After helping hip-hop megastar Kanye West debut new song “All Day” last week, Allan Kingdom is making headlines around the world. Few rappers get the chance to collaborate with hip-hop’s self-proclaimed savior, so this support from West means a lot—and as we learned on Tuesday, Kingdom didn’t just help Kanye in the song’s live performance but appears on the studio version of the track, too.
All of this is leading many to question, who is Allan Kingdom? Although many in The Current’s audience are familiar with Kingdom’s work, all this national attention is piquing new interest.
Complex, a web magazine and national hip-hop news source, focuses on Kingdom in a new video report; he’s a 21-year-old artist, born Allan Kyariga, who’s lived in St. Paul since the age of nine. The son of a South African father and a Tanzanian mother, he grew up listening to African music before discovering artists like André 3000, Pharrell, and Kid Cudi. Now, he’s a graceful, inventive rapper who’s releasing both solo material and collaborations with others.
Kingdom’s music often has a hazy, floating feel, with spacious soundscapes punctuated by ambient percussion; his style evokes a sense of vulnerability that sometimes underscores, sometimes contrasts with his lyrics. When Kingdom started making music, he told David Campbell when he visited The Current’s studios last fall, he “couldn’t find a producer that fit exactly what [he] wanted to do,” so he started designing beats for himself. Since then, he’s spent a lot of time in his bedroom, writing and perfecting songs on his computer.
Kingdom’s solo work is only one of the avenues he’s pursued with his talents. Last year, he joined Bobby Raps, Psymun, and Corbin (formerly known as Spooky Black) to form local crew thestand4rd; a very successful national tour garnered praise from outlets like The New York Times, whose Jon Caramanica called Kingdom “a nimble, dense rapper with an ear for melody.”
Locally, Kingdom made the cover of City Pages after winning the annual Picked to Click poll last November. Much of the buzz surrounding Kingdom, though, has sprung up not through traditional media channels but through online support from enthusiastic fans. In her review of thestand4rd’s first show ever, Andrea Swensson wrote that thestand4rd have “managed to subvert everything we’ve been told about how to build buzz and gain a following in this town.”
Members of the music community are effusive in their praise for Allan Kingdom. Drew Christopherson, of Totally Gross National Product and numerous bands, admires Kingdom’s wide range of skills: rapping, singing, performing, and producing. “It’s like nobody can keep up with him,” Christopherson wrote in an e-mail.
Kingdom’s connections to West include both Virgil Abloh, West’s creative director, and Plain Pat, a record producer and businessman who executive-produced Kingdom’s most recent album. As Sean McPherson, a musician and a host on The Current, put it in an e-mail, “Of course it’s a surprise he got the call from Kanye, but looking back, it shouldn’t have been.” McPherson adds that Kingdom’s “sense of melody, of shape and of how to develop intrigue is light years ahead of most of his peers of any age…the man defines being in your own lane.”
It’s natural that an artist who’s, as Campbell put it in his interview, “averse to some of the commonplace aesthetic standards of hip-hop” would appeal to the similarly iconoclastic Kanye West. (Previously, West’s highest-profile local collaborator was Justin Vernon of Bon Iver.) While Kingdom is a unique talent, his style fits with an increasingly popular aesthetic in hip-hop and R&B, as heard in the work of performers including Drake and Frank Ocean.
“Allan Kingdom is one of those unique new artists that shows that music is swaying in a new direction,” writes Toki Wright in an e-mail. Kingdom values authenticity and originality; as he told David Campbell, the way he raps hardly differs from his speaking voice.
Like a number of rising artists, Kingdom honed his craft alone, creating rhymes and production in his bedroom at home. “I’m just spittin’ to myself,” he blurts on “Positive” (off Future Memoirs), and from thestand4rd’s “Binoculars,” there’s, “We’re just some kids with computers.” But on that same song, he clarifies who all of this is for: “Look what I created / In my room / For the world.”
Kingdom will undoubtedly continue to be in demand, both as a solo artist and as a collaborator. “Now that I’ve carved out a sound for myself,” Kingdom told Campbell, “it’s easier to work with other producers.”
While it’s often said that artists need to choose between a local and national fanbase, Kingdom seems to balance both well. This past January, he enthralled a First Avenue audience at the The Current’s Tenth Anniversary.
“It’s really important for Black youth to see someone that looks like them representing Hip-Hop and creativity from home,” writes Wright, though he continues, “We need to stop calling people local when they are playing on national and international stages. I played with him in Brooklyn and none of his fans considered him a local Minnesota rapper.”
For his next act, Allan Kingdom is headed to Austin’s South by Southwest festival this month to play an official showcase. “He and his crew,” writes Christopherson, “are working on a level that moves quick, consistently makes great art, and also progresses at an incredible rate. He keeps telling us all that this is just the beginning and it’s obvious that he is absolutely correct.”
Cecilia Johnson is studying English and Spanish at Hamline University. Her favorite things include poetry, café con leche, and Angers, France.