Interview: Kevin Abstract on musical freedom, videos as art forms, and playing the same night as Jeezy

The imagination of Kevin Abstract is seemingly endless; the 20-year-old artist makes music that encapsulates the dangerous perimeters of self-awareness. His 2014 debut album, MTV1987, showcases the rapper’s raw and fearless delivery of bars, and his sophomore follow-up from last year, American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story, was more cinematic both conceptually and structurally. Sexuality, for Abstract, is fluid and has proven incredibly difficult for him to navigate.

On Friday, he released the chilling video for “Runner”, in which Abstract — likes he does for all of his visual treatments — directed himself. Before he takes over Cambridge’s Middle East Upstairs tonight (Tuesday, March 7) for what is sure to be a memorable performance, Vanyaland caught up with the Texas musician to discuss his road to self discovery and how things are just getting started.

Candace McDuffie: You know I love you and I love your music — but I’m conflicted about seeing you right? You’re playing Boston the same night as Jeezy.

Kevin Abstract: You said Jeezy??

I know — I’ve never seen either of you live.

[imitates Jeezy voice] YEEEEAAAAHHHHHHH!! He’s a legend. Nah, go to Jeezy.

Don’t say that! Your shit it going to be lit. I’ve got to do some soul searching but either way it’ll be a good night. So I think we’re going to start by talking about the differences between the MTV album and the American Boyfriend album. You’re just so damn young. I wanted to see thematically where you were and the biggest differences between both records.

Yeah, I guess the biggest thing is I was 17 when I wrote MTV and I was still living in Atlanta with my sister. A lot of those songs were supposed to take place in a teenager’s bedroom who spent a lot of time on the internet, on social media who doesn’t really go to parties or fit in with anyone. The next record was supposed to be life after high school and being thrown into the real world and experiencing certain things. It kind of ended up with me reflecting on my high school experience and writing about it from a different perspective because of growth, if that makes sense.

I think why I like you so much is because you’re transparent and open about who you are and what you’ve experienced. Has it been hard for you to talk about the things you talk about? It’s important for young black kids to have musicians like you to listen to you, but is it hard to put your story out there?

It’s hard to be vulnerable. Everything I do — at least when it comes to art — is way bigger than me. I feel like I’m a storyteller and sometimes I tell stories through film and I prefer that over music and get the best of both worlds — you can do a soundtrack to go along with the film. It’s hard to be vulnerable and be who you really are and wave the American flag around that and put that out in the world thinking everything is going to be ok and no one’s going to judge you. But it helps the other kid on the other side of it who’s trying to get out and speak their truth and reach their freedom. That’s the reason why I’m able to do it although it’s extremely difficult.

How would you describe the relationship you currently have with yourself? You talk about having a lot of insecurity and not fitting in. Do you experience that still despite your success?

[Pauses] I do. And it’s probably because I wasn’t taught any real form of self-confidence. So that’s instilled in me: being insecure, having that self-hate. I was raised in the south and you were taught to treat certain people a certain way — white people, older people, that kind of shit. It just stuck with me. It’s a growing thing and I have to learn to love everything about me — flaws included.

If you could talk about hip-hop now, what are your thoughts on the overall culture of it? Maybe certain acts you like or songs that resonated with you?

I think a lot of kids have new voices to represent them and these new artists represent some sort of freedom. I think kids that are coming up need that — they need someone to fill that void when they’re 13 or 14. I needed Odd Future, I needed Kid Cudi. I needed those records to get me through high school. Just to get me through the day. I think it’s going to keep going. Artists are going to get weirder and louder.

Which I love! People expect hip-hop to look a certain way and to sound a certain way when it doesn’t anymore. Let’s move on to something not as heavy — what is the thought process behind your video treatments? Sometimes you’re chilling, hanging out at Wal-Mart, sometimes you’re getting a little weird. How do these ideas all come together?

I watch movies constantly and I study the film world. I also direct all of my own videos and I’m writing a movie right now — but I’m still working on music and stuff. I just base everything off of my favorite stuff ever and wherever my imagination will take me. I like seeing two things that don’t go together and bridging that gap and making people feel like they’re looking at an experience. How can I move people? That’s my number one goal. Like the “Drugs” video….

Which was amazing and it looked like a lot of fun to shoot that video.

It was! I wanted it to have this Paranormal Activity vibe so we filmed it with the first hand camera — and I thought of it in class, that whole walk through. I want you to see a video of mine and not forget it. I feel like all my stuff feels like a dream.

I don’t want to say that the “Drugs” video is carefree, because that term is played out. But you’re like “Fuck it I’m in a Beavis and Butt-Head shirt with my pink hair jamming out in the grocery aisle say something to me this video is still hot.”

[Laughs] Thank you!

What kind of preparation goes into your live show? How do you want people to feel after leaving one of your concerts?

We do a lot of rehearsals. For the visual side, it’s sitting with my team and talking about how we can do something that’s innovative and fresh and fun and cool. I’m in small rooms where it’s like 100 to 200 cap so it’s like how can I move people in a space this small? How can I bring something brand new to a venue like this and make someone feel youthful — no matter the age — for that 45 minutes to an hour I’m on stage? When I play “1979” by the Smashing Pumpkins I feel like I’m in high school immediately. If I watch The Breakfast Club — the John Hughes film — I feel like I’m right back in high school. I want my shows to be that –this representation of freedom and youthfulness. I want people feeling OK to feel 17 again.

KEVIN ABSTRACT + BEARFACE :: Tuesday, March 7 at the Middle East, 472 Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge, MA :: 7 p.m., all ages, sold out :: Facebook event page :: Ticket page :: Featured photo by Izzy Commers