For many ‘iSpy’ was a sneak attack.
The tongue-in-cheek hit by Californian rapper KYLE and hip-hop’s man of the moment Lil Yachty, seemingly exploded out of nowhere and took many by surprise when it found its way into the Billboard Top Ten.
The song, about getting girls that don’t rack up Instagram likes, was originally released in December last year and crept up the charts over a period of five months. By mid-January it had debuted at No. 80 on the Hot 100, and peaked at No. 4 in April. Prior to that KYLE’s name had never found its way into the Top 20, and he had now RIAA certifications to his name.
Despite appearances, it was a long time coming; KYLE is playing a long game, and has been grinding for years to achieve his recent success. Since writing his first rap aged 13, the 24-year-old has been building his fanbase since 2013 with a pair of mixtapes, ‘Beautiful Loser’ and Smyle’, as well as collaborations with the likes of Chance The Rapper, Kehlani and G-Eazy.
In a guest verse on The Social Experiment’s ‘Wanna Be Cool’ in 2015 he asked: “So why don't you just be the you that you know you are, You know, when nobody else is there?” And has continued to demonstrate self-confidence and authenticity by his own example.
KYLE rides against many archetypal hip-hop ideals; the subject matter in his lyrics has more in common with the bands he’d hear when his mother turned the dial to K-Rock, than it does the rap music that his father would play him. He promotes himself as “anti-cool”, and is comfortable in his own skin without having to exude braggadocio and take himself too seriously.
Whether or not he’d ever had a Billboard hit, KYLE would have made his mark. It’s all about endurance…
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How would you describe the kind of last couple of years since you put out your last mixtape ‘Smyle'?
They were good. They had ups, and they had downs. They had really awesome wins and they had, some really devastating losses. You know, it was normal life. That's what kind of felt the best about it. I don't know if I'm going to be able to get that back.
But it was dope. It was exciting. We put so much work into ‘Smyle' it's almost like we expected to pop off off of that album. We put it out, and then for those two years we had to go do like a lot of grinding. But the whole time was like very memorable to me. That ‘King Wavy’ [US headline] tour was probably like the funnest time of my life.
I first heard you on the Social Experiment’s song ‘Wanna Be Cool’ and your verse really stood out. But from that even to ‘iSpy’ there’s this theme of poking fun at social media that you revisit. Why do you think it’s important to address that?
It's just like such an easy place to use sight of what is good about you. I can't even imagine what it's like now, being like a middle schooler trying to look good on fucking Instagram where you got all these people that are being manufactured. Literally like plastic manufactured, like out a fucking assembly line. You've got all these people who portray this image of perfect that, you have like little guys and little girls trying to be like these people on social media that invest all their money, time and effort into looking good. It's like an easy place to lose sight of what makes you dope about being you.
It's so important for kids to be proud of just what they're given naturally. And be proud of the way God made them and the gifts that God has given them. If they lose sight of that, then we're just going to have a bunch of people, trying to be like a bunch of people, who are trying to be like a bunch of other people, and it's just going to get weird. Everybody's gonna have fake everything. They even have fake six-packs now, it's crazy. You can go purchase a six-pack. I just think the Internet is just shady.
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It's so important for kids to be proud of just what they're given naturally.
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How would you describe your own relationship with social media? I guess as a musician, there is some sort of pressure to have to stay on there and publicise what you're doing.
Now I see social media more as like a job. Like, when I would use MySpace, when I use Facebook, I was using social media for social media purposes. Now, it feels more like "Damn. I gotta post today." I only use social media because I have fans. If I had no fans, there would be zero tweets from KYLE. I promise you this.
I had to scroll through your Instagram earlier and you're lying in a ball pool with like a Pikachu. Obviously, you don’t take yourself too seriously; how would you say that's helped your career?
You know what, it was the easiest decision and the best decision I've ever made in my life, to just like let my guard down. I think it's helped my career tremendously. I feel like everybody appreciates that guy that's just okay to be normal. That's okay to just like be themselves, make fun of themselves.
That's why everybody loves comedians, because they're real. If you're taking yourself so serious that you never make fun of yourself, like that's weird. But okay, if that's the truth. I'm not even making an extra effort to be funny, I'm just really just being myself. And I think that's helped my career hella much.
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When you do that, you know, it's like you kind of serve another purpose for people...
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Your songs can be quite funny, but they're not like “comedy songs”. How do you think that you get that balance of not being perceived as a spoof act, but still being able to be funny through your music?
