January 20, 2016


Allan Kingdom Q&A: 'Northern Lights,' "All Day" & GRAMMY Noms

Jonathan Mannion
Jonathan Mannion

On January 6, the day he turned 22, Allan Kingdom dropped a crazy-good free album called Northern Lights, the unsigned artist's first project since appearing out of relatively thin air to burn up Kanye West's "All Day" last spring. Born Allan Kyariga in Winnipeg, Canada to a Tanzanian mom and a South African dad, Kingdom moved to Wisconsin at age eight; he and his mother ended up in Saint Paul, Minnesota, which he still calls home. On "Interruption," one of six Northern Lights tracks he produced (often alongside Kid Cudi/Kanye affiliate Plain Pat), he acknowledges that building a career in a place you rarely hear rappers rapping from is tough, spitting, "I swear this money be coming slow / I'mma just keep on promotin' though."

The record's full of that kind of honesty and positivity, situated inside a kaleidoscope of tasty, unpredictable melodies and pitch-perfect collaborations with people like Jared Evan, D.R.A.M., and Jamaican reggae singer Chronixx. Kingdom spoke to Fuse about his journey so far, being part of the "All Day" GRAMMY nomination and what it's like to write 30 songs in a week.

FUSE: You dropped Northern Lights yourself. What's it like doing this without a label?

KINGDOM: I mean, it's frustrating, but it's definitely worth it. You're your own boss. You just go with whatever feels right. You can go with the energy of the day. You know when you're the most productive and you know when you're not. It gives you a good foundation to build something bigger. Even in the future, when I do decide to sign or link up with someone bigger, I'll already have knowledge of how my own operation runs.

So when are you most productive?

During the day. I'm a morning person. But in general, the more I'm active and doing shows is when I'm most productive. I like to set up my studio times around other activities, like traveling and seeing new places. I just always have a thirst to see new things and experience new things, so whenever I'm going through something new, or in a new place, I always like to set up a couple sessions, either just with me or with any artists in that city that I listen to or fuck with. I like to keep things spontaneous and keep the fun in them. I don't like to just come up with a formula and stick to that.

The no-formula thing comes through on Northern Lights for sure. A lot of people early on really want to come out and show what their "thing" is, but you're showing so many different sides here.

I think that my thing has been evolving into whatever's right for the time and for me. Like you said, everyone tries to come out and be like, "I'm the street guy, so have me for all your street verses," or "I'm the R&B guy." I just kind of feel like I never fit into a box in general, a place or a background or a color in general, so I my art naturally just reflects that. The album sounds like the shirt I was wearing on the cover. It's all different pieces put together to make one thing, that for some reason it's dope, for some reason it works. I just pulled in all my resources; I'm independent, so I took everything I had—the dopest producers I knew, the dopest artists I could get in contact with, my most treasured experiences from when I was younger to now, to my aspirations when I'm older, and put 'em all in one thing.

Do you like to do a ton of songs and go back and sort through to put together an album, or do you kind of build carefully as you go?

It's a little bit of both—it's back and forth. I'll make a batch of songs and then pick the best one, but towards the album being finished, we knew exactly what we wanted. There's some times where you're in such a creative mood that you make a whole bunch of songs—maybe in a couple weeks you make like 30 songs, you just have that vibe or you just do that. But since you're making an album you have to narrow it down. And other times there's a missing piece, like when you're making a puzzle and you know exactly which piece it is. You just go in the studio and make the song that needs to fit the album.

Does it feel crazy to turn out more than an album's worth of songs in a week?

Yeah, it does. When you do that, you kind of like them all the same. Over time you realize which one's the best. You're just in such a creative mood, you just wanna make songs and write melodies and write bars, and you have all these punchlines and hooks and dope things, and when you play them all together it's like, "Holy shit, I can't believe I made all of it." But it's kinda like this big beautiful mess you gotta learn how to present to everybody so they can understand it. They call it...uh...I forgot what it's called, it's like a term that they use, killing your ideas or like killing your babies or something like that?


