by Nick Hanover
Being a hip-hop fan frequently means being told what hip-hop is or isn’t. If you lean towards the avant underground, the mainstream is a slave system and all commercial hip-hop must be disregarded. If you lean towards mainstream hip-hop or even mixtape culture, the underground is elitist culture, overly analytical artists running rampant, sucking the fun out of everything, daring to speak for streets they don’t actually frequent. But extremes are never really representative of true taste or perspective. Nothing is stopping an artist from being aware of the pitfalls of commercialism while embracing the palatable sound of hits. Not surprisingly, younger acts are the ones who seem to get around it the best– they just like what they like and do what they do without caring as much about artistic loyalties.
Kenny Gee is a hyper-ambitious kid with a lot of talent and a lot of potential who doesn’t seem to give much of a shit about fitting in with any Austin sound, instead swearing by the mantra “I gotta be the hardest working young man in my city.” Gee isn’t a household name in the city yet, but on his debut Hieroglyphics, he’s making a big leap towards that status, quietly creating some of the most well-crafted songs in the scene while working as hard as he can to be the success he wants to be.
Not even out of high school yet, Kenny Gee has a surprisingly confident voice throughout Hieroglyphics, whether it’s in the form of the laid back life philosophies of “Highways” or the twistier flow of safe sex anthem “No Problems” (no, really, it’s a whole song about how you shouldn’t trust anything except your mom and your condoms). Gee states that “lately I’ve been addicted to that bigger shit,” so the album naturally aims for the commercial skies, but he embraces some unique sounds in that pursuit, like the disarming start-stop rhythm on “Ease,” a track that also utilizes an Eastern-tinged melodic synth line before Qlee comes in with a smooth as butter hook.
Towards the end of the album, Gee even merges the soul-sample structure of “Highways” with the breakneck rhythm and flow of his more club oriented tracks on “LongLivePimpC,” name checking classic Houston group ESG in the process (and not for the first time on the album, either). Everything sounds unmistakably like Gee because of his crystal clear yet casual flow, but his willingness to play with sounds and experiment with style is his greatest asset, indicating that he’s not the type to rest on laurels or merely replicate fad sounds.
Still, the more story-oriented tracks Gee provides, namely “Highways,” are where he’s most promising. Taking a decent sized chunk of The Isley Brothers’ classic “Moving Down the Highways of My Life” as its intro, the track then evolves into something less obvious, the start of the Isley Brothers’ melody ricocheting off a heavily distorted drum hit as synth beeps and bloops bounce around as Gee details some classic love at first sight. Gee’s lyrical focus is on the intersection between the passion and hormones of young love, but the sample gives an indication that he’s well aware this kind of love is fleeting, just one in a number of roads everyone goes down in life. You could view it as cynical, or an excuse for all that side girl talk he displays elsewhere, but Gee is nothing if not savvy, eager to mature so he can be taken more seriously but more than willing to work the grind until that day comes.
There’s also a darkness to much of the production on Hieroglyphics that makes the sunny disposition of a track like “Highways” all the more suspect. There are no less than three tracks on the mixtape that utilize ominous bells and the album’s apex is arguably “Swang and Bang,” where Gee blends the club structure of some of the preceding tracks with dreamy synth textures and a more detailed lyrical delivery. Gee might just be a teenager, but “Swang and Bang” is abnormally self-reflective, as Gee responds to his own braggadocio by labeling it “abstract thoughts from your average poor kid.” That average poor kid status is misleading, though, because as Gee points out, he’s got ambitions that run a little higher than his classmates’ “grind for Air Jordans.” The heavy detail and unusual production also serve to make some of the album’s weaker moments stand out all the more, though, particularly the repetitive “Ring Ring,” a song that’s so obsessed with phone calls it makes me wonder if it’s really about the Gangster Party Line.
But that’s one dull moment in an album with an otherwise incredible batting average, made all the more impressive given its status as basically a debut. Based on this release, there’s no reason to doubt Kenny Gee won’t realize even the most ambitious of his goals. It might even be time for some of Austin’s older hip-hop veterans to take note of Gee’s work ethic and hustle.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Ovrld as well as Loser City, where he mostly writes about comics. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover