Sometimes, you have to leave home to truly appreciate it for what it is.
Kota the Friend, an atypical Brooklyn rapper going against the grain, has traveled from one end of the country to the other to attend college and toured in cities all over the world, opting to stay on the run rather than sit still. His music — characterized by thoughtful lyricism, artistic melancholy, and mellow production — often paints a vivid picture of the places he calls home. “Colorado”, one of Kota’s most popular songs released in 2018, features dreamy production reminiscent of Colorado’s natural landscape, with lyrics expressing his escape from alcoholism. “Hollywood,” another city-centered track released in 2019, highlights the disenfranchised relationship Kota has with his newfound fame. Now, “BQE“, Kota’s latest released single, represents his lens of the place he was born and brought up: New York. The song is an abbreviation for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, a 35-mile route that connects New Jersey to southern Brooklyn and the Bronx. Whether coming home from elementary school, a long day at work, or a long night with friends, the ride on the BQE has always felt the same. The familiar 6 p.m. sunset. The backdrop of the cloudy city sky against the Manhattan skyline. Now, Kota the Friend finally sees the value in coming home.
Kota is not the type of artist who slips under the radar. Humbly donning the moniker ‘the Friend’, “because everyone needs a friend,” Kota has consistently created new music for the past four years. Anything. was released in 2018 and FOTO, the studio album, the following year. Today, barely four months off the tail of Lyrics to Go, Vol.1, which came out in late January of 2020, Kota released his latest EP, EVERYTHING. But this one sounds a little different than the Kota his dedicated fan base has come to know over the past five years. While FOTO shows Kota bare — marking some of those more unpleasant memories that we wish to leave in the past — EVERYTHING is more, summarized in three words, “straight-up positive,” featuring interludes by Lupita Nyong’o and Lakeith Stanfield. The 12-track, 37-minute project sounds like an R&B lover’s perfect summer day; melodious acoustic guitars, joyful trumpets, and an upbeat percussion bounce over Kota’s gleeful lyrics. FOTO is the younger Kota, battling depression and demons in a world inside his own head. EVERYTHING is an older Kota, with a wiser, a broader perspective on the world. The 26-year-old musician is known for opting in for the simple life in comparison to a lavish lifestyle. He’s not easily allured by a big check or a flashy partnership, and may not be chasing a Grammy or Billboard award. He works diligently and tirelessly— often alone — to improve his sound.
“BQE”, the debut single from EVERYTHING, was written in one sitting, Kota says. The hook of the song came to him in a lightbulb moment. A light and airy trumpet floats above the percussion of an acoustic guitar as he raps; ‘Is you getting on this train?/Miss it and you gon’ be late.’ The words echo the rush of New Yorkers riding the subway during their daily commutes — some of them tired, some happy, some of them broke, some of them dreamers. For Kota, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway has been his route home for his entire life. The world may have changed, but for a native New Yorker, many parts of the city look the same.
“My mom says I have an addictive personality,” Kota laughs, a quality shared by many successful creatives who have gained recognition due to their relentless obsession with their craft. His addiction to music started from an early age — wearing out Wu-Tang and Biggie records before he could even read. He specifically remembers blasting Nas’ “New York State of Mind,” and rapping along to Jay-Z’s The Blueprint in his bedroom. As some of the most popular rappers from Brooklyn, these artists were creating the distinctive sound now known as East Coast rap— characterized by creative lyricism that narrates the chaotic experience of living in the gritty city.
Kota is taking his place alongside these legendary names with a single like “BQE”, which features verses from two other born and bred Brooklynites, Joey Bada$$ and Bas. Released on May 1 as the precursor for EVERYTHING, the song is an alternative anthem for the East Coast generation who grew up on the Wu-Tang Clan and DMX. “Other people were listening to these records,” Kota says. “I was studying them.”
Perhaps that’s what set Kota apart, right away. Even after penning top hits and collaborating with some of the biggest names in music, Kota refuses to do the one thing most musicians aim to achieve — sign to a major record label. While getting signed gives a musician access to a vaster pool of financial resources, connections, and managers, it also gives other people the chance to control every aspect of that artist’s narrative. Rather than relinquish creative control, Kota has opted to do it all himself: produce the music, write the lyrics, and manage a small team that helps produce his visuals, videos, and merchandise.
In fact, Kota’s process is so individualized that he often doesn’t even leave his house in order to make music. His mini-studio and production gear are nestled in the cozy space of his home in downtown Brooklyn. “Quarantine life really isn’t even that different for me,” Kota admits. “I make my music at home. I chill at home, I work at home. If anything, it’s just given me a quieter focus.”
Kota may be at peace sitting inside his apartment right now, but it has not always been where wants to be. He can easily remember the times when he felt restless and uncomfortable staying in the same place. The familiar juice vendors, friendly neighbors, and brick buildings that he once found solace and comfort in became the very places he wanted to escape.
“I understand why people get frustrated with [Brooklyn],” Kota said. “You see people that look like me, with my skin color, being forced out of places they’ve lived in for years. Then you see other people coming in, saying that those same people, who have lived there for years, are ‘unsafe.’ And they’re forced out. So I get it. Before, my message used to be about escaping. Now, it’s about accepting.”
In the near future, Kota’s main goal is to slow down — take it easy, “plant some flowers, walk outside, feel the sunshine.” Kota named his EP EVERYTHING for the question he is constantly asking himself, “What means everything to you?” Right now, surrounded by his roots, with a clearer and more positive headspace, it seems he’s getting closer to answering that question for himself. His neighborhood in downtown Brooklyn is starting to show the first signs of summer. Though many of the brown-bricked buildings do not look the same as they used to, Kota’s neighborhood still carries the sentiments of a tight-knit community. He knows his neighbors, some of whom have known him before his fame. He regularly visits a juice bar around the corner, where the owner calls Kota by name. He has a new wooden rocking chair in his backyard that he would like to paint. His young son is close-by. For right now, that’s right where he needs to be.