Yeah, yeah, exactly, where you—

Wait—kill your darlings. That's it.

Killing your darlings, yeah. I didn't wanna say something too harsh [laughs]. But it's that type of thing.

Are you really meticulous, or do you make a song and it's just done?

I'm very meticulous, but it's when I'm working on the song. When I'm writing a hook or writing a verse, I wanna make sure that it is dope before I even record it. I'll go over it in my head. Even if it is a freestyle thing, I'll have to be sure in myself that it is something dope. I like to take time with my projects. I don't like to rush anything, because when you release something, it's gonna be out forever. I always like to make sure I'm completely comfortable with something, because the time making it is always gonna be shorter than the time it exists after you release it.

Have things gone how you imagined they would since Kanye put you on "All Day"?

All of the stars are aligning how they're supposed to. The pace of everything is right. Nothing happened too fast, nothing's happening too slow. I don't have a whole bunch of fake fans that only like me for "All Day." Everything got executed in the perfect fashion and it wasn't this big mastermind plan, it was literally just us making the right moves at the right time and praying and just putting our all into it. Even the people who do know my work from "All Day" usually take time and figure out what else I'm doing. So it's been a blessing to have that, and then have this project drop and have Future Memoirs previously so people could catch up to speed, show people what I've been working on. Everything's been coming together in the most organic way. I just want to keep the energy going.

"All Day" is up for Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song at the GRAMMYs. You're 22 and you've got two GRAMMY nominations.

Yeah. So, you know, whether I win or not, I'll always be a two-time GRAMMY nominee. I didn't know that was gonna come up that quick. I knew it was coming, but I didn't know it was gonna be that quick. I woke up on a Monday in Brooklyn and I was a GRAMMY nominee, so...

Is "All Day" gonna be on Kanye's album? It's coming up...

I have no idea. I worked on it, but you know, the way things change, I didn't even know I was gonna be on "All Day." I had some studio time with them in Paris and in London, we worked on some things, but there's no telling. Who knows. It might never see the light of day, it might be another hook.

You recorded more stuff after "All Day"?

I did some work out there after "All Day," yeah.

I've read that it's a big secret where you guys worked on "All Day." True?

Yeah. I think so. It's been so long that it shouldn't matter—it'd be doper if everybody knew where we did it, but...

Let it out, let it out, let's do it.

I think it's still a secret. I haven't seen nobody talk about it. I'm not trying to be the first dude—if you know 'Ye, you know he's a man who likes his privacy. So if somebody wants to leak the beans, Allan Kingdom's not gonna be the one. The next interview, maybe.

Awesome, right after you talk to me.

No, I'm saying with you!

I could see someone being frustrated to only be on a hook for their first big look, but it can be a great thing, right? It makes me think of the Weeknd on Drake's album. Maybe people just hear "Crew Love" and don't go investigate who that guy is, but then he gets big and they remember he's got something they love.

I didn't need a whole verse on the song. My hook was enough, and people liked it. I'm always conscious of over-delivering. I don't want to give people too much. Nobody wants anybody to get tired of them. Just in general, with my art, I wanna always make sure that—the reason that I do it is to help other people, the reason that I do it is to spread love. I also do it for myself, but I want to make sure I'm not just doing it for selfish reasons. I always want to make sure I'm listening to fans and the people and being conscious of what they want as well as my own needs.

How'd you end up there?

Music has helped me through so much. It's helped me get through so many things I wouldn't have been able to otherwise. I'm not Superman, but I just inherently feel like, okay, at least if I can do some good then I've done what I needed to do. Everybody in the world makes money, it's different amounts—everybody in the world can get attention, there's gonna be a lot more stars, stars are born every day. But if I can just play my role and help a kid out or help some people out that might need some uplifting, or maybe didn't come from a background where somebody tell could them they could accomplish something, then I've done my role. That's all I can really work for, at the end of the day.

You're a first-generation kid, you're making hip hop in the middle of the country, in a place that's not especially known for it—what have the major struggles in your life been?

