Words by Atoosa Moinzadeh
Images by Braylen Dion
It’s a humid June afternoon in Harlem, New York, and 28-year-old rapper KEY! is in an Uber reaching for the aux cord. An entourage running at least twelve deep is trailing behind us, and I’m seated between KEY!’s manager Mister, and his friend and collaborator F1lthy (of Philly’s production collective Working On Dying). The crew had just spent two hours shooting part of the music video for “Fall Hard,” - off the So Emotional EP he’s set to drop in a couple of weeks - and we’re heading downtown to complete the rest. KEY!’s previewing songs he’s produced, first time collaborations, and some genre-bending rough cuts, cranked up so loud that the car quivers with every jolt of bass. Of the dozens of tracks we hear, one catches F1lthy’s attention. “You gotta get Lil Uzi on this one,” he projects from the back of the car.
“That nigga weird, like Drake - he’ll like FaceTime me, and then ghost.” KEY! says, chuckling to himself as he skips to the next track. It’s as if playing phone tag with some of the biggest figures in the music industry is a trivial distraction to him. “These niggas flirtin’. Imma let ‘em flirt.”
We pull into Minetta Lane in the West Village, and KEY! steps out of the car, standing at about six feet in an Atlanta Braves logo fitted cap, a white tee and jeans, and gray Jordans. Each of his accessories are an homage to his closest friends: A statement pearl necklace with a heart charm, designed by designer Yung Thermal and rapper K$ace, who co-own the brand Whensmokeclears, and a coveted red “Fandana,” courtesy of Fani, the graphic designer behind OriginalFani. I catch a glimpse of the tattoos covering parts of his neck and face: Beneath his right eye, there’s a small “777” logo, and above his brow, “Blake,” the name of his child who was stillborn, is in cursive script.
He realizes something as scopes out the set: “Damn, I shot the video for “Give ‘Em Hell” here,” he says, rubbing his beard. “I did, with Makonnen and them around the corner, and shot it after I took a bunch of ’shrooms.’” I recalled the grainy, black and white footage of him walking around the city shirtless, doing pushups, and grabbing dollar pizza: When it was released in 2014, “Give ‘Em Hell” embodied the minimalist “New Atlanta” sound that came to dominate the era. Practically no one outside of his immediate circle (the likes of Two-9, ManMan Savage, Awful Records, and OG Maco) was making music like it. Much like now, KEY! was known for operating completely on his own terms, and timing, at 23, shirked off attempts to pigeonhole him as another figure in his hometown’s burgeoning creative scene: “I don’t give a fuck about being New Atlanta.”
Later that night, I finally get a chance to sit down with KEY! and his crew inside the buzzy East Village French bistro Lucien, which is owned by a close friend of his—he pops in every time he’s in town. As KEY! leans back in his chair and sips his martini, he points up at the restaurant’s walls, which are plastered with photos of the likes of Steven Spielberg and Jean-Luc Godard: “I feel like I’m Basquiat when I’m in here.” KEY!’s photo is somewhere on the walls of Lucien, too (he forgets where, but doesn’t really seem to care either way). I’m curious to hear what he’s been up to after his two Kenny Beats produced projects, the featureless 777, followed by 777 Deluxe (featuring Skepta, Jay Critch, 6lack, and Rico Nasty) gave him some overdue traction.
KEY! tells me he’s been in the studio quite a bit, but he’s also been working on his personal development. “I’ve been finding myself,” He says, quickly interrupting himself. “I been found myself, but it’s time to utilize what I know, instead of just being this wild case like I’ve been,” he tells me. Despite his forward-facing rockstar persona, he’s quite introverted. He lowers his brow: “I don’t want to sound like a ‘SoundCloud person’ or be lumped in with ‘trap’.” These are all labels that have certainly characterized his decade-plus of influence as an independent artist. “I can’t say I’m the best when there’s niggas like Kanye West runnin’ around - I want to be respected as a musician. On all levels.”
I ask him if this self-mandated narrative shift comes from a place of regret, or wishing he did things differently. He smirks. “I would’ve done nothing different. If I did anything differently I would’ve been the biggest artist in the world. And I still strive to be.”
One night in August, as KEY! and I drive down a road through his old neighborhood in East Atlanta, he starts telling me a bit about his upbringing—and what he refers to as the “different phases of his life” that brought him to this point. “I don’t like talking about it, and I don’t give a fuck what people think about me,” he asserts at one point—but his aversion to the subject eventually softens, and he opens up. Born Marquis Devone Whittaker in 1991 on the summer solstice, KEY!’s childhood hardly had a sense of rootedness, as his parents cycled through a series of residences along Memorial Drive, a main stretch in the area. “You wouldn’t be able to go outside at night,” he says, pointing at a row of houses to his right. “Now it’s gentrified. I used to duck in and out of here like a ninja.”
