Kota the Friend is a Timeless Storyteller and FOTO is a Masterpiece
Evan Dale // May 17, 2019
An omnipresent knack for storytelling has perhaps been the most coveted talent through hip-hop’s long history. Even in a the musical styling most recognized for the words spoken and the tales told, few lyricists are so gracefully masterful with their craft that they are able to take the attention span and conscious thought of each and every listener and dunk it into a tank of personal recounts, memories, and thoughts of their own. An artist like Mos Def – Yassiin Bey – has made a hall of fame career with impossibly quick wordplay that effortlessly coalesces into vibrantly colorful patchworks on his personal stories. An artist like J. Cole spins brutal truths and bears a reliance on his audience’s emotional capacity to speak about his life and the lives of others on the permanent journey of overcoming personal and societal hardships. An artist like Kendrick Lamar builds a harmony between unendingly experimental musical nuances and incredibly detailed description to drown his listeners in some of the most thought-provoking, emotion-evoking, intense hip-hop in history.
If any current lyricist is poised and proven in their position as the next lyrically masterful storyteller in such a long and pristine lineage at such a sensitive and inclement time in society’s history, it’s Kota the Friend. His new album FOTO is the proof. It’s not his debut album, but neither was K-Dot’s Good Kid M.A.A.D. City or Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive. And like the immeasurable importance that those two classics will forever hold not only for their respective creators but also on music at a grand scale, Kota the Friend’s FOTO is much bigger than we’re all yet to realize.
There are certain projects throughout hip-hop’s cyclical switching of lanes from the melodic to the lyrical that ignite great stylistic change, and FOTO is the first from a young and still underappreciated artist in a long time simultaneously shining its creator in instantaneous global limelight and happening amidst the kind of sociopolitical climate and cultural shift that grant it the power to host great change. It will undoubtedly be the last time anyone has the opportunity to say that Kota the Friend is undervalued because this project may very well come to define 2019’s hip-hop aesthetic and music’s next trendscape while coming to represent a changing of guard stylistically and generationally.
Kota the Friend’s sonic texture is delineated third by his easy-going nature, second by the effortlessness with which he does what all of us could only dream of doing, and first by his ability to take that gift and that demeanor and make it palatable and personal through his undeniable storytelling ability. FOTO is his story in the way that all of our stories are driven by stories of others just as much as they are by our own. It’s a coming-of-age tale creatively, personally, and emotionally. And its strongest trait is its relatable recount of a complicated, mostly content life that has gotten Kota to where he is today – on the explosive verge of certain stardom while still trying to balance the challenges of life pre-fame and post. But for those following along, FOTO and what it represents for Kota and for music has been a long time coming.
Really appearing on the scene in 2017, Kota the Friend has been prolific in his release of music ever since. Single after single led to 2018’s breakout debut project, Anything, and with each subsequent release, there was an obvious artistic growth that was driven simply by trying to keep pace with his personal life changes. And after Anything had been released and widely, popularly embraced in the niche lyrical market of 2018 that saw much more prevalence belayed upon the hyphy and the melodic, Kota only ramped up his prolificity and his conscious expanse more.
The first four months of 2019 alone saw five singles. And if that weren’t enough, only two of them – Birdie & Backyard – found their way onto FOTO’s 19-track, hour-long runtime. It would seem that Kota the Friend has a lot to say, and it’s clear he knows how to say it.
Top to bottom – which is definitely the recommended strategy when approaching FOTO – the album feels like a diary entry had the youthful emotion and approachability of Kid Cudi been merged with the lyricism and conceptual skill of Kendrick Lamar. Modern, open, honest, and relatable tales of life, love, and loss are delineated by poeticism and vibrancy at every turn, leaving FOTO as a whole, one of the more encapsulating hours in recent music history. Driven by a collection of intermittent and deeply personal interludes expressing his love for family and friends, FOTO’s storyline is inescapable and its roots impossibly complex, deep. Yet, like any good project, it’s still able to be taken apart and examined track by track as a collection of strong standing individual pieces that themselves are just as attentive and bold.
Towards the release of FOTO, one of the most telling and unique singles was Birdie. A long, emotionally-subdued, yet enthralling love song driven by comfortable and kind penmanship, Birdie helped set the tone for FOTO better than any other, before finding itself well-rooted in the album. Really, each track comes to be a chapter amidst a greater novel, and Birdie is Kota the Friend’s chapter on falling in love.
Other chapters, Backyard – an uplifting and mellow party anthem celebrating the good times – For Colored Boys – describing the difficulty of having a child in the black community and a blueprint for how to raise children ethically – FOTO – passing acceptance and forgiveness for the friends, loved ones, and family that have entered and exited life along the way, all play their roles in establishing Kota’s greater lifeline while also exhibiting his wide-ranging talent as a poet, a profit, and a star. The rest of FOTO follows suit, and each listener has the opportunity to relate to any chapter over another depending on their own path. There is enough specificity to make us all so curious and proud of Kota the Friend, and enough ambiguity and general life lessons to make us relate to everything he feels throughout FOTO. It would, for these reasons alone, be a great album.
Musically, it’s timeless. Good To Be Home, an homage to his roots in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn says all that’s needed to be said about Kota’s lyrically-endowed delivery and jazz-nuanced, low-fidelity production. FOTO holds true to classic East Coast styling in that regard and will come to be one of the less generationally-specific projects in the greater New York rap canon, especially in a modern New York scene that often travels far from its roots towards something hypnotically experimental and boundary-pushing, but reliant on trends. FOTO would, just based on its musical direction, be a masterpiece of the East Coast aesthetic.
But Kota the Friend and FOTO are able to be both boundary-breaking and timeless, both lyrical and melodic, both consciously and musically enthralling, poetic and relatable. Driven by honest storylines and his unparalleled, unique talent, Kota the Friend is here to change music and FOTO is the first of what may come to be many masterpieces throughout his career.