There’s a good reason why rapper Kenn Starr‘s new album is called Square One. It’s his first new record in almost nine years, which is an eternity in today’s Web-driven music industry. It’s almost like he’s starting over. Luckily for Starr, there’s more of a palate these days for rappers who can actually rap, not just bounce and repeat hooks over trunk-rattling 808s. Starr’s Square One is out Jan. 27 via Mello Music Group.
Arts Desk spoke with the Low Budget crew member about the new LP, why he waited so long to release it, and what he learned about himself during his hiatus. Then, we premiere a new single from Square One called “Came to Deliver,” featuring rappers Wordsworth and Supastition, and produced by Black Milk.
Arts Desk: It’s been nine years since the first album. What took so long for the new one?
Starr: Ah man, a little thing we like to call real life. When Starr Status first dropped, like a couple of months after, I started working full time. And it’d just gotten to a point where I was pouring everything into my music career—just really trying to make it pop—and on the flip side, I started locking down and trying to get myself together.
In between that time, even when I did get back to the music, there were a lot of false starts—even with this upcoming album. It’s seen too many different versions, and it’s seen so many false starts that I just had to get to the point where I trusted myself to make the album I wanted to make. When you wait that long, you start to second-guess how you want to present yourself after that long. I think I was putting too much pressure on myself. The longer the time between the albums, the more I felt like I had to deliver a classic. That’s why I went with the Square One concept, like “let’s just get back to the basics.”
What do you mean by “false starts”?
Initially, when I started working with Mello Music Group, they came to me with the idea of doing a project with Black Milk, which of course I jumped at the opportunity. I’m a huge fan of Black Milk, on the beats and the rhymes. I think this is around the time right before his second solo project dropped. My thing was, if I was gonna do it, I want his involvement. I didn’t want it to be like: somebody got a batch of beats and put an artist over them. I actually wanted to work with him.
So I was able to holla at him about that, and he was down, but it just kinda fell apart. Things started really taking off for him around that time, so at that point, I played around with some different ideas conceptually for the project. Nothing really felt right, so it got to the point where it’s like, “you know what? I’m just gonna do the solo follow-up,” as opposed to a side project or a concept album. When that happened, I scrapped most of what I had and just started fresh.
What was your approach going into Starr Status?
As cliché as it is to say, most artists will tell you they’ve been making their first project their whole entire life. You’ve had your entire life to figure out what you wanna do with that first project. I was fortunate enough to be around a lot of talented people at the time, and I was really able to execute what I felt was a pretty solid debut. I have people still to this day who big me up for that project. Even with the small amount of output I’ve had since then, they always go back to that.
It makes me feel like I got it right to an extent, like I must’ve been on the right path if people are still able to connect with it after all this time. It was just an exciting time, man. I was young, I had a label behind me and I knew my music was finally gonna get out to the world. So I just went balls to the wall like, “this is it.” I always felt like I wouldn’t get this opportunity again, so I poured everything into that project.
Did you feel like you had something to prove?
Oh, most definitely. I came up as more of a battle MC, and getting to the point where I actually had the platform to do a real album, I think I wanted to show that I could do more than just the battle raps. It’s easy to get painted into that corner. I just wanted to show that I deserved this opportunity. That I do have what it takes to make good music, and not just be dope on the rhymes.
What would you say are the similarities and differences between Starr Status and Square One?
I think [Square One] is a very similar project as far as the tone and subject matter, because one of the things I pride myself on is that Starr Status was a very honest record. Even to a fault; a lot of the records on there are kinda cringe-worthy when I go back and listen to them now [laughs]. But I don’t regret it because that’s where I was as a person at that time. I think Square One is definitely in tune with that: It gives a lot of insight into my thought process, where my head is at with all the different factors and circumstances surrounding the album and how long it’s been. I think that’s the biggest similarity; you get that same level of honesty.
As far as the differences, I feel like I’m more well-rounded now—creativity and as a person. That hiatus gave me an opportunity to figure out who I was outside of the music. In my formative years, I put so much emphasis on chasing this music dream that it came to a point where I looked up and was like, “yo, I don’t even know who I am outside of Kenn Starr.” It’s not like I have an image per se, but I had to ask myself “who am I as a man outside this music stuff?” I think me getting to that point is expressed on some of the records on the album.
From an MC standpoint, I feel like I stayed sharp. I don’t wanna say I’ve gotten better, but I’m hoping people will see it. Even though the output wasn’t as consistent, I didn’t fall off creatively.
What were some of the roadblocks you faced in creating this album?
Just being a typical artist, man. My creative process is slow to a fault already; that’s one of my biggest self-criticisms. I’ve tried to work on my productivity, but I like to take my time with records. I mean, just a verse can take me anywhere between a day to a couple of months to finish [laughs]. And I’m always working on different things, so it would be the case where I got records I started on during this time period, but I felt like I’ve gotten better with my wordplay, so now I wanna revamp this and it started a cycle where I realized I’ll always be able to make revisions. I had to set it free.
I was putting a lot of pressure on myself. Not that it was coming from any outside influences—I just really wanted to make that triumphant return. I wanted to poke my chest out and I was going beyond my means, creatively. I started trying to be an artist that I’m not. I was trying to do things that aren’t my strongpoints. I was too caught up in trying to show people that I was more than what they’ve come to know. First things first, I always pride myself on being a lyricist who gets busy.
What did you learn about yourself during that time off?
Honestly man, I’m still trying to figure that out. With life and different types of relationships that come and go, I feel like I know more about what I stand for, what I represent and where my priorities lie. I think there was a major shift in the things I placed value on when I was younger. Life definitely humbled me and gave me a lot of perspective. I’m just a lot more appreciative of opportunities that I have now across the board—not just music-related, but in general.
How do you feel the local hip-hop scene has changed since Starr Status released?
The scene is an entirely different thing now. We’ve got more of a national presence because of some of the more prominent acts that have come from the area. It’s dope now, man; whereas before, somebody from the area might struggle to get you five artists that they know from the area, now you’ve got a bunch of dope cats coming out of here, so I think the scene is just alive. It’s very dope. After Starr Status came out, at different points over the years, people didn’t know I was actually from this area. A lot of people thought I was from New York back then. It’s definitely a lot different now.
Do you feel like you fit into the current scene?
[laughs] You know, I’m too anti-social to know, man. Anybody who knows me knows I’m a homebody to a fault. That’s the running joke: Whenever I do go out, I never bring money ’cause it’s always guaranteed to be somebody who hasn’t seen me in so long. The first thing out of their mouth is, “yo, what you drinking? I haven’t seen you in forever.” My style of music now has a bigger presence than it did when I was on the come up. It’s good to see things come to a point where all different varieties are getting their equal due.