“Please remember this is a FAMILY show! No profanity while on stage!” reads a sign backstage at the 102.3 The Beat BIG BOOM Car, Truck and Bike Show. It’s an unusually windy April 21st in Austin, Texas, and The Beat (the city’s premier hip-hop radio station) has drawn a huge crowd for their first annual custom car showcase. Other than the suped-up vehicles and free entry, it’s highly probable that the mass of humanity that has descended on the North Austin Events Center was drawn in by the headlining performer – Houston’s Kirko Bangz.
The spectacle inside the Events Center grows consistently from the event’s noon opening until the wiry “Drank In My Cup” star hits the stage shortly after 4 PM. Judging by a few of the license plates in the parking lot, some have driven from as far out as the Rio Grande Valley to attend. The crowd has morphed from an indeterminate blob in front of center stage to a horseshoe formation bracketing both sides of the performing space by the time Bangz appears. It could be a visual metaphor for Kirko’s quickly-growing fame. For someone who is only 22 years old, Kirko (real name Kirk Randle) has attained a huge following in America’s second-biggest state.
It’s a phalanx of arms lifting a wall of smartphones to record Bangz’ kinetic, breathless show, and he places his hand over his mouth and drops his mic for the more explicit sections of “What Yo Name Iz,” “Touch The Sky” and “Say Hello.” The BIG BOOM Car, Truck and Bike Show is, indeed, an all-ages crowd. However, that hysterical sign backstage is little more than window dressing – there is no hiding that several of these songs are about casual sex and other debauchery. Other performers on the bill – like San Francisco’s LoveRance – and the scantily-clad ladies on hand from the Austin Latina Modeling Agency (ALMA) do little to disprove this notion. But the families in the crowd, many of whom have come with their young, teenage daughters, don’t seem to mind the rather raunchy tone.
Kirko Bangz is able to get away with it. Fully aware of the overflowing audience clamoring for him, Kirko doesn’t stay in one place on the stage for more than five seconds. He dances behind the 102.3 The Beat banners, jumps to face stage left and right and basically shares himself with every section of the spectators. At times it’s hard to see him over those upraised smartphones, and the screams of Kirko’s female fans threaten to overpower his performance. The experience is probably like concerts must have been for young rock stars in the mid-60’s.
There is something beyond the charismatic onstage persona, though. Kirko is one of Texas’ fastest-rising MCs. While his music is sleek, catchy and fun– all essential in today’s hip-hop market – there is an underlying grit and consciousness that belies the theatrics of bacchanalia. “I got a real side to myself, as well,” he says. “But I go into the booth and really just be myself. Sometimes I want to talk about life, sometimes I want to party. I’m a contradictory human being, you know?”
There is an old saying that describes an artist as an “introverted egotist.” It means that the duty of the creator is to study the nature of others and filter the experience through his/her own muse. It fits Kirko Bangz, who spent his pre-fame years listening to his friends engage in freestyle wars around the neighborhoods of Houston. He says it was a surprise to many in his neighborhood when he emerged at the age of 15 and started smoking folks.
“I knew I could rap, but I was still kinda scared to tell anyone. For a whole week I sat up writing these raps and was like ‘I’m gonna kill these dudes, I’m gonna kill ‘em.’ I’m sitting in the house, thinking ‘it’s my time to go,’ and I got everything I had written. I was feeling nervous, you know? It was like seven of ‘em, and a patio full of girls, too, and when I started rapping I just ripped up every single one of them. Line by line by line by line, talking about everything they had on, where they went to school. Talking about throwback jerseys.”
Since 2009, Kirko has released five increasingly-popular mixtapes. Progression 2: A Young Texas Playa dropped this year with a commensurate rise in response and buzz. Bangz is recording his major label debut right now. The still-untitled album, which doesn’t have a release date set, will be on the LMG/Unauthorized Ent./Warner Bros. label. That’s not the only big name association, though. Famed producer Cardiak (50 Cent, Rick Ross) has been working in the studio with Kirko. There’s no word yet on what changes to Bangz’ sound this collaboration has wrought other than the artist’s assurance that the sessions were “real laid back.”
On closer inspection, the craft and dedication that goes into the makeup of Bangz’ music is revealed. For instance, the seductive synth sounds on “Drank In My Cup” transport the listener to a peacefully stoned mindset. The song is shot through with great expectations of a late night out in the city; its protagonist looks out over the cityscape and assorted clubs and hot spots as his kingdom for the taking. It’s the kind of Friday or Saturday night when someone feels like they own the place. If there’s a little chemical justification underneath that attitude, well, that’s okay. Kirko takes his somewhat scandalous storyline and makes it universal – after all, who hasn’t felt like going downtown and tearing things up?
Near the end of his performance at the BIG BOOM show, Kirko rips off his shirt and performs the rest of the show naked from the waist up. The screams are deafening. He’s been known to do this before; the one time he performed in anything associated with Prairie View A&M (where Kirko attended college) he pulled the same trick. The collegiate talent show producers quickly closed the curtain on him. Things have changed since then. At this point, if someone tried to motion Kirko Bangz offstage there might be a riot.
In his career, as onstage, Kirko is not a man given to moments of inactivity. Tellingly, Procrastination Kills is the title of three earlier mixtapes. What it’s all indicative of – the bawdy raps, the literally chest-baring bravado, the frenzied onstage persona, the delicious production, the voice of rumpled velvet – is an artist who wears his heart on his sleeve and keeps his appeal firmly on the surface. Kirko Bangz knows exactly who he is and what he’s here to do. When asked about the Jay-Z/Kanye dichotomy set off by President Barack Obama’s recent comments in The Atlantic, Kirko says he’d “go with the jackass, go with the a$$hole, go with the person who’s gonna speak out, you know what I’m saying, and do bad things and mess up and make mistakes and stuff like that. Because I think I’d be the same way.”
Kirko Bangz is, give or take, about a year from full-on national recognition. “Drank in My Cup” has hit Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Top 10, his official debut is highly anticipated, stars like Bun B, Slim Thug, DJ Drama and Paul Wall have shown their support and Kirko himself says he intends to be much more than a two-hit wonder (“What Yo Name Iz” was an underground hit earlier in his career). The early comparisons to Drake and Lil’ Wayne may help introduce him to a larger crowd, but once Kirko is front and center that won’t be. After all, he’s already drawing those big crowds on his own name.
“I feel the responsibility, but I like it,” Kirko says. “When I left college, I knew it was gonna be a challenge because I didn’t have anything to fall back on. I had to make it rapping; I got these tattoos on my neck, I knew I wasn’t gonna be able to get no job.”