King Kontoh is an Edmonton-based rapper, songwriter, hustler, and heartbreaker.
In February, Kontoh dropped his sophomore album Set Me Free, a project replete with hooks, jabs, pickup lines, retorts, and invitations. Sonically, it’s raw. Semantically, it’s… rawer.
Banter caught up with Kontoh to discuss the Edmonton rap scene, what went into the latest batch of songs, and what fans can expect in the coming months.
Banter: How is Set Me Free different from Realism, your first album?
Kontoh: Well, first of all, I wouldn’t necessarily call any of these things albums. They’re too long to be mixtapes, but they also aren’t albums, so I just think of them as projects. But to answer your question, it was a lot more focused, man. Realism was kind of all over the place, in terms of the ideas that were put down. There were a lot of struggle bars, and sometimes it felt like I was just screaming out ideas to prove that I could rap. Lyrically, I was just not as concentrated on a specific theme, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Real life isn’t always perfectly structured, and that’s actually why I gave it the title Realism. Set Me Free, on the other hand, had a lot more conceptual continuity: it was all about being expressive without worrying about what people would think.
This was a theme that I tried to maintain throughout the project, with the lyrics, beats, and sampling, and I think that’ll help it age. Some people just hear music, but then some people actually listen to it, and I definitely wanted to prove to the people listening that I was using all the musical elements at my disposal to just be myself. As an artist, I have a tendency to look back self-critically at the stuff I’ve created. It’s easy to think about the things you could have done differently once they’re already out. But I don’t feel that about the latest project, so I think it’ll be something I really enjoy in the future.
Banter: Your rap troupe is called Inspired Minds… How do you balance the motivation to inspire with the fact that, as a rapper, you’re expected to flame people?
Kontoh: I think that, culturally, that’s changing. There’s no immediate expectation that you’re going to flame people with your raps. I think that sometimes that’s the approach that consumers want; all the most popular songs now are about tearing people down. I try to not focus on that stuff too much. Personally, it’s more important to just be honest and relatable in your approach.
When I make music, I try to be myself, and talking shit is something that’s easy for me. So occasionally it will come out in songs, but it definitely isn’t something I focus on. “Michael’s Intermission” is one song on Set Me Free that’s a really good example of that. As the name suggests, it’s a break from the main tone of the project to be a bit more aggressive and confrontational. On any project though, I think it’s important to strike a bit of a balance. On my most inspirational songs, I still want to flame. On songs where I’m trying to flame, I still try to incorporate lyrics that have the potential to inspire.
In terms of Inspired Minds, it’s not a business or collective in the traditional sense. It’s more like a bus in the sense that we all make music and promote each other’s work, but whoever is hottest and popping off at the moment is definitely in the driver’s seat. Collectively, we have so much more in terms of resources and opportunities than we would have as individuals. It’s also really helpful that all of us have been friends for a while.
Banter: Compared to other North American cities, Edmonton’s never really had a reputation for its rap scene. When you look at a city like Toronto, it’s clear that Canadian cities can blow up in a relatively short window. Where do you see Edmonton’s rap/R&B scene going in the next few years?
Kontoh: I think Edmonton has the potential to overtake Toronto at some point in the future. Toronto is obviously a cool city with a lot going for it, but a lot of their rappers are trash. Most of a city’s scene depends on the number of people who consume rap, so it makes sense that Toronto’s rap scene has gotten so much exposure, but there are people who are equally as talented here.
I think it’s kind of a blessing and a curse for us because the audience is such an important part of success, but the challenge of coming from somewhere like this definitely forces us to push ourselves and to be more supportive of our community. It may take a while, but I think what will eventually happen is you’ll get that one person who really stands out and makes it globally. After that, the city’s on the map and people all over the world start paying attention. That’s what happened in Toronto with Drake, and I think it could happen here too. I really believe in this city. There’s so much talent here; eventually, people will begin to notice even if they aren’t super into our community. And I also think the events committees and cultural boards that plan with the city have a role to play in terms of promoting local rappers. There are so many festivals in Edmonton, but you almost never see one of us on stage. We can definitely bring crowds, but it seems like the only opportunities we have are for shows that we organize with private venues.