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‘Dying To Live’: Behind The Album That Secured Kodak Black’s Bid For Immortality
Warner Music
In Depth

‘Dying To Live’: Behind The Album That Secured Kodak Black’s Bid For Immortality

Reflecting on prison, religion and destiny, ‘Dying To Live’ reframed Kodak Black as a fresh-faced pickpocket disarming marks at will.

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Following the release of his rough gem of a mixtape, Heart Break Kodak, and a spell in prison for firearms and drug offences, Haitian Floridian rapper Kodak Black released his sophomore album proper in December 2018. The platinum-selling US No.1 smash Dying To Live features a select band of Black’s most notable trap pals as guests. Yet despite being compact for a hip-hop full-lengther, the album draws on a multitude of producers, including, most extensively, Miami’s MajorNine and Heart Break Kodak collaborator Ben Billions, resulting in one of the most kaleidoscopically inventive albums in Black’s arsenal.

Listen to ‘Dying To Live’ here.

Setting the scene: “They locked me in a box…”

Dying To Live’s opening cut, the reflective Testimony (“They locked me in a box/I pray to God this ain’t my destiny”), was released upfront as an album taster, with Kodak Black showcasing his trademark zigzagging flows before gradually sliding into a mellifluous Auto-Tune, channelling Stevie Wonder over MajorNine’s skeletal beats and rippling guitar. It emerged alongside a video which featured Black being baptised in blood – a still from which was also used for Dying To Live’s album cover.

In contrast, the dreamy This Forever, featuring three-handed production by songwriter and actor Leon Thomas III; the prolific London On Da Track; and Post Malone boardsman Rex Kudo), sees Black resigned to – and reasoning about – his thug-like ways (“Cut from a different cloth, I’m a different fabric”) over walls of bass and snaky snare lines. The more upbeat, roller-skating freedom of Identity Theft then sees him finally, joyfully and defiantly leaving jail (while “drinkin’ snake venom”), completing the opening trio of songs that sets out Dying To Live’s stall.

Dedication to his cause: “I can make it through whatever, I’ll weather any storm”

As the album shifts into its second phase, the staccato rhymes and drifting bass cloud of Gnarly features Black’s precocious Florida SoundCloud generation contemporary Lil Pump (“I woke up in the mornin’ with another warrant”), and a cute 50s throwback video clip to match a quote from The Chordettes’ girl-group classic Mr Sandman. This sets things up nicely for Dying To Live’s second single, the delicious, multi-platinum-selling ZEZE, which features Migos member Offset (“I’m more like Gaddafi, I’m not no Gandhi”), plus Travis Scott on the chorus. The song was produced by Eminem collaborator David “DA” Doman, and the steel pan beat, reminiscent of 50 Cent’s P.I.M.P., was swiftly jumped on by a variety of other rappers, most notably Tyga and Swae Lee, for their Shine (ZEZE Freestyle). ZEZE also benefitted from a goofy, self-reflexive behind-the-scenes video.

Another of Dying To Live’s singles, the grungy, backmasked, strained and profane Take One, was produced by Ben Billions, who updates Massive Attack’s brooding Mezzanine-era soundscapes for the trap era. Kodak Black then takes listeners down into the MoshPit, pulling in Juice WRLD, the Chicago rapper who died of an overdose almost a year to the day after Dying To Live’s release. The light xylophone piece, reminiscent of early Lil Wayne, sees “Shorty twerkin’ on the walls/Peter Parker in here”, as Juice WRLD put it.

Given a menacing balaclavas-and-baseball-bats video, the rapid, bluesy Transgression demonstrated Black’s bloody-minded dedication to whatever his cause is in the moment (“I can make it through whatever, I’ll weather any storm”). Taking a more serious stance, Malcolm X.X.X. is the extended metaphor at the heart of Dying To Live. The misty piece takes us back to “conscious” hip-hop’s golden age, both in terms of its reference points and musical backdrop. It compares the murder of Black’s friend, the controversial rapper XXXTentacion, who had been shot dead in June 2018, with the assassination of activist icon Malcolm X (“X wasn’t ridin’ with no pipe, so he got gunned down”). Black appears in the video as the famous leader, delivering the song as if it were a political speech.

Calling his spirits: “God sat down and talked to me: I listened”

The delicate topline and crumpling bass of Dying To Live’s final single, the platinum-selling mumble-rap of Calling My Spirit, was pieced together by the highly experienced producers Jake One and Southside. “It’s like every song I’m on, I be calling my spirits” raps Black, tied into his “Only God can judge me” game as tightly as Tupac. The video sees him move from the book-lined shelves of his crib to a cloud-covered sphere, Black bending the Auto-Tune into a Future-like Novocaine drawl, before the skittering beats, chants and curdled tune of In The Flesh kick in.

The first of two companion pieces produced by L Beats, the initially bleak but free-floating and progressive Close To The Grave (“You know death right around the corner/And prison my next door neighbour”) sees Black again calling his spirits, before drifting off into a spicily Auto-Tuned reverie. It contrasts with the more aspirational From The Cradle, on which Black raps of his dreams over deep pools of brass: “House with a lake/No neighbours/And links on my wrist/No bailiff.”

Initially released as Dying To Live’s lead single, If I’m Lyin, I’m Flyin, continues the religious themes that opened the album (“God sat me down and talked to me: I listened”); a maximalist promo video accompanied the tiny echoes of soul bouncing around in the mix. The more delicately piano- and guitar-flecked Needing Something again sees Black lost in Auto-Tune, asking, “Do I gotta go to jail so I can find a lil’ peace?” This track’s video goes for Hitchcockian unease: cars driving deserted highways, birds circling, Black bathed in baptismal red light.

The release and legacy: “I’ma just follow my intuition and I’ma keep on livin’”

Closing Dying To Live is the punchy chopper cut Could Of Been Different, produced by Nicki Minaj collaborator Brett Bailey, alongside regular Kodak Black collaborator Dyryk and the elusive Lemonade Playboy. “I’ma just follow my intuition and I’ma keep on livin’,” Kodak concludes. It’s a fine summing up of his rapping style, which seems to work despite itself, Black fitting as many words as possible into his lines and bending unpromising rhymes until they fit.

Released on 14 December 2018, Dying To Live proved that, creatively, Black was willing and able to bolt off in unexpected directions, a fresh-faced pickpocket, disarming marks at will. His follow-up album, 2020’s Bill Israel, came out while he was again imprisoned, before being sprung by unlikely supporter Donald Trump. The irrepressible Black continues to bounce between chart success and legal troubles with worrying ease, all the while reflecting on prison, religion and destiny, but above all just dying to live.

Looking for more? Find out why ‘Heart Break Kodak’ was a landmark release.

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