The next day, KEY! and I walk down a long road in Decatur to one of the elementary schools he attended, since converted into a K-7 charter school. Predominantly raised by his father, he attended dozens of schools until he eventually got fed up with the constant moving. KEY! frames what came next as one of the distinct phases in his life: He ran away from home and dropped out of Grady High School at 16, and spent a period of time homeless, before moving in with his grandmother, who he credits as a big support in his career. He never met his mother, until he attended her funeral as a teenager.. “I dropped out of school when my mom died, ’cuz nobody could teach me nothin’ anymore.”
KEY! began experimenting with beat-making in the 8th grade, but took his music more seriously after leaving Grady. He often hung out at North Atlanta High School, where his close friend turned collaborator Curtis Williams attended. In 2009, they formed Two-9, which quickly expanded and drew comparisons to some of the era’s other oversized rap collectives (OFWGKTA, Pro Era, and A$AP Mob) which they swiftly rejected. “I think you can’t really compare us to anything because we’re the first of our generation to come out of Atlanta,” member Jace told the Village Voice in 2014.
KEY! still made moves outside of Two-9. In 2011, he secured a verse and production credit on Juicy J’s Blue Dream And Lean mixtape, and released a string of projects in the years following. Having forged relationships with producers like Sonny Digital, Brandon Thomas, and Dexter Dukarus, “KEY! sort of engineered this ‘Huh, huh!’ fat boy rappin’ we hear a lot of now,” as his friend Mexico puts it. Discussions around his flows, adlibs, and songwriting (rumors around ghostwriting included) began to buzz, and people started to call him “your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper,” when artists like Wiz Khalifa started co-signing him.
“Music coming out of Atlanta was kind of poppy, maximalist, and heavily laced with autotune,” engineer Alex Tumay, who’s most prominently as Young Thug’s longtime collaborator, tells me over the phone. “KEY! had this aggressive, stripped down sound that Atlanta didn’t have.”
KEY! came to play a significant hand in the rise of artists like Makonnen, 21 Savage, and Post Malone, and collaborated with niche cult favorites like Keith Ape, Skepta, and Playboi Carti before many of his counterparts. An aggressive, shit-talking bravado became his signature (“The coupe ain’t got no room for nobody/I ain’t got none’ to prove to nobody” on “Nawl Fr”), but so did the crooning, melodic “Keyoncé” sound that he’s been leaning into more lately (“I tried to love but I lose/Why you always by the pool?/Tryna play me like a fool” on “Miami Too Much”). “Everyone’s an offspring of KEY!” Fani says. “Atlanta’s like a big city and a small town at the same time, so stuff catches on easily.
KEY! parted ways with Two-9 on good terms in 2012, when it garnered label interest - and it wouldn’t be the last contract he’d dodge over the course of his career: “The industry started comin’ in… I started losing control over it. I don’t like anyone grabbin’ on me,” he explained in 2014 (The collective signed to Interscope and Mike WiLL Made It’s Ear Drummer Records that year). He also declined an appearance in the video for his collaboration with OG Maco, “U Guessed It,” which has racked up 66 million views on YouTube since it went viral five years ago (“Man I don’t even like that song … well I like my verse,” he said at the time).
But those sorts of things have never been a make or break for KEY!’s career. He’s like a “phoenix,” as his former manager Kei Henderson put it in a 2018 interview: “You can attempt to burn him but no matter what, he’ll rise from the fire because he’s just that kind of artist.” Henderson witnessed firsthand how KEY! has consistently churned out SoundCloud loosies, full-fledged projects, and features without sacrificing distinction from his peers. “People think they can copy his style and try to do it better, but he’ll always bounce back with something new.”
If industry pioneer Soulja Boy set the tone for how his generation’s rap is distributed, KEY! is the artist who influenced its dominant sound and swagger, serving as an unofficial “A&R” for both Atlanta’s emerging talent and the SoundCloud generation, never resting on his laurels for a second.
“I do this shit for me: It’s not the music business, it’s the KEY! business,” he tells me. It’s moments like this one that exemplify how KEY! is the kind of artist that genuinely competes with himself, but still understands this whole thing is larger than him. “And anyone who don’t come through my shit suck!”
