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‘Heart Break Kodak’: Shining A Light On Kodak Black’s Dark Love Letter
In Depth

‘Heart Break Kodak’: Shining A Light On Kodak Black’s Dark Love Letter

Valentine’s Day offering in name, Kodak Black’s ‘Heart Break Kodak’ mixtape takes its listeners on a journey through darker terrain.

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By the time Kodak Black released his seventh mixtape, 2018’s Heart Break Kodak, he had already proven himself as a platinum-selling rapper capable of channelling the hair-raising events of his life into music that spoke to a generation of fans. Presented as a Valentine’s Day gift, Heart Break Kodak seemingly had less to do with the love god Cupid than it did the demons that plagued Kodak Black’s thoughts. Here’s what we hear in these snapshots from the edge of darkness.

Listen to ‘Heart Break Kodak’ here.

The backstory: A platinum-selling member of the SoundCloud rap generation

Florida’s Haitian-descended millennial loose cannon, the rapper Dieuson Octave, aka Kodak Black, began rapping at the age of 12, in between bouts of petty violence and theft. He started making an impact on the mixtape scene in 2013, before attracting attention from Drake, and a feature on French Montana’s double-platinum-selling Lockjaw helped make his name. By the time Atlantic Records released his 2018 mixtape, Heart Break Kodak, Black was part of the SoundCloud rap generation, alongside collaborators and contemporaries such as Travis Scott, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Pump and Lil Yachty.

Black had already released his platinum-certified debut album, Painting Pictures, in 2017, and he was on the way to releasing another platinum-selling set, Dying To Live, by the end of the following year. Yet he still found time to throw out the 17-track, R&B-tinged Valentine’s Day special, Heart Break Kodak, complete with an image himself mocked up as Cupid on the sleeve – though how romantic the contents are is up for debate.

The songs: Free-flowing and joyously haphazard

Heart Break Kodak’s, gospel-infused opening song, Running Outta Love, exemplifies the free-flowing, joyously haphazard feel of the SoundCloud rap scene: the sound levels are variable, and Black backs himself, singjaying in and out of a delectable variety of vocal styles as he makes deft runs over a narcotic track from taste-making producers Frank Dukes and Murda Beatz. Black may not be noted for his emphasis on lyrics, but he often hits the emotional mark Heart Break Kodak: “I’ve been runnin’ out of feelings, I been speedin’ out of air,” he sings as he bursts from the traps.

The mixtape’s following song, Bill And Jill, sits in the “mumble rap” camp. Wordless raps stretch back to jazz-era vocal scatting, but even in hip-hop they can be traced to the 1982 electro classic Planet Rock, by Afrika Bambaataa And The Soul Sonic Force, during the recording of which MC Pow Wow forgot his words, and the group kept in the funky-sounding ad-libbed results.

Other acts collected under the “mumble rap” bracket, such as Future and Migos, are hardly lacking in talent, but Bill And Jill transcends the reductive term anyway. Black’s lyrics make for a perfect fit with the song’s creeping, dead-eyed and self-loathing vibe, as the rapper examines his inability to settle down for his mother’s sake (“I’m a cowboy for real, my mama call me Bill”). You can check early Kodak Black material for proof that he can rap as clear as a bell; his delivery here is a hustle, and a stylish and artistic one at that.

Dangerously enticing heartbreak rap

The influence on Heart Break Kodak of Kanye West’s game-changing, crestfallen 2008 album, 808s & Heartbreak, becomes clear on Hate Being Alone (“I’m a thug, but when it comes to you, I’m sweet”). Over a grandiose beat from UK producers Supreme & Styles, the track perhaps even channels a little of blues legend Robert Johnson’s lonesome moan. Acting Weird places Black’s hypnotic 21st-century rhythm’n’blues chants (“Sound like a vulture cryin’ in the glacier”) over a twisty but featherlight beat, before the tracklist detours into Black’s trippy, interstellar 2017 single Codeine Dreaming (“I’m a star so I put a neutron on my pinkie”). Featuring New Orleans’ champion rapper and purple-drank advocate Lil Wayne, the track stands as a dangerously enticing, bass-heavy highlight.

The nectar-sweet, zigzagging and overlapping raps of Why You Always Gotta Go are turned sour by the song’s melancholic choruses and synesthetic chords. The blippy trap of Laudy, which follows, is deceptively understated, featuring the key lyric “I got ice cubes where my heart be” and petering out with an a cappella vocal – another nice SoundCloud gen touch. Placed at the centre of Heart Break Kodak, the gently circling Fuck With You stops dead for a sparkling, uplifting, effects-drenched appearance from Canadian rapper Tory Lanez, before the novocaine-mouthed rhymes of I Get Lonely (“sometimes”) reach Biz Markie levels of cracked singing in the name of heartbreak rap, on a song reminiscent of Nelly.

The lovelorn intro to Loyal gives way to a relatively uptempo (but hardly upbeat) piece of ticking trap; and the magnificent, piano-led, stoned-sounding Corrupted sees Black again apologising to his mother (“My heart was gold but these dirty streets turned it black”). The maliciously swirling Kicking In then, indeed, kicks in, offering another pointed observation (“Dreads in my head and they look like devil horns in it”) before ending on a whisper worthy of Atlanta hip-hop icons Ying Yang Twins.

The raw, violent chants, booming bass and slinky snares of Call You (“Jump out with my orange ski mask like I’m pumpkin”) make for the most menacing track on Kodak Heart Break, and are followed by No Feelings, which is characterised by jazzy piano and a talking-in-tongues-style stream of consciousness (“I’m raw dogging now, I will never go stray”). The dramatically spiralling Helluva Love (“I break my momma heart and put it in the cast”) was produced by Detroit’s Helluva, while the eerily lo-fi, Prince-influenced jailhouse rap When Vultures Cry again summons classic blues tracks recorded in imperfect sonic settings. The gently banging, Valentine’s-themed, Chief Keef-influenced “ayy” flow of Feb 14 brings the mixtape to a close, as if its creator thought he ought to get back to his projected theme, his mind having long ago drifted into a variety of other topics.

The release and legacy: A love letter to his mother

Released on 14 February 2018, Heart Break Kodak came out while Kodak Black was incarcerated on drugs and firearms charges (during which time he seemingly both gained his GED and found religion). Often through no fault of their own, several of the SoundCloud-rap generation are already dead. One could argue that, with his life’s mix of drug use, sometimes chilling criminal activity and heart-warming philanthropy, the pained Kodak Black is lucky not to have joined the likes of XXXTentacion (friend, fatally shot in 2018), Juice WRLD (collaborator, overdosed in 2019) and Migos’ Takeoff (fatally shot in 2022). As he says on Loyal: “I don’t believe in karma, I ain’t get killed yet”.

Kodak Black’s life certainly looks precarious, but he is not the first gifted musician to have gone off the rails and gotten by through sheer force of personality. The casual feel of the mixtape format, and the life experiences Black had, by 2018, taken on board, help to bring an unlikely clarity to the hazy, strangely meditative vision of Kodak Heart Break, which, despite its Valentine’s Day framing, is perhaps more a love letter to his mother than anyone else.

Check out the best anti-love songs, for more twisted takes on romance.

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