In 2012, as the murmur surrounding Brooklyn-based hip-hop collective Pro Era started to build, the group’s frontman, Joey Bada$$, made his debut with the mixtape 1999. To many, 1999 was a breath of fresh air, featuring the baby-faced Joey, then 17, rapping over a collection of samples by J Dilla, MF DOOM, the Isley Brothers and Knxwledge, among others. His project featured a few of his Pro Era cohorts: Chuck Strangers’s production was on a handful of tracks, and CJ Fly, Capital STEEZ, and Kirk Knight provided guest verses. Even that early on, Joey was destined for greatness and was keen on bringing his brothers along for the ride.
“She’s so enticing / Derogatory thoughts when I’m sighting / Slangs to get her wet / And I heard you’re overflowing, I could test the waters like sea / Man, and I heard you like semen, see man,” Knight spits on the 1999 song “Where It’$ At?” Though he was only given a verse, that track served as his debut to the scene, too. It already seemed that if it wasn’t going to be STEEZ (#LongLiveSteelo) that broke out after Joey, it was going to be Knight.
Now, three years later, as Joey has already ascended the stairs to indie fame with his debut album B4.DA.$$, Knight is also attempting to strike out on his own and away from the Pro Era shadow. His long-awaited effort, what he specifically and adamantly calls his debut project — and not album or mixtape — is Late Knight Special.
Knight, born Kirlan Labarrie, met Joey in their Flatbush middle school. At first, the two didn’t seriously discuss music and would just play around and freestyle, but Joey grew restless: Soon enough, he suggested Knight take up producing. Knight started with FL Studio and moved on to Ableton, but then the two rappers split up and went to different high schools, which is when Joey formed Pro Era. One afternoon, Knight linked with Joey and some of the members and played them his beats. The next day, they called Knight and asked him to join the collective.
“Pro Era stands for progression,” Knight explains, “That’s the best thing. Like, you can fuck up, you can mess up your whole entire life, but how you move from it is key. What are you gonna do next? What’s gonna be your next move? Is it gonna put you deeper in what you’re fuckin’ up in, or is it gonna elevate you to something of another level where you wanna get to in life? That’s why we always try to preach progression because everything’s progression. Even learning is progression — moving forward, being innovative, things like that.”
Knight’s passion is palpable even through the phone. As he speaks, his voice will start out even-keeled and then, as he really delves into a subject, he intensifies, his sentences often ending in exclamation points. He laughs a lot. “Life is really not that serious,” he says. He’s only 19.
While some viewed 1999 as invigorating, others viewed the mixtape as revivalist hype, reminiscent of hip-hop’s golden age. Though that notion is reductive, it has still plagued Pro Era. 1999 was a trip down memory lane, and anything the collective did after that — either together or as soloists — was labeled as such. Knight going out on his own is an attempt to break himself and his brothers free from the Nineties stamp.
“I was making [Late Knight Special] more just to branch out of the whole Pro Era sound… So now when Dessy Hinds drop, or NYCk Caution drop, or Dirty Sanchez drop, they’re able to do anything because of the fact I broke that barrier of, ‘Oh, we only just do that.’”
Knight had complete control over his project, handling how Late Knight Special sounded sonically and lyrically from beginning to end, which also helped him move away from the “boom-bap” sound associated with Pro Era artists. The project only features two co-production credits by the Chicago-based collective THEMPeople — all other production is Knight. He views his project as a way to sell himself as an innovative musician who can reach across multiple genres, but also as someone who is willing to do it all on his own. He isn’t riding Joey’s coattails. It would be easy for Knight to do that, to have Joey put him on, but Knight’s spirit is an independent one.
“I was with Joey, being [a] hypeman and stuff like that for him in the beginning. It’s like I seen him do the steps, so it was like I went from a 1,000, 2,000, 25,000-capacity venues back to like 300, 400, working my way up on my own level of things, under my own name. But it’s like I already seen how Joey did it, so I’m like ‘Okay, all I know is that I have to have patience and it takes time.’ I have to build my fanbase. I have to go with them. I don’t ever sweat it, I don’t even be stressin’ no more, I just try to make the music and always try to be prepared for everything.”
Knight caught flack for waiting so long to release a solo project. Indeed, Late Knight Special served as the scene’s introduction to Knight as a solo artist while laying the foundation for the caliber of music he’s capable of making. That takes time, and is also where his opposition to Late Knight Special being called a mixtape and/or album comes into play.
“I felt like it’s too early in my life to ever make an album. The reason why my project didn’t drop early the first time was because I told people I wanted to live life before I dropped any piece of collective music… An album is so much weight; it’s way more put into it than what I did on this project, and I actually put a lot into this project. LKS was [a] social experiment: it was like I was laying out everything on the table of what I can do.”
For only being 19, Knight is humble but ambitious. Under the tutelage of Joey and STEEZ, he learned to fight for his spot and to take what he deserves. Now, as a soloist, he’s learning to invest in his goals and himself. The project showcases his strengths as a producer, and his ability to push the limits of the nostalgic box that his collective has been placed in.
With that in mind, it seems that the last song on Late Knight Special, “All for Nothing” is a message to his listener. The song closes with the repeated outro, “I did it, I did it, I did it / All on my own.” You certainly did, Knight.