“I’m good at introductions … I keep it sweet and simple.”
This was Kota the Friend’s confident response when asked what he would do if he met Jay-Z, his favorite artist and biggest hero.
Kota the Friend is a Brooklyn-based rapper who has so far maintained a fairly low profile in the hip-hop community, but is in the process of growing a sizable fanbase. He has collaborated with the likes of Saba, Statik Selektah and Childish Major, and his list of collaborators grows each year. The Daily had the opportunity to talk with Kota on a Zoom call on May 10.
His aforementioned (and noticeable) self-confidence was mirrored in a response regarding hearing his own recorded voice. When asked if it feels weird to hear his own voice in his music, Kota responded in the negative.
“I actually love my voice on record … I think it’s something that I’ve grown to love, though,” he said. “The first time I heard my voice on record, I was disgusted. You know what I mean? I was just like ‘yo, turn that off and never turn it on again … get it away from me.’”
Kota says his appreciation for his voice evolved over the years, working to improve it after each recording.
“After years and years of recording, you start getting used to it and then you start building it,” he said. “You’re like ‘alright, I want it to sound a little bit more like this … or I want to add a little bit more bass.’ It becomes an instrument that you like to hear more, so it’s just like development.”
At the same time, Kota leans toward introversion. As proclaimed on his Instagram, he is a “cat person.”
“I just like to stay to myself, you know? I’m a very particular person, like a lot of people,” Kota said when asked about the significance of his Instagram bio.
On the topic of quarantine, Kota noted that he already “spends most of [his] time by [himself] anyway” and that “quarantine didn’t change [his] life drastically.”
Kota’s forthcoming album, “Everything” (2020), is expected to arrive May 22. Coming in at a concise runtime of under 40 minutes, the album will feature well-known artists such as Joey Bada$$, KYLE, Bas and tobi lou, as well as up-and-coming ones such as Kaiit, Alex Banin, Hello O’Shay and Braxton Cook. There are also two less-than-a-minute-long interludes that will feature Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o and rising star of “Atlanta” fame Lakeith Stanfield. On the title track and final song, “Everything,” Kota’s young son — credited as “Lil Kota” — is set to make a guest appearance.
Kota said the album as a whole is an experience, when asked if there is any song or moment on it that stands out to him the most. If he had to pick a favorite though, it would be the project’s second track, “Mi Casa” — a solo effort running almost three-and-a-half minutes long.
“It really sums up the whole album. It really is the perfect focus track for the album,” Kota said. “If you didn’t hear the album and you could only hear one song to be able to describe what this album is gonna be, it would be ‘Mi Casa’ because it explains the whole project.”
When asked if “Mi Casa,” Spanish for “my house,” was titled after the shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders given in many places throughout the world (including his native Brooklyn), Kota denied an intentional connection between the song and global circumstances. He did, however, offer a more philosophical take on the coincidence.
“Maybe it’s like a universe thing, you know what I mean? It just like comes together,” he said. “Honestly, what people need right now is really a good vibe, you know? I don’t think people necessarily need something about quarantine to make them feel bad about what’s going on … Before I started working on this, I wanted to make an album that was just 100% good vibes, 100% feel-good, no sad songs, no depressed songs, no songs about how bad the past was or anything like that … Just like ‘moving forward,’ you know? The world kinda needs that right now, a ‘moving forward.’”
This notion of “feel-good” is apparent in the stage name “Kota the Friend.” In the interview, Kota gave the origin story for the name.
“I was with my ex-girlfriend and I was tryna figure out my name, my stage name,” he said. “I say ‘Kota’ because it’s from one of my favorites movies, ‘Brother Bear’ (2003), and the kid’s name, the little bear’s name was ‘Koda’ and I like the name so I was like, ‘I wanna use that name, I like that.’ And I think it kinda goes with what I want to do with my brand. I looked it up and ‘Koda’ meant ‘the friend,’ so my girl at the time, she goes, ‘oh, how about “Kota the Friend?”’ We just kinda agreed on it, and it was just like, ‘wow, that’s it.’”
At the moment, Kota is on the come up. Finding a place on Complex’s “25 Rappers to Watch in 2020” feature and having more than 2 million monthly listeners on Spotify, critics and fans alike are tuning in to the Brooklyn artist. But without a Wikipedia page, a Spotify “About” page or the backing of a major record label — as have rappers of lesser popularity — there remains a clear tendency toward carving out his own, more low-key path through the rap world.
