Kenny Mason can't stop mentioning how weird he is. The 26-year-old rapper is speaking with Revolver two weeks after his performance at Rolling Loud Miami, a blockbuster hip-hop festival that was headlined by gigantic stars like Post Malone and Travis Scott, and sponsored by corporate behemoths like Bud Light and Ciroc.
For an artist in his world, a slot on what's essentially the hip-hop analog to Hellfest means that the mainstream is watching, and a quick scan of Mason's social media accounts — which mirror his unassuming real-life demeanor — doesn't raise any oddball flags. The thing is, Mason is definitely a weirdo.
He taps Lil Wayne and the Deftones as two of his main influences, but he pops up on the Zoom call decked out in a white longsleeve tee for the ukulele-strapped indie-rock songwriter Beabadoobee. His 2021 album, Angelic Hoodrat: Supercut, a sequel to his 2020 debut, Angelic Hoodrat, boasts features from the metal-inflected MC Denzel Curry and the regal gangsta rapper Freddie Gibbs, and his music is full of even more unique dichotomies. Oh, he also legitimately believes that he's going to be a fucking superstar. And, he might just be right.
For now, he's just waking up. "It's this fucking bougie white people part of Atlanta," he jokes while describing the apartment he's temporarily living out of. Since he's travelling a lot these days, zipping between studios and concert venues all over the country, it doesn't make sense for him to have an official place. Luckily for him, he's used to the mobile lifestyle.
As a kid, he lived with his grandmother in the Southwest part of the city. "It was hood as fuck," is how he describes the predominantly black neighborhood he grew up in. "It could get violent. It get how it get, but I love it. It made me who I am."
Unfortunately, Mason's grandmother passed away when he was 11 or 12 years old, and then he bounced between living with his mom, dad and various other relatives throughout the rest of his adolescence. He had a good relationship with his parents, but he was particularly close with his older half-brother. "He was the one that was rapping, and I thought he was cool," Mason says. "He used to carry guns and shit. I just thought he was the coolest nigga ever. I wanted to be like him."
As a kid, Mason dabbled in the dangers of street life, but his quiet, introverted personality kept him from ever getting in any serious trouble from it. "All my friends would be into all types of bad shit," he says. "They'd be gangbanging and other shit. I would be with them, hanging with them, but they knew I was weird. I was real artsy."
He repeatedly insinuates that he owes a debt of gratitude to his friends for recognizing his talents early on, and always pushing him to explore his creative passions rather than commit to a life of crime. "Some of my friends' lives were ruined by [that] shit," he says soberly. "I feel like they made it a point for me to never go that far."
Growing up in the era of the Tony Hawk Pro Skater soundtracks and early YouTube, music was always around him, but it became the central focus of his life at around 12 years old. He remembers hearing Lil Wayne's 2008 smash, Tha Carter III, and being absolutely enthralled. "Damn man, this motherfucker is so clever, I want to try that shit," he recalls thinking. "I did, and I've been doing that shit since."
From there, he became so obsessed with writing raps that it began impeding on his schoolwork, but once he got to high school it became obvious — both to himself and to his classmates — that music was his calling. His arts-oriented school even let him and his friends put on a formal rap performance every Friday during lunch. Rapping was the medium he took to, but Mason always had a diverse musical palette, and a specific affinity for punk and metal.
"I like alternative and emo and folk and all that shit," he says, once again using the word "weird" to describe his outsider taste. "When I was a kid, my favorite band was My Chemical Romance. They're probably still my favorite band." Interestingly, his favorite track of theirs is "Demolition Lovers," a particularly dark and heavy deep cut from their metal-influenced first album.
Another band that he says rivals his personal No. 1 slot is Deftones. "They [have] everything," he says of the alt-metal group's mesh of grooving riffs and beautiful vocals. "White Pony is one of my favorite albums."
As a listener who came of age with the whole inter-net as his guide, it isn't Mason's eclectic taste that's particularly unique, but the fact that you can hear his myriad influences in his actual rap music. For instance, songs like "Anti-Gravity" and "Pup" are imbued with the celestial textures and woozy melodies of My Bloody Valentine's shoegaze epic Loveless, which he cites as a "big influence" on his sound.
In the verse of the aptly titled "Metal Wings," Mason snarls with a trap-metal grittiness over chunky nu-metal riffs, only to flip on a pillowy sing-song during the hook that evokes the icy-hot tension of Deftones crooner Chino Moreno. "I like the shit to be as intense as possible, sound-wise," he says.
He comments that many of his hip-hop contemporaries draw from the aesthetics of punk and metal, and may even channel its rebellious spirit, but aren't actually influenced by those genres in a musical sense. "I'm specifically into the sonics of grunge, heavy punk and shoegaze," Mason says. "I really love the sonics of a distorted guitar, of distorted bass."
Although he has a fondness for less commercial production choices and challenging flows, the moment he knew he was in this for life was when his 2019 single "Hit" took off. While the rest of Angelic Hoodrat trades between alt-rap innovation and old-school technicality, "Hit" is a murky trap song that could simultaneously be described as banging and chill — a cocktail of slurry, menthol-numbed refrains and acrobatically nimble verses. More than anything, it's catchy as hell.
"I know I can rap and people tell me I can rap," Mason says. "But I think the point when you know you can make a song that people like is different ... ["Hit" is when I knew] I can be a superstar."
He says that last part with a cool confidence, as if he's been practicing it in front of the mirror. As if he doesn't just think it, he knows it. "Yeah, I think imma be one of the greatest artists ever," he says in the most level-headed way anybody could possibly utter such a hubristic statement.
"I just really like doing this shit, and my intention is for people to like it as much as I like doing it," he continues. "I've liked a lot of great artists in my time, and I really paid attention to how they made me feel in times where I needed them. I want to do that for people."