I just gotta remember to make music about real shit too. It's just about me being myself, like all of myself. And with that being said, if I'm going to be all of myself, really use my sense of humour and not take myself so seriously all the time, then I gotta talk about my problems, talk about my issues in life [as well]. Talk about the things that make me sad. Talk about the things that cause me pain. When you do that, you know, it's like you kind of serve another purpose for people, you know.
Like KiD CuDi’s music - I love all the current KiD CuDi songs, those are awesome - but lot of my favourite KiD CuDi songs, the ones that hit me the most, are the ones where he's really talking about his life. He's really talking about his struggle and his story and how he overcame those struggles. Those type of things are what make people not only listen to your music and rock out to it, but start developing a need for your music, start using your music as medicine.
I think if I keep approaching it like that, I don't think I'll have an issue of people not taking me seriously. Maybe for everybody else that only knows like ‘iSpy' or something, but when it comes to the people that really become a fan, they know it doesn't just come with just the fun and games. It's gonna come with some truth too. You gotta hear some real shit.
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There's an infectious, pop feel to a lot of your music; even the stuff from a couple of years ago when you didn’t have this huge Billboard hit. Where does that comes from?
I got like a really cultured background. My family is kind of diverse, from all different types of countries in the world. So growing up, I was always hearing a lot of different types of music. I have cousins that are Japanese. I have cousins that are Welsh, from Wales so they were always showing me like a bunch of UK stuff early. All of the biggest music was making it, from all over the place, was making its way to my ears from an early standpoint. So it kind of shaped my understanding for music.
And also, my mom was always into like 90's rock, like K-Rock and shit, just rock music in general. And all their melodies are kind of like major, which is like a lot of pop melodies, but then a lot of R&B stuff is all minor. A lot of my other rap peers like who I listen to are minor chords. And I think all my melodies come from Weezer, so that's where it gets the bright feel from.
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I think all my melodies come from Weezer...
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There are a lot of kids nowadays - largely thanks to the Internet and social media - that are starting to make music, banking on some overnight success with a viral hit. You’re enjoying this massive success now, but it’s taken you a lot of work to get up to this point. What would your advice be to people who are looking for instant success?
I would tell them this entire thing is all about endurance. It's about how long you can keep going. Because overnight success is definitely a real thing; it happens, and when it does, it happens fast. But the thing is you don't know when that moment's gonna happen. You don't know if you're ever going to have that moment. You might just build fans until you're the biggest artist in the world. How long can you keep running this race? That's the most important part, if you really want to be successful at this, you're going to have to go for a long time possibly.
Or you could make one hit song and you instantly crack if your first song you ever make is a hit. But I see that as like the worst thing to happen. Because you probably lose your sense of gratitude really easy, it’s probably easier to become an asshole that way. And you're probably not going to be cracking for that long, because you haven’t developed a fan base before you had a song and you haven't worked hard enough for it.
So when you get it, you're probably not going to be able to outwork somebody like G-Eazy, who's been grinding at this forever. So I always tell kids enjoy the ride. Enjoy the ride and just keep going. It's all about endurance.
What's the most difficult thing that you've had to overcome in your career so far?
I think one of the biggest things I've learned musically is just to trust my instincts. Even though I always talk about being yourself and being authentic, I would get nervous making music and being like “Damn, this needs to be more cracking,” And overthinking everything.
Like doing too much. and not just trusting my instincts like “Yo, you’ve been making music for a long time. You have the ability to make a good song. Just relax, don't think about it too hard. Do what you feel.” I think ‘iSpy’ being the song of mine to become successful first, really helped me with that. That song was a throwaway in my eyes, I was just making it. I was just like “Alright, we're just going to make this, put it out, whatever. No pressure.”
And when you do that, everything is more authentic and everything's more real. So I think that was probably the hardest thing for me to overcome as like a young artist, was just like putting too much pressure on every release and overthinking it, instead of just enjoying making music.
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Overnight success is definitely a real thing; it happens, and when it does, it happens fast.
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And the last question, what does success look like to you?
So there's a really big room, right? This room looks like Spongebob's library, right? That's how big this place is! And instead of books, it's every single game ever made for Xbox, all lined up just in a row. World's biggest video game collection.
Also, in the living room - which is made out of meteorites - my mom is in there and she's hella happy and she's cooking Hamburger Helper and everybody I love is chillin' in lawn chairs in the front yard, which happens to be beautiful.
And I'm not an asshole. If I'm not an asshole, it'll be perfect. That was a success ... That was a success scenario.
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Catch KYLE at Camden Assembly Hall, London on October 23rd - tickets.
Words: Grant Brydon