Adjusting to being in different places and figuring out my purpose and what I'm here for. I feel like that's everybody's challenge, though. Normal stuff, you know. My mom put in her all raising me—I feel like she did more than two parents do a lot of the time. She always made sure I had everything. But everybody goes through things in life, lacking things and feeling like you don't fit in, like you might not have enough for the place you live. Just moving around and even feeling like an outcast in your own environment, maybe even at home, in your own family, maybe you didn't grow up the way the rest of your family did. Like you said, I'm first-generation, so even expressing ideas and communicating and being from different places and traveling to other ones and always feeling like a foreigner, that's what I feel like is my biggest thing. I always felt like I was an alien, no matter what, no matter where I went. It's helped me creatively be like a chameleon but stay true to myself.

What's your biggest fear?

I'm afraid of just doing something dumb. Before we did "All Day" at the BRIT Awards in London, I was mostly afraid of falling onstage. That's my type of fears—"Man, what if I just do something stupid and fuck everything up?" That's probably the number one. I'm not really scared of dying or anything like that [laughs]. It's mainly just doing something that everyone's like, "Aw, man, you had it! What happened?"

Jonathan Mannion
Jonathan Mannion

I watched this freestyle you did as a 17-year-old and it was so sharp. So is your stuff that came before Northern Lights.

I try to look at things not like—a lot of rappers, and a lot of musicians in general, just because you have to, because it's the way the world works and the business works, we look at things as humans in time frames, year by year. "This year's mine," "this summer's mine," you know what I mean? But I kind of just look at things like lifetimes. When I was 13 or 14, you can go back to that. Or when you were saying the Weeknd was on Drake's album, you can go back to that and remember and then it puts everything into full perspective when you hear House of Balloons and you hear these big songs that he has now. You think about his whole life, you don't think about, "Man, that summer he killed it, when he was on that feature with Drake." You think, "Man, he's consistently been himself and consistently been putting out good music." That's the same type of thing I have a passion for doing. 

I might not be the hottest thing next year. Somebody else might have bigger songs than me, new artists come and go, but at the same time, what message did I give everybody? What did Allan Kingdom do for the game, or for the world in general? All I can do is put in my best and know that it's going to flourish and the universe will pay me back in the right way.

I also saw this short documentary about you where your mom's being totally honest about discouraging you and not thinking you'd make it with the music.

She knows I'm the only one that's accountable for myself. Really, what she did is make sure I'm hard on myself. She might not have believed I would do it with music, but she always believed I was gonna do something, so she always held me up to a very high standard. I think that's why things are the way they are. It's a very instrumental role in why my career is even playing out the way it is, because I had somebody that expected a lot out of me at an early age.

There's a line on the album about how the money's coming slow so far. What do you want to get your mom when it starts coming in not-so-slow?

When this money starts coming in, I'll get her whatever she needs. Anything. I'll get her, like...a house...she just got herself a house. My mom is her own hustler, is the thing. So it's like, she already can supply everything she needs for herself, which is a beautiful thing, but I'm just going to make her life so much better. Everybody wants to do that. I feel like she deserves 10, 20 times more than what she's provided for us.

What do you do for fun outside music?

I love clothes, I like anything visual. I just got into movies. I'm not really a movie person, but right now, at this point in my life, I'm just so into music. There's no reason for me to have a hobby right now. Maybe there will be when I'm like 35 or something.

Where do you see yourself in the future location-wise?

Right now, it's hard to tell because I'm traveling so much. I would like to have different headquarters, and definitely one in Saint Paul, Minnesota. I think there's a strong community here of musicians and something to really cultivate. I definitely would like to have one in Tanzania, too, where my mom's from. I have a lot of ideas, I just don't like to prematurely talk about them. I like to see how things are gonna go, because a lot of times when I make a goal for myself, what will play out in real life will be even bigger. So I don't like to limit myself. I would like to have places in different places. But when it's all said and done, definitely Minnesota.

Allan Kingdom's Northern Lights is available for free at his site.