, I ran into my previous manager, Kei Henderson, in an airport outside of Atlanta. I don’t even remember where it was. We hadn't seen each other in a long time, and she said, ‘I got something in the works. I think I got a situation with SoundCloud coming up and I want you to be my first artist.’ She said, ‘I want to go full circle.’ It’s funny, because I always kind of bugged Kei over the years. During our absence from each other, I'd kind of playfully be like, ‘You're not going to finish what you started?’ She wrapped back around after she got her deal situation, and she did what she promised. I took my first label deal with Third + Hayden, after taking an entire year off from making music.
“Throughout my life, I’ve just dropped music based on how I feel. If I wake up today and I feel like I haven't heard something new from myself, I put it out. But now I have to calm down and be strategic again, which I have always wanted. I needed organization because without organization, I feel like a lot of my music was just getting looked over. I feel like when we dropped Alpha Jerk by ourselves—and I feel like that's one of my greatest projects—it was kind of overlooked, because we did it alone. I was at a point where I was getting frustrated with my life. I'm a human still too, and trying to juggle everything by yourself for 10 or 12 years is a lie.
“Over the years, the other label offers I received were never, to me, feeling like the right move. I knew I was taking a gamble by making this move, at a new label that’s particularly small. But I get to help build this label. That's all I want to do. I just want to stay a part of a family. We both represent each other. This is still an alien situation to me, being at a label. It has challenges. For the first time, I'm not alone, which I really like being alone. I like my back against the wall, so right now I have to trust people and fall back sometimes and not be so quick to move on my own accord, which I'm adjusting to. And I have to be really patient right now.
“I do feel like as an artist, you need to be hands-on in your shit, and I wish I wouldn't have waited so long to be hands-on. Because when you're a young artist and the world's coming at you fast, and money's coming at you and new things are coming at you, you're kind of like, ‘This is automatic. This is how it's supposed to be. ’ But it's not supposed to be like that. You're supposed to give yourself that stuff, and ask the right questions. It's like accepting candy from an adult when you're a child. ‘What’s in this candy and what am I getting in return for this?’”
“Going to rehab is something I’d wanted to do for years, but I couldn't really get to it by myself. Sitting in the addict spot for so long, it's either you get scared to start the process of getting clean, or you try to keep ignoring what's going on.
“I’ve lost a lot of friends. That scared me. I could say I lost 15 friends to drugs. Then I started losing myself, where people couldn't recognize me, and I couldn't recognize myself sometimes. I was already having mental issues, and drugs don't do nothing but make your mental issues worse. It can be a bomb in the moment, but it just ends up feeding into it all. The next day sucks, all the time. You wake up and say, ‘I hate myself today. ’ The depression is stronger than the drug is. I had to change myself before I went to rehab too. It took a while for me to get there, but when I went to rehab, I thought I was just going because I was an alcoholic and addict, and I needed to get clean, but I realized soon after getting there that I was there to look at myself. Being sober is a thing, but knowing yourself is another thing that I had to learn. I don't even think I'm halfway done with that journey. But the thing is, I would've never even started the journey unless I went there. I would've never known who I was as a clean person until I went and got clean.
“I went in February, got out in March. I did a full 30 days. I should’ve stayed longer. When I left, I actually missed it. I was a totally different person: I was waking up at six o'clock every morning, I was eating three meals a day, I was exercising every day. I was in class all day, no naps. I'm still keeping up that routine with myself too. It stuck, but I still have to work on maintaining it. My friends, they’ve always been a big part of my life, my music. I love my friends. I had to realize who my friends were though. You find out who really ain't a friend. A lot of my friends were addicts too, so it's like, whoever did come with me, I appreciate them. It was probably only CIG. You have to leave so many people behind in the process. I'm learning that every day right now. But addiction, that’s one thing—it’s a disease that is going to be with me for the rest of my life.
“When I first got out of rehab, my music wasn't sounding the same to me. I had to reconnect with who I was as a teenager. I missed the essence of not needing any drugs to be creative. My creativity is everything to me, and I feel like it was tampered with. If you do drugs long enough, you feel like you have to be on them to make music. Even my dad was like, ‘Well, you need to be fucked up to make music. ’ One day I just got to the point where I just didn't need shit. I was like, ‘Damn. You know what? I don't. Music is already in me. ’”
“This chapter I’m currently in—I don't want to say it, but I do want to say it—I’m like 75% done with music. Well rap, anyway. You know that movie Baby Geniuses? When they make the babies ‘cross over ’ and learn new languages? I feel I'm going through another phase of growth as an artist where I’m gravitating towards a slower type of music, or a less violent type of music. Something different. I'll always be a musician, but looking at these different chapters, from Mothers Are the Blame all the way to Marquis, I would say I’m coming to the end of that particular journey.
“When it comes to making Marquis, I feel like for a while I was missing just doing me, instead of chasing trends in my own way. So I wanted to get back to doing the music that I love, which is Atlanta music. That's what I was trying to tell people like Marc B when we were producing it: I wanted everything to sound like something that I've heard in my life, like a moment in my life, on Marquis. Like ‘You Need God ’: That sounds like a Jeezy song or a Jeezy and Lil Wayne song from DJ Drama’s prime. That's also why I deliberately put features from artists like ManMan Savage, Jace, and Tony Shhnow on there because with it being a self-titled project, I wanted to put a spotlight on who I'm around. I haven't really stopped ever making music with Jace and ManMan at all, my whole career. I feel like that's what the whole tape was... a reminder of who I am.
“When I linked up with Marc B, I had already conceptualized the album. During the year that I took off from music, I never stopped really recording. And I always knew it was going to be a self-titled project. I took a year off from music to deal with personal things, but in my mind I was still planning what I would do when I returned. All that was left was basically finding a producer. I picked Marc B because I feel like he knows me more than I know myself, because he was a listener first. I've known him since I've known 21 Savage. I don't think he knew any of us at first, but was just a fan of our music, so he started building mixtapes with me, 21, and ManMan on them. I didn't really get to meet him until he was already 21's DJ. After all these years, this is my first time really making music with him. Everything else was just him putting out our songs, putting his tag on it.
“Before I was a rapper, I was a producer. The whole first Two-9 album, I produced it by myself. That’s another part of me that I want to reconnect with. I really missed it when I started making music and I didn't need anyone there. I missed hearing what it sounds like because I was a weird person when I produced. I want to remain who I am, all the time. Recently, I bought a brand new laptop with the same software and shit on it. I still haven't made a beat yet. But it's coming. Yeah, someday. I think when I get time to sit down by myself—the thing is, I've never been by myself in my life, even when I was operating alone. So once I get to that point, then I get to experiment with myself.
“I don't like the same things as I once liked. I used to love running around being a knucklehead. Now, if you’re a knucklehead where I'm at today's age, you're dead. So I'm just taking everything a day at a time. I’m 32, But I feel like this is the best time of music for me. The most poised, the most mature, the most meaningful music is right from this time right now. I'm proud of myself for that.”