So few things of interest happen in the text of Yung Kayo’s music that it must be by design. References to fashion labels (constant) and guns (occasional) seldom create any narrative tension, and are instead mere mise-en-scène for songs that reach for what is communicable only through sound design or pure performance. In fact, for someone so nominally obsessed with the things he can buy and wear, the physical world can seem like an impediment to Kayo. Take the way he raps on “no sense,” one of the many dreamlike songs from his debut album, DFTK: “I had to look at my neck/The chain is so heavy it’s holding me down,” as if this VVS anchor is the only thing to stop him from simply floating away.
Still a teenager, Kayo (as in K.O., as in “knockout”) recently moved to Los Angeles from his native Washington, D.C., where his father was a go-go DJ. He began rapping around 10 years old when an older brother purchased a microphone; by 15, he was releasing singles and walking in runway shows. But where a decade ago this sort of high-low tension—Kayo’s Vogue appearances and Yak Gotti collaborations standing in for A$AP Rocky’s Rick Owens and Lord Infamous obsessions—led to frenzied press campaigns and breathtaking record deals, Kayo has spent the last few years refining his array of vocal styles and taste in production largely out of view of the adult world and the industries it controls.
His first creative breakthrough came in 2019, on a song called “Glitch.” Produced by Warpstr—who would become a reliable collaborator, and who handles virtually all of DFTK—that song sounds somehow both busy and stripped to the bone, using ad-libs used as architecture in a way that makes “Glitch” seem to breathe on its own. It intrigued Young Thug, who flew Kayo to L.A. and recorded with him for several weeks, eventually signing the young rapper to his YSL imprint. From “Glitch,” Kayo evidently went searching for a style of contemporary rap he couldn’t master, flitting between white-hot growls, round-edged crooning, and exultant singing.
DFTK is not a comprehensive survey of everything Kayo can do as a vocalist. It smartly excises the flatter, more predictable modes he occasionally lapsed into on his earlier EPs, instead finding him at his most concentratedly chaotic, a steady dose of ungovernable energy. Like “Glitch” and his better work from the intervening years, it sounds like a computer booting up from deep in hell; it has as much in common with PC Music as with Swamp Izzo tapes. (Its most arresting guest spot comes not from the buzzing Portland rapper Yeat, but the experimental producer and vocalist Eartheater, who wails halfway through “hear you.”) It’s an exhilarating opening salvo by an artist who only occasionally seems in full control of his considerable talent, an impression that makes the already jittery DFTK all the more unpredictable.