Who is KR? It’s the question embedded in the 19-year-old rapper’s Twitter handle and at the core of his music. He’s practically un-Googleable, and he hasn’t done any interviews until now.
Despite this elusiveness — or perhaps partially fueled by it — KR has become the biggest under-the-radar rap phenom in L.A. His songs rack up hundreds of thousands of streams, and he’s being courted by most of the major labels as well as local powerhouse TDE.
“If I was trapped in here in the dark, and you only had the chance to open the door to just look at me for five seconds before closing it again, I would say, ‘Enjoy being confused,’?” KR cryptically says, inside his studio.
The studio doubles as his bedroom closet, within the apartment that he shares with his mom in the scalloped shadow of Staples Center. The walls are lined with soundproof padding and a row of baseball caps. It’s been only 18 months since he started making music, but in that span he has taught himself how to engineer, mix, sing and rap well enough to become a SoundCloud celebrity.
An early boost came from beats courtesy of L.A.’s Soulection collective. The one-time outcast born Kaalan Walker handled the rest, creating the “I$0Lyf3” move-ment over three mixtapes. His agile, introspective raps have elicited comparisons to Chance the Rapper, Childish Gambino and Kendrick Lamar.
KR breaks down the acronym: “The ‘I stands for me. The ‘S’ is a dollar sign for ‘I need to get my own money, be financially stable and independent.’ ‘O’ represents my small circle. And I spelled ‘Life’ ‘LYF3’ because life is filled with lies, failure and experience.”
The pessimistic mentality contradicts his temperament — at least today. Wearing a black T-shirt, tropically colored shorts and sneakers, he’s suffused with the in-finite energy seen only in teenagers.
Running his fingers through his broccoli stalk of hair, he plays a few of his songs and acts them out, like Dudamel leading the Philharmonic. His mind is restless and alert, his eyes darting and observant. There’s an inescapable star quality to him.
But for most of his 19 years, he was the awkward loner with few friends. Raised by a single mom, KR grew up in South Central, Chatsworth and Chino Hills. Fre-quently bullied, he turned to music immediately after high school, releasing dozens of songs on SoundCloud, improving at a startlingly rapid clip.
“I spend hours in here alone, obsessing over every minor detail. I want every snare, kick drum and lyric to be perfect,” he says.
Once consumed by gangsta posturing, KR now fits perfectly within a hip-hop landscape decidedly post-Drake, Kid Cudi and Donald Glover. His music eschews simple formulas. Anthems of heartbreak, depression and alienation don’t seem odd next to futuristic dance-funk bangers. You could critique it as diffuse, but KR defends it as a natural eclecticism and versatility. If you’re confused, that’s the point.
“I’ve rapped on jazzy beats, melodic beats, trap beats. So now when I drop a new song, people don’t know how it’s going to sound,” KR says. “They enjoy being confused.”
His base has become so rabid that when KR announced the dates of his first national tour — an imminent two-month trek supporting rap hippie Mod Sun — you would’ve thought there was an entire team supporting him. But there’s no label, no publicist, no manager. He’s answered the questions and doubters all by himself.
Who is KR? The one who has next.
“I’ve been hurt, lied to and played … a loser all my life. But I’m doing something that I believe in,” he declares. “And all those people who snubbed me? They’re suddenly sending me texts.”