Brain Trust: On his latest, Kokayi is as thoughtful as ever, but never cloying
Brain Trust: On his latest, Kokayi is as thoughtful as ever, but never cloying Credit: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

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Put aside any preconceived notions about Kokayi. Chances are, he isn’t what you expect. In a growing local hip-hop scene, Kokayi is easily one of its most dynamic artists, expressing himself through edgy psychedelic rock, electro-soul, and heavy pop. As an MC, he’s equally ambitious: The Deanwood resident can freestyle an entire set, churning out strong rhymes with incredible ease.

But sometimes, it’s tough to comprehend Kokayi’s focus. On the surface, he seems to prefer jamming over pontificating; many of his compositions, with their throbbing bass lines and synthesizers, overwhelm his lyrics. But peel the onion, and Kokayi ponders serious topics: aging, suicide, unrequited love.

On his impressive new album under the moniker CZRS, Pro Deo et Patria (“For God and Country”), Kokayi discusses racial injustice and infidelity with refreshing enthusiasm, brightening anxious ideas with energetic country rock and bouncy electronica. Over an uptempo arrangement on “Wayyts,” the MC ponders wrongful death and what it means for minority children. “Young boy lost his life today now,” he sings urgently. “If justice blind, then who gonna pay now?” “Breeve Long E” seems to riff on the unsavory side of dream chasing—long nights, fast living, and blunt roaches in the ashtray. But he has advice for those caught in that cycle: “You’ve got to slow down and breathe.”

Pro Deo is Kokayi’s first vocal solo album since 2010’s stellar Robots & Dinosaurs. There, he looked inward, reflecting on young love and his place in music. There’s no rapping here; instead, Kokayi, the commentator, sings frenetically, observing his surroundings over the record’s 36 minutes. On album opener “Birdus Ghetti,” Kokayi laments police helicopters—called “ghetto birds.” “Old People Talk Too Much” is a straightforward, fast-paced jam about living it up. Then again, who knows: Kokayi is crafty, and the messages in these tracks could mean something much more subtle.

That’s why he’s always an intriguing listen. Kokayi is, of course, brainy, and assumes the same of his audience. His is articulate music that resonates in headphones and on the dance floor. Sure, these songs have meaning, but stop to decipher them when you’re done dancing.