You may remember Kennedy Meeks cutting down the net in Glendale, Arizona. You may remember his senior season, in which he nearly averaged a double-double as part of the redemption tour with his 2016-2017 teammates. You may also have lost track of him as a ball player, as he went undrafted in 2017’s NBA draft and played in the nascent G League before stints overseas in Japan, South Korea, and France. Seeing as those leagues aren’t widely televised here in the US, you’d be forgiven for missing his season with the Toronto affiliate Raptors 905, where he played on Jerry Stackhouse’s final G League 905 Raptors squad. In what seems to be the next act of his career after professional basketball, the former center has pivoted to music.
Under the pseudonym Kenn, Meeks independently released his debut album Westside Heartbreak on the 15th of this month, and as someone with a penchant for hip hop music, I went ahead and listened cover-to-cover. Let’s get into it:
Track 1: BEEN A DREAM (SKIT)
Westside Heartbreak opens with a fifteen-second excerpt of a motivational speech by Les Brown, referencing a dream that has proven disappointing in the process of working towards it. This sense of vague disappointment or lack of fulfillment seems to be a thru-line, mentioned time and again throughout the 32 minutes and change of run time.
Track 2: TEST OF TIME
TEST OF TIME, as the first true track on the record, sets the tone. The first thing that struck me was Kenn’s voice. In a lot of cases, especially in folks that haven’t been rapping for long (because they’ve been playing basketball professionally overseas, for example), it takes time to find the voice that best suits you when you start recording. Kenn has either been recording for a while in private without releasing anything, or has found his voice in the studio quickly. There’s a jabby synth line bouncing in the background throughout this track, and the production suits the former Tar Heel’s voice. Kenn seems to sometimes race the beats to the next measure, but the production on this song gives him a nice framework in which to work. All in all, this song is inoffensive, and I could see it playing in the background at a He’s Not or a Goodfellow’s. The lyrics don’t stand out in any particular way, either good or bad, but there are a few bright spots. In one bar, Kenn switches up his flow briefly and identifies himself as a Range Rover owner and, for a moment, captures the echo of true classic southern rap that is begging for a DJ Screw remix. That brief flash aside, this song serves up hip hop tropes (handgun technology, paper chasing, etc.) in an easily-digested package.
Track 3: WANNABES
This track starts with Kenn dropping some knowledge, cautioning his folks not to ride out for revenge if he dies young. When the drums kick in, Kenn is back to his laid-back flow. The production, again, suits Kenn’s approach to writing, giving him time to play in between the bass line and the drums. The vague disappointment that was hinted at in the intro to the album returns here, sometimes explicitly (“My life’s a bitch, / 26 years of this shit, / I had to hear too many no’s for me to turn down a yes”) and otherwise conveyed with a filter on the backing track featuring a deeper voice echoing the punchlines of Kenn’s bars. Nas references aside, there’s a general sense of dissatisfaction that permeates the beat and lyrics on this track, and thematically it all works together. The come-on brings Joey Bada$$ to mind, and Kenn’s voice melds well with the slow drum-and-bass driven instrumental to make another listenable track.
Track 4: WALKING
Track four swings immediately into a more upbeat and driving bass line with a chasing snare and cymbals. It’s quick, but Kenn still manages to get a few bars of spoken intro in before sliding into the verse, setting the stage for a more introspective view of the rapper’s life to this point. This is the first song in which we get an oblique reference to Kenn’s career as a hooper, as he raps in the second verse “I’m the one who’s maintaining, / I got these white folks a chip, / now I’m waiting. / Hope I don’t get the short end of the stick / for just relaying, / yeah, this talent takes patience / and understanding race is / a common ground so you can hold it down...” While the references to race are open to interpretation (albeit some moreso than others), and I’m definitely not someone with the lived experience to be able to speak authoritatively on the subject, I believe it’s safe to say Kenn is commenting on his role as a minority in Chapel Hill and the inequity that can be seen even when you reach the pinnacle of the sport. This track is the first time we see Kenn really take a step in terms of the concept of what he’s rapping about; it’s obvious he’s got something to say, and his writing is more focused as a result, particularly in the second verse. As far as production goes, Kenn obviously has a type, and it figures; this laid-back, sample-based sound suits both his voice and the delivery of his punchlines.
Track 5: DONT [sic] PLAY WITH ME
In contrast to the previous tracks, Kenn doesn’t mince words prior to getting things started on track five. One spoken line is sufficient, and then the familiar rapper braggadocio kicks in. Kenn plods along without a hook, adjusting his flow at one point to be able change his rhyme scheme and land the first punchline on the album that made me laugh, coming out of left field with “I sold out stands for real, chump. / Pick up your mans for real, punk. / This ain’t that, bro; right hand will really leave a lump / have you swollen up like your last name was Clump.” We also get another, more direct reference to Kenn’s first career as he characterizes himself as the “best hooper that loves rapping,” as well as having “had it all and lost it all and got it back,” once more tying back into the vague disappointment that threads through the project. This track sees a less laid-back flow, taking a more antagonistic posture and leaning more into the traditional rap tropes.
Track 6: MONA LISA SMILE
Track six kicks off with an intro of a gate agent in an airport somewhere guiding passengers flying to Paris to the appropriate gate, an apt tone to set for a song titled after a painting in the Louvre and an instrumental with soaring orchestral strings floating over a spacious 808 bass line and spare trap hats. The track moves along well, although the intro and outro run a bit long, and Kenn keeps it firmly between the navigational beacons as he weaves between the 808’s and kick drum. Towards the end, Kenn does a nice J Cole impression, singing a refrain to walk us out of the song before leaving us with about a minute and a half of instrumental. I guess, á la Petey Pablo, so we can “put our own lil’ part in the song, y’all.” All in all, I’m not mad at it, it’s a good beat and a workmanlike effort from Kenn.