KEY!’s loft apartment in the city is only a 30 minute drive from where he grew up, but it feels a world away from what he was acquainted to in his early years: “I really caught a vibe like, I’m from the hood, but I caught a vibe outside the hood,” he says with a grin. The space has a modern industrial feel, its concrete walls covered with an eclectic collection of pop art, including a framed still of Finn and Jake from the cartoon Adventure Time. I’m greeted by his girlfriend Tan, who’s watching TV on the couch with their dog Marlow. KEY! is gearing up to leave on his Asia tour, accompanied by Yung Thermal and K$ace - it’ll be his first time overseas.
KEY! characterizes the months following 777’s rollout, which showcased his resilience under strife (“I done did shit that make me hate myself/Pistol on my belt, I can't make this up/Lost a lot of people, I can't get them back” on “It Gets Better”) as a period of introspection. “I was floating around, doing nothing, not educating myself, I wasn’t gaining a lot, just living in the moment,” he tells me. Likening the whole thing to a ketamine hole (“I was in like, a KEY!-Hole—everything was meshed together.”), KEY! knew there was value in dedicating time to maturing and refocusing his vision.
This was heightened shortly after Christmas, when he lost his best childhood friend Aubree, who he lovingly refers to as his “twin,” to suicide. At the time of this writing, his display name on Twitter remains “AUBSWORLD” in tribute: “She was my best friend, we grew up together—and she was a bad bitch.” Aubree’s passing isn’t the only one he’s had to grapple with recently, and despite the pain in his voice, he opens up to me about it. “She harder than any nigga I know. I started my dreams with her.”
But KEY!’s journey hasn’t been without its sources of light. Four years ago, he met Tan while on an acid trip watching A Clockwork Orange. “She walked in the house and she looked like an anime character.” He tells me with a smitten expression that one day, he wants to put all of his love songs into a book, and give it to her: “My girlfriend definitely captivates me.” His face beams when he talks about his three children—two boys, named Cameron and Carter, after two of hip hop’s icons (Cam’ron and D’wayne Michael Carter, Jr. respectively), and a girl, Kimani (a fusion of “KEY!” and her mother’s name)—and being a good example to them is a priority of his: “I got three more chances on earth. I want them to be everything: sports, smart, street. You got one life, you should do everything. You don’t wanna go to heaven or hell, and meet someone who’ll be like, ‘Man, you ain’t ever do that?’”
For most of the year, KEY! has been working to perfect the two projects he has slated for 2019, which he epically describes as “chapters in a book”: So Emotional, which he’s released, is a collection of love ballads: “I think love songs are timeless - songs about what you feel, like love, what you want in life, your desires - that holds value.” Unemotionally Available, will take a starkly different tone: “It’s beautiful and outrageous at the same time. I’m really saying how I feel, and it ain’t supposed to be sentimental. And sometimes, how I feel is plain and simple: Fuck you.”
Just as KEY! doesn’t shy from embracing his duality in his content, he tells me how his aversion to certain facets of the music business are part of what he’s been wrestling with, in order to rise to where he wants to be. He sees his forthcoming projects as a ripe opportunity to reach greater heights: “I would love a deal now. At a certain point there isn’t a benefit to being independent, I’m sorry,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. With hundreds of songs in his back catalogue, KEY!’s still having his fun experimenting and dropping loosies: In a snippet of the unreleased “Spend One Night,” he channels a sound reminiscent of his city’s electro-driven bass music era that has fans calling him “KEY!lo Ali.”
A few days after I left Atlanta, Tumay told me about how it took five years after meeting KEY! to get an opportunity to work with him, as the primary engineer on So Emotional. He likened KEY!’s influence to that of Young Thug, reminding me of how when it comes to music’s unsung heroes, narrative and talent aligning are just a matter of time: “Sometimes it’s not the right time for a song, for a sound, or the person attached to it. But when it comes to people who consistently innovate, one day, people will just get it.”
I brought up sentiments similar to Tumay’s just two months prior, over dinner at Lucien’s. KEY! doesn’t think it’ll take much longer, and neither do those in his circle. F1lthy offered his own opinion on the heights KEY! can reach: “Popstar!” which KEY! perked up at, directing me to write it down. “Is this thing on?” He asked, leaning closer into my mic with his martini in hand: “I’ll be an iconic musician. I want full control, to see what I do. I wanna be the King of the North, just to see if I fuck it up.”
He paused for a second, then continued, with sincerity: “I don’t think I’ll fuck it up. I think I’ll do something good.”