Tricky beast that it is, the music industry has a horrible habit of presenting its most promising talent with an impossible dichotomy. Release your music too soon, and you might fumble your first impression; take too long, and you risk getting lost in the crowd, sentenced for ever to “underrated” status as your faster-acting peers ascend.
Fortunately for him and us, Kojey Radical has never been too bothered about following anybody else’s path. While the London rapper is a dexterous amalgamator of genres, he knew that he needed time to incubate his best ideas, warming up across a near decade of well-received projects before committing to a debut album, Reason to Smile, a cohesive yet varied offering that makes no bones about its own ambition.
“You don’t want to put your best foot forward and fall, y’know?” he says, wafting away a cloud of smoke on our early morning Zoom. “I just wanted to stand behind something that represents me and shows off the quality of work that I can make.”
As a musician, poet, visual artist and aspiring actor, Kojey Radical is part of a generation of artists who intentionally resist being boxed in. Born Kwadwo Adu Genfi Amponsah in east London in 1993, he started out as a fashion illustration student, but made his first mark in the music business with 2015’s Open Hand, a stark (yet hopeful) call for racial revolution. Amid a steady stream of releases and collaborations with future-thinking peers such as alternative R&B star Mahalia, grime MC Ghetts and jazz group Sons of Kemet, he built a dedicated fanbase, drawn to his blend of personal and political insight. Then, in early 2020, the global you-know-what hit, and he was thrown into turmoil – “just trying to work through the fact that life had stopped at a time where my career was probably at the biggest that it had ever been”.
The pandemic didn’t keep Amponsah down for long. Taking to Instagram live streams as a daily practice, he invited fans into his creative process, experimenting with tracks that producer friends would send in. When he received the beat that would become the Reason to Smile track Silk, he began freestyling its slippery, playful ode to self-confidence, liking how the swagger felt. This felt right, but wouldn’t it be even better with an appearance from freewheeling saxophonist Masego? “I cut the live [freestyle] off and texted it to him; he sent me the saxophone parts the next day, and I just remember going: ‘Well, this is pretty damn good.’ I texted my team, just saying: ‘Yo, I think it’s album time.’”
The finished results are both lyrically and sonically expansive. Stories of family, soul-seeking and good old‑fashioned lovemaking are set to bouncy grime, smooth R&B and skittering P-Funk, drawing on the same kind of exuberant 1970s flourish that has recently influenced the music of Silk Sonic, Little Simz and Joel Culpepper (whose 2021 debut shares a producer, Swindle, with Reason to Smile).
While Amponsah’s lyrics do sometimes touch on feelings of understandable cynicism (“Should I drop the album on Black Pound Day / Or will they still support it just cos it sounds great?” goes one particularly on-the-nose line on Fubu), his is clearly music to feel uplifted by, exploring the nuances of joy, hardship and masculinity.
“I just look towards genres that have the most freedom, you know?” he says. “Growing up, the ‘male rapper’ archetype was kind of etched in stone, whereas I would see neo-soul, jazz or indie artists just getting to experiment and be themselves. Things are changing in hip-hop; we see people like Kid Cudi or Tyler, the Creator doing multiple things and being embraced, and it’s inspiring for a younger generation. There are artists now who were literally born in 2000; my own son was born in 2020.” He shakes his head, marvelling at the thought. “I was thinking just the other day that TLC’s No Scrubs is nearly 25 years old, and by the time he gets to a conscious age to even hear it, it’s probably going to be 35. It’s horrible. Horrible!”
Conscious of the passage of time, Amponsah is working hard to preserve his own history. Aware of hip-hop’s historic penchant for colourism, he makes sure to centre dark-skinned Black women in his visuals wherever possible, picturing both his own mum and the mother of his son on the album’s cover. His mum also narrates the album, recalling memories of her journey from Ghana and the life she has built in the UK. Album closer Gangsta is dedicated to her; Amponsah was initially trying to write about his tumultuous relationship with his father but changed tack when the words didn’t come.
“I just figured to myself, why would I focus on a negative when the positive has been a constant in my life?” he says. “I can’t think of a day when my mum’s not been there, so why wouldn’t I go that way rather than wallowing in self-pity?”
For such a wordsmith, you could never accuse Kojey Radical of being all talk. As part of a deal with Dr Martens, he has been putting funds into youth clubs, allowing emerging artists to learn the ropes of the music industry in a way that feels more holistic than simply “a quick workshop here and there … I don’t like false allyship. You don’t need to shout about it; you just need to represent and get it done.”
In helping to secure a future for others, Amponsah can be confident about where his is heading. His fashion mind is constantly whirring (“I think the album would be a three-piece suit, double-breasted, in sky blue or dazzling yellow”), but he’s also pondering how he made it to this point.
“This album is literally about the journey; the moments where you feel completely yourself and high-energy; the moments where you feel down and question yourself. It’s like reading [Paulo Coelho’s] The Alchemist – once you find a bit that connects to you, it becomes the best book you’ve ever read.” He grins, half-laughing at the audacity of his ambition. “I like to think that Reason to Smile is that.”
Reason to Smile is released on 4 March.