Track 7: MY PERFECT MISTAKE
Kenn is singing on this one, y’all. There’s some obvious autotune at play in this ballad, but I’ve always been of the opinion that autotune was less of a crutch and more a stylistic choice when used this way. I may be off, but I think Kenn has some actual singing chops underneath the filter; at the very least the former Tar Heel hooper can carry a tune. The singing soon gives way to a darkly beautiful piano and strings interlude that carries us through to the next track.
Track 8: WESTSIDE HEARTBREAK
The title track on this project boasts a splashy bass line (that has my head bobbing as I write this paragraph) underneath a catchy piano riff. Kenn splits this song into separate verses, divided by a sort-of-simplistic (lyrically) hook about the neighborhood he grew up in in West Charlotte. I must say, throughout this project, Kenn has selected beats that suit his style; that’s not an easy skill to learn, and thus far in the album his decisions haven’t let him down. His capable flow, while not particularly lyrically dense, is not unpleasant to listen to. I’ve listened to some really bad rap music in my time, and this is not that.
Track 9: SATURDAY NIGHT INTERLUDE
The ninth track on this project starts promisingly, with a swaying synth line reminiscent of UGK or Too Far Gone era Drake. Unfortunately, when the verse kicks in, it’s accompanied by an inscrutable riff that seeks to pull Kenn off-beat slightly. This problem is only compounded when the sample comes in, and the result is a distracting clash of Kenn’s voice and everything else that could benefit from a few steps back in the mix. About halfway through the interlude, the beat switches up to a refreshingly muddled and glitchy synth with straightforward drums that allow Kenn to regain control of the interlude and lead us into the next track, telling the listener to “play this next song / or you can run this sh*t back.”
Track 10: SELF REFLECTION
The muddled synth persists from the interlude to this track; a feature from DUCKMAN with a deep-voice filter adds to the disorienting nature of a song that starts with a line about “getting stoned out my mind / just to pass by the time.” This filtered voice would be jarring if we hadn’t heard similar vocals on backing tracks throughout the tracks preceding this one; in this feature, the dissatisfaction that is felt faintly throughout takes center stage, as DUCKMAN raps in turn about getting stoned, being depressed, struggling with a lack of motivation, the stress of representing the neighborhood, and wondering whether he will make it into heaven. It’s fairly heavy stuff, offset slightly by the staggering drums and repetitive samples that frame the verses. This, I believe is the turn to self-medication that we will see in the next interlude and beyond.
Track 11: FOURTWENTY (SKIT)
I mean, yeah; the name pretty much says it all. The interlude is a recording of a couple of folks talking about being high, with one guy dating himself instantly with a reference to a channel 3 on an old CRT television; the channel with the digital snow and static.
Track 12: PEARLY PASSION
I guess this is the part where I out myself as a square; I’ve never smoked weed. This may be surprising to those of you who know where I went to school, but it was never a habit I picked up—the thought of inhaling pretty much anything freaked me out (and still does). That being said, I know a thing or two about the culture around that kind herb, and am not such a square that I can’t clock when it’s the subject of a song, even when Kenn coyly refers to it (her) as Mary. Kenn is obviously not bothered by the same hangups as me, because this is a smoking song in the vein of Verde Terrace era Curren$y. We’re back on track here with the instrumental selection—as soon as the bass line and keys come in, we can see where this track is going even if the preceding interlude hadn’t put us in the correct headspace. There is a silky woodwind line that comes in periodically, as well, which further relaxes the listener, and a very faint organ that can be heard in the beginning of the track that lends an old-school feeling to the track. Kenn’s voice is still solid, even over this chronically chill beat, and the lyrics are of secondary importance to the vibes in this particular genre. Even when he’s talking about the paranoia that comes from smoking, neither the rapper nor the instrumental gets worked up and the vibes continue.
Track 13: RIDE TOGETHER
Our outro on this album is a bit of a tangent; the hook evokes old-school hip-hop/RnB (think Ashanti and Ja Rule without the gimmick or the bounce) with the guest vocalist (a game Carmyn, who I’m afraid was done a disservice with the amount of autotune used on what I would expect to be a good voice if left alone) singing in harmony with an autotuned Kenn like we heard earlier, and Kenn tossing in a few bars with solid punchlines (“all this talk when we were younger, / reachin’ goals and smashin’ hoes— / kinda faded like my jumper, / if you know then you know” was a particular delight and actually got a chuckle out of me). This track features adorable background vocals from a baby who I can only presume is Kenn’s daughter Sage, and ends with a nice synth solo that plays the listener out, almost like Kenn is leaving his follow-through in the air one more time.
The Box Score
This is a largely inoffensive first offering from an independent hooper-turned-rapper; as a debut album goes, it’s got solid if not flashy bars and the few stints of singing were not the detriment they could be in another rapper’s hands. The instrumental choice, by and large, was well done to fit Kenn’s style, but the similarity between tracks made some of them run together in the end. There were a few verses that employed more advanced writing, with more clear messaging or internal rhyme schemes, and those were always a joy to come across, as were the genuinely funny punchlines that I endeavored to highlight above. I am always a fan of people creating music; I think it’s a wonderful thing to put into the world, and as such should be celebrated whenever encountered. In a future release, I would love to hear Kenn use his unique experience and perspective to expound on some of the ideas and issues he glanced off of in this project, but by and large I would simply like to see a future release. I’ve listened to a lot of bad rap in my time, and as I said above, this was not that.
In what I can only assume without checking is the first album review here on the Tar Heel Blog, I give Westside Heartbreak 3” out of an available 5” vertical leap.