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Kodak Black, Healthy Kid: Breaking Down the ‘XXL’ Freshman’s Goofy-Serious Charm

Screengrab via “News Or Something” music video

On Monday, the hip-hop magazine XXL published its summer Freshman Class, an annual event in which the magazine picks anywhere between three and 900 rappers to advertise as rap’s insurgent vanguard. As an exercise in predictive curation, XXL’s track record is half-bad; inevitably the magazine cosigns someone like Kidd Kidd, a 32-year-old rapper who peaked in 2008, to earn his “freshman” distinction seven years after the fact, or else the magazine taps an unproven asset such as Lil Yachty, an ironically bad schtick rapper with a popularity half-life that clocks in at “Pogs circa 1994.”

But Kodak Black made this year’s cut of 10 XXL freshmen, and that much is wise and timely enough. The 19-year-old rapper, born Dieuson Octave, is a first-generation Haitian American from South Florida and one of the most exciting street rappers to debut in the past couple of years. The music video for his breakout song, “No Flockin,” a cut from his 2014 mixtape Heart of the Projects, has clocked 22 million views on YouTube and nearly 20 million plays on SoundCloud. Billed as a freestyle, “No Flockin” is better described as an anthem. Nominally, it’s an anti-flakka drug PSA that Kodak recorded at the height of the designer stimulant’s popularity in South Florida. Effectively, it’s self-portraiture with no hook, crafted with slow strokes of confident mythology: “Told the doctor I’m a healthy kid; I smoke broccoli.

You take a look at Kodak Black, you peep his snaps, you contemplate the odd spikiness of his truncated wicks, and you get the sense that Kodak Black is a black Bart Simpson with 22-karat gold fronts. He’s truly a goof. And I don’t mean “goof” in the spirit of a rapper like Lil Yachty, who fashions cartoon aesthetic and gaga affect as an “I-meant-to-do-that” brand of antitalent. I just mean that Kodak Black is a funny and mischievous dude. He led Hallandale Beach Police on a high-speed vehicle chase through his native Broward County a couple of months back. The pursuit, coupled with outstanding criminal charges, landed Kodak Black in county jail, where he now welcomes your correspondence.

These legal speed bumps may unfortunately punctuate the success of Kodak Black, who quietly signed to Atlantic Records last year on the strength of late buzz for his hit, “SKRT,” another cut from Heart of the Projects. For the uninitiated, I also recommend “Like Dat,” a twinkling bop from the rapper’s 2015 mixtape Institution; “Shoulda Woulda,” one of Kodak’s catchier hooks and bubblier flows; and “Lockjaw,” the latest MC4 album single from French Montana, who recruited Kodak Black to do the heavy lifting. Peep the 2013 music video for “Shoulda Woulda” to see a younger, skinnier, clean-cut Kodak Black, and then peep the new music video for “Lockjaw,” which Florida-based director Spiff TV shot in Port Au Prince, featuring Kodak Black wearing a sling, presumably due to some undisclosed injury. Or perhaps it’s a fashion thing. Who knows!

Kodak Black has an irreverent and ahistorical sort of whimsy about him. Much as Harlem’s incarcerated wave god Max B once billed himself an amalgamation (“Biggaveli”) of the Notorious B.I.G., Jay Z, and 2Pac, Kodak Black has named his latest tape, Lil B.I.G. Pac, in self-evident tribute to Biggie, 2Pac, and Lil Wayne. Indeed, the cover art for Lil B.I.G. Pac is a literal reconfiguration of the cover art for Biggie’s classic debut album, Ready to Die. You can choose to interpret that Photoshop craftwork as homage — or, alternatively, as the young rapper’s doubling down on his supposedly playful claim that he’s “Better Than Pac & Biggie.”

I doubt Kodak Black would troll so far as to say that he’s better than Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane, or Boosie Badazz, though: In Southern hip-hop’s sprawled lineage, those three rappers are Kodak Black’s crucial elders, and his bleak eccentricity is perhaps best understood as a propagation of their cumulative influence. Gucci and Boosie both cameo, separately, on Lil B.I.G. Pac. On “Slayed,” Kodak and Boosie take turns rapping over a syncopated dirge. Gucci Mane serves up his fourth consecutive ace on “Vibin In This Bih,” the mixtape’s potential hit, evocative of the Hot Boyz supremacy of ’99-’00; and so far the best song that Kodak Black has released this year. At a time when the common complaint is that contemporary rap mixtapes are all about nine tracks too long, Lil B.I.G. Pac is a neat capsule — and a powerful dose — of Kodak Black’s essential flows, persona, and potential. Against all odds of commercial decline, incarceration, rehab, and, in Boosie’s dire case, kidney cancer, street rap is regenerating.