“It’s kinda hard to find stuff about me online because I’m really independent,” he said. “What I want to do with my career is make music, but I want to put on other artists. I want to show other artists my way of being independent, and maneuvering through the game in a different way — not the typical ‘blow up a little bit, sign a distribution deal, sign a major label deal, get the advance.’ Not that. I want to start showing other artists that this music thing can be sustainable just like somebody who works at Google or somebody who works at Apple … and they get a higher job and they continue climbing the ranks of management and upper management. That’s how I look at music. ‘Just make the kinda music you want to make and level-up until you’re at a point where you can then put somebody else on and show somebody else the way.’ That’s really how I want to go about my future in the music industry — create my own industry within the industry.”
The next step on that path is the aforementioned album “Everything.” One of the few critiques listeners have offered for Kota’s music is that a lot of the songs “sound the same.” Kota assured us that “Everything” is different from his last full-length album, “FOTO” (2019).
“I think it’s a completely different sound,” he said. “It’s way more up-tempo than ‘FOTO’ was; it has more energy, no down moments, just a whole bunch of good, vibey songs.”
The interview also sought to get to know Kota as a person, not just a blossoming artist.
During the societal shift caused by COVID-19, Kota has been working hard with his upcoming album, but he has plans for after “Everything” drops. He listed a couple hobbies he wants to take up.
“I definitely want to do gardening,” he said. “I want a greenhouse too, that would be the most fulfilling thing, just watching things grow day by day. I love seeing things grow, I think that’s amazing, it’s like raising children … it’s something I’m really looking forward to. Once the album’s out, that’s something I wanna get into right away. I want to start painting things, like, I have this rocking chair in my backyard, and it’s kinda stripped, so I wanna put a nice brown finish on this stripped rocking chair. Just stuff like that, right? One more thing, too, is cooking.”
Although he has a handful of musical inspirations, Kota mentioned that life likely has the greatest influence on his work.
“For me it’s just, like, art. Life is its own influence,” he said. “It’s probably the biggest inspiration, other than music that one’s experiences — getting drunk, going to the party, climbing the gate, coming home at four in the morning — that influences you to do things, you know?”
In terms of musical artists, Kota’s influences stretch far beyond hip-hop and rap.
“The Beatles were a big influence for me,” he said. “When Limewire came out, I was just downloading a lot of different music, that’s the way I started listening to random stuff like Owl City [and] The Fray, but the Beatles was definitely the biggest one for me. I know their whole discography, I have a million favorite songs from them, and I know all the backstories behind their stories. They inspired me a lot, for sure.”
One specific verse has also left an impact on his life: Chance the Rapper’s verse on Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” (2016). Kota made it clear he admires the artistry of Chance’s verse in the song.
“It was just the most perfect thing I’ve ever heard,” he said. “Just hearing him come on, then the metaphors that he’s using, and by the time he said ‘My ex looking back like a pillar of salt’ I said ‘mmm’ and then he said ‘mmm’ at the same time. He was able to use who he was and mix it with lyricism to create a masterpiece of a verse.”
Kota has also freestyled over the “Ultralight Beam” instrumental.
Beyond influences, Kota also has dream collaborations.
“Jay-Z, I think he’s at the top of the list, he’s my biggest hero, you know? Also, Quincy Jones, Nas, I wish Biggie was still alive,” he said.
The New York connection was clear here.
“That goes way back, you know what I mean?” Kota said about the hometown influence. “That goes back to stealing my big brother’s CDs and tapes. That’s why I think those are the people, ‘cause that hits home, close to me. Other than that, dudes that are doing stuff right now [like] Anderson .Paak, I think he’s super dope and he makes really good music. I want to work with Ari Lennox, and I actually wanted to get her on the album. SZA is also on my dream list, and J. Cole, for sure.”
Along with dream musical collaborations, if he had the chance to meet anyone in history, dead or alive, he gave three answers (besides Jay-Z, of course). The list includes Malcolm X, Eartha Kitt and his great-grandparents.
Throughout Kota’s catalog, locations have been a consistent theme for his music. For example, songs like “Colorado” and “Chicago Diner” off of “FOTO,” and the single “California” (2020), all have specific geographic locations as titles, while other abstract places like “Backyard” and “Church” off of “FOTO” also serve as song titles. Kota said the most special location on Earth to him is his neighborhood in Brooklyn.
“That’s where I get a lot of inspiration from,” he said. “There’s no place like home. I’ve been all around the world, but there’s nothing like that drive from the airport, and stuff starts looking more and more familiar. Then you’re home, and I just love walking outside and seeing people I know, going to the corner store. It makes me feel like I’m home, and I love my home.”
Since we’re all stuck in our homes, now’s the perfect time to become a Kota fan. Kota’s upcoming album “Everything” will be a necessary addition to your quarantine rotation. Look for it on major streaming services on Friday, May 22.