At 20, Allan Kingdom already has a more sophisticated hip-hop aesthetic than most rappers develop in a career. Equal parts harmony and dissonance reverberate from his thrift-store styling, the psychedelic beats that he produces himself, and his mood-ring voice. All of it is fiercely curated, and it all sticks to his wiry limbs.
City Pages meets Kingdom — his real last name is Kyariga, from his Tanzanian mother and South African father — at the Beat Coffeehouse in Uptown. Dressed in a vintage Burberry coat, green jeans he altered with a sewing machine, a blue wool shirt, and brand-new white Nike Air Forces, he sits at a table near a gas fireplace while the polar vortex whips the air outside. He remarks that he's just started drinking hot things, and gradually coaxes coffee out of the French press in front of him.
The room, filled with hushed voices and laptops on tables, was a different scene a year and a half ago when the rapper played his first sold-out show in front of Plain Pat, the former manager of one of Kingdom's heroes, Kanye West collaborator Kid Cudi. (After a persistent courtship started by a then-17-year-old rapper, Pat and business partner Jonathan Kaslow agreed to work with him.)
"Yeah, it was pretty crazy when [Pat] came out [from New York]," Kingdom says, the words falling out of his mouth with excitement. "When I think back, I can't believe all that happened, you know? There were a hundred kids in here, and he knew all the words, and it was dope."
Footage from the concert shows Kingdom with a live band, and it's a party in the room. The concert prominently featured songs from his first LP, Trucker Music, featuring a confident Kingdom persona. "You don't even know how far I've come/You don't even know how far I'll go," he sings on "'90s Kid." But elsewhere, songs like "Thirsty" and pieces of his other projects inject shades of the loneliness he felt as a child who moved frequently.
A Winnipeg native now based in St. Paul, Kingdom creates art as both an extension of his formal training — with time spent at St. Paul's Creative Arts High School and the Institution of Production & Recording in Minneapolis — and expeditions online. Equally adept at Southernplayalistic falsetto and free-flowing syncopated couplets, he creates songs that are an immediate detour from traditional local hip-hop and play out like a figment of a vivid, precocious imagination.
In early 2013, Kingdom and friends Checho Freire and Frank Bibiloni launched an ambitious film and mixtape project called Allan & Franklin's Night Out on the Town — which features some cameos from members of the Chalice. But as time passed, satisfying behind-the-scenes work and industry plaudits couldn't keep up with the paltry amount of exposure Kingdom was getting locally. What culminated was the nine emotionally raw songs of last summer's Talk to Strangers EP.
Where there had once been the buzz of development was the frustration of potential retread, especially in the bubbling and occasionally scathing "Achilles." He raps, "In this city I can't get an article/Don't think it's hate, right?/I just need to turn into a white boy/And rap about gay rights." With or without the Macklemore commentary, he had a point. But the songs don't suffer for their harder edge, and heavier elements of trap production styles add to the weight of his words.
"That was very frustrating for me," he says, with concern lingering on his face. "There came a point where I knew what I was making was good, and I knew nobody here was open to it."
That material started getting passed around and found the ear of Poliça/Gayngs producer Ryan Olson. He and Kingdom have hit the studio on a number of occasions and are expected to release a project later in 2014. It will feature beats that started in Kingdom's bedroom and have the requisite bit of Olson's tinkering, but not much else is known yet.
What also came as word spread were better live opportunities. Kingdom performed at Icehouse as part of last year's Totally Gross National Party, and has opened for hot hip-hop tickets like Four Fists and RiFF RAFF. He'll be the featured attraction at First Avenue's Best New Bands showcase this weekend, and return to the stage for The Best Love Is Free 5 in mid-February.
These developments have led Kingdom to soften his tone, and believe that everything is happening at the right time.
"When you have an extreme vision, you attract extreme love, and then you attract extreme resistance and extreme hate," he says. "I don't think I would have been able to handle that when I was 17."