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Key! - I Love You Say It Back Music Album Reviews

Braiding together searching raps, fizzy beats, and charming pop hooks, the underground Atlanta rapper’s new album is a swirl of conflicting emotions animated by near-constant ad-libs.

Key! has never made a straightforward love song. The underground Atlanta rapper lives in a swirl of conflicting emotions, a frenzy of dread and jealousy and pleasure. The best song on his last album catalogued his paranoia over a girlfriend’s frequent trips to Miami. “If I lose you, I lose my damn mind,” he moaned, and then paused: “Psych, baby, I was just gassing.” Nearly every confession he blurts gets an inevitable retraction; the insults Key! lobs at his lovers turn into indictments of himself. Any declaration of love or grief or pain seems only as real as the joke or bit that follows it. His new album, the winkingly titled I Love You Say It Back, braids his raps together with dazzling pop hooks and choruses, but gloom is never far from Key!’s writing. Every bouncy synth and fizzy beat is equally ready to soundtrack disses and disdain.

What differentiates Key! from other rappers stitching together anguished hits out of past relationships is the sense of eavesdropping on an internal dialogue. He animates his music with near-constant ad-libs; they seem to literalize a conversation he’s having with himself, particularly when he carves choruses out of questions. “Who do you think you, who do you think you are?” he moans and sighs over a slick, flute-heavy 14Golds beat on “Let’s Go,” pleading with a woman to cut the small talk. “How’d that go? Wait, what you mean?” he demands on “Sugar & Rice,” a sunny-sounding standout about a breakup. The interrogation pierces through the gooey, AutoTuned verses, and after a few repetitions he arrives at a stark, quintessentially Key! admission: “I’m lying to myself, I’m coming over.”

Key! can also sing, which sets him apart. On last year’s So Emotional, his occasional croons anchored the album’s catchy pop hooks; this time around, they help take his sound in new directions. “Boys Don’t Cry” is a standard Key! song in content—“Who am I kidding, I’ve been kidding myself,” he wails—but the sound approaches emo rap, layering chanted chorus vocals over a muted, throbbing drum as he sing-shouts about self-medication and surviving trauma. On “Bottom of the Bottle,” producer TrapMoneyBenny smears Key!’s howls in AutoTune, softening and smoothing the grit in his voice. “I can love you if you let me,” Key! sings. “Oops, that’s just the bottom of the Henny.”

The incessant asides might grow tiring if Key! weren’t so obviously, infectiously charming. Listening to him take digs at his exes, you’re not concerned about growth or maturity; you’re caught in the propulsive glimmer, in FKi 1st’s high-velocity drum patterns, in the way the layers of Key!’s voice pack into every corner of a song. There are no duds on the compact, 24-minute album, but the tracks that fail to sparkle stand out. The smooth, Kenny Beats-produced “Vibin” is relatively forgettable compared to their thrashing, frenetic collaborations on Key!’s breakout album, 777. Blown-out speaker effects and urgent, twitching drums push “Anakin” towards cartoonish darkness, but the song is more menacing in tone than in lyrics: “Don’t get on my bad side,” Key! growls, “But if you do, it’s okay, alright.” Then, for nearly a full minute, his voice is conspicuously absent—not bragging about rebounding from a breakup, not admitting that his ex is still on his mind, not pleading for his date to put down her phone. That’s when Key! accomplishes what he seems to crave most: That you miss him when he’s gone.
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