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KEY! | Marquis Album Review

Avant-garde icon and composer Frank Zappa once said about music, “It always seemed to me that if you could get a laugh out of something, that was good. If you could make life more colorful than it actually was, that was good.”

Much like Zappa and other legendary artists of their time, Key! has never taken himself too seriously. One of the most overlooked artists of his generation, he’s always used his jovial nature and ear for melodies to make a mark on the culture as both a tastemaker and creator in Atlanta Hip Hop’s golden era. His woozy, six-inches-from-the-edge, last-call sing-raps soundtracked debaucherous years in high school and college for early Gen Z/late-stage Millennials, striking a stark and necessary foil to the other side of the trap coin; he never sounded like Bankroll Fresh or Migos, or even tried to. When at his best, there was an exasperated acceptance and grace in which Key! accepted his seemingly inevitable and unfortunate fate. 

In 2018, he dropped 777, an EP in which super-producer Kenny Beats leaned into a forlorn sound, and Key! sounded more hopeless than ever. It also acted as a career revitalization of sorts, opening him up to a cult audience of terminally online rap fans and self-righteous , self-proclaimed “conscious” listeners who would gladly eat whatever Kenny Beats served them. It was Key!’s magnum opus, and his first project working with only one producer, something he’s done several times since.

A lot has happened since then. In the years following 777’s release, Key! fell further into the throes of addiction, publicly fell out with Kenny Beats, went to rehab, got clean, reconciled with Kenny Beats, signed a major label deal, and discovered a new lease on life. He approached his newest album with a singular message.

“It feels great to be alive and it feels great to be me.”

It’s with this renewed mindset and creative direction berthed in his rehab stint that Key! approached Marquis. Key! is at his best when he’s having fun, and his new album is no exception, only this time he’s more wise, grappling with love and loss and existentialism as well as the perils of late-stage drug addiction and the prospect of losing it all. When he’s firing on all cylinders, Key! never loses his earnest disposition, a comic relief cracking through the firmament of a dark canvas painted by his demons and his environment.   

The production on Marquis is from DJ Marc B exclusively, but for all intents and purposes it sounds like there are two producers on this project. The music oscillates between a caricaturist version of the glossy, textured, maximalist production Key! has always rapped on– early album favorites like “Legit” and “You Need God” sound like what I imagine a great Travis Scott song would sound like if one actually existed, rapt with bravado that wouldn’t be out of place as intro music as an NFL team takes the field in front of 50,000 adoring fans in full view on the jumbotron — and melodic, warbling synths that feel like astigmatic neon lights in the rearview mirror as you cruise past the outskirts of town.

Key! is settling into his role as a mentor, too. Aside from the usual suspects on Marquis, like Jace and ManMan Savage, Key! taps some of Atlanta’s burgeoning talent in Tony Shhnow and Bear1Boss, and it’s not forced. “You Need God” and “Racks Don’t Talk Back” are two of the album’s best songs, respectively. Not only are these two of his hometown’s best young artists, but it’s clear the lineage Key! has established, leading to a full circle moment.

Life is a journey whose endpoint is uncertain until it’s over, and we’re all a work in progress. Key! is no different; on Marquis it feels like he’s a little bit further along into his journey and has grown not only musically but personally over the past decade. There’s catharsis in the pain, from lyrics like “I’m worried about how I’m going to spend my life and all my money,” to signs from the album rollout. Key! has been speaking quite a bit about his addiction and rehab in recent interviews, something he’s never been too keen on until recently.

It’s only fitting on an album named after himself that Key! grapples with his battles and wonders about his legacy. He’s searching for finality, and Marquis is a vehicle for his odyssey.

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