Balanced Duality: Kenny Mason On PTSD, Mental Health, And 'Angelic Hoodrat'
Atlanta’s Kenny Mason finessed his way into the hearts and minds of the rap internet with 2019’s ‘HIT’, a slick-tongued, darkly humorous ode to scamming and hustling, both the rush that comes with making a successful play and the grim realities that make doing so necessary. The track spread his name far and wide among music tastemakers, but Mason proved with his recently released debut album, ‘Angelic Hoodrat’, that he has a lot more on his mind lyrically and musically.
“If people were basing their idea of me off ‘HIT’, then really they were about to get a new artist,” he says of the album.
‘Angelic Hoodrat’ is a distinctly modern sounding LP with the goal of an old-fashioned debut, for listeners to finish the 14 tracks with a fleshed out sketch of who Kenny Mason is. He shows off both a penchant for nimble, downhill rapping on ‘PTSD’ and a real gift for melody, channeling a love for PIXIES and Smashing Pumpkins into tracks like ‘Handles’. His voice always sounds right, whether it’s steeped in fuzz and reverb or keeping pace with quick staccato trap hi-hats.
“I don’t go in saying, ’I’m just finna rap on this’ To me, the rap songs are melodic, too,” he says. “I hear the flow of it, the notes in my tone of voice on a song like ‘PTSD,’ the same way I hear the tones in a song like ‘Handles.’”
Comfortable delving into his mental health history and background, Mason is a representative of a DIY Atlanta rap scene that appreciates the city’s mainstream stars, but takes things in a more profoundly personal direction.
Summer 2020 was supposed to be a big one for Mason, as he was on the bills for many high-profile festivals that were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now, he’s holed up in East Atlanta, working on more songs and following his life philosophy of finding the good in the bad (or vice-versa). That’s the intellectual passion led to 'Angelic Hoodrat', and making the album over the last three years transformed his life for the better.
“I really started to understand myself more making the album. I was in a whole different space, doing shit that I shouldn’t have been doing,” he says. “I grew into what I feel is a really good space to be in.”
A few weeks after the release of ‘Angelic Hoodrat’, we spoke to Mason about his fascination with duality, staying connected to the Atlanta underground, and rappers opening up about their trauma.
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This was supposed to be a huge summer for you with a ton of festival dates that were obviously affected by the pandemic situation. How are you dealing with that?
I was kinda bummed out at first, but I’m grateful to be healthy and be at home. There are people out there that still gotta work and shit, man. I’m grateful to just be able to be home and continue to work on music. I’m just the type of person who always feels like there’s a good and a bad. I can use this time constructively to be ready for 2021.
You said in another interview that you did mull over delaying ‘Angelic Hoodrat’ before ultimately deciding to release it. It’s been a good one to listen to in this strange reality.
Me, I wasn’t going to drop it, because I felt like other things needed to be prioritized before we’re worrying about putting an album out. But, I was just talking to a lot of people close to me who mean a lot to me and [they said] the words that I’m saying can help people.
The introspective tone of the album feels right for this particular cultural moment.
I guess I’m lucky that I didn’t try to make ‘HIT’ 12 more times. [LAUGHS]
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I think ‘Angelic Hoodrat’ does what really good debut records historically have, which is that after listening to it, you’re like, “I have some sense of who this artist is as a person.”
The goal was for it to be an introduction. That’s more important than me having a hit song on there or rapping better than anyone, I just want people to feel like they know me. I can build a foundation off of that.
You don’t write your songs towards a specific project, you just write. So how did you know that you had all the music you needed to put the album together? Was it a difficult thing to whittle down the tracklist to just what you felt needed to be there?
It was an interesting process, because I wasn’t really trying to make an album. I knew that I was going to do that eventually, but I was just making songs. They ended up coming together perfectly. Sometimes, it felt like it had a mind of its own.
The oldest song on the project is three years old, but it wasn’t me saying, “I’m gonna take three years to make a project.” I was just making a bunch of songs and at the end of those three years, these were the 14 best. But I do want to go into the future having a set plan, because even though this came out really cool, I think it’ll be more of a challenge and I’ll have cooler ideas if I stick to like, “This is what I want this album to be about.”
Many artists in the last couple years have leaned into the sounds and textures of alternative rock. Sometimes, it feels like they’re doing it because it’s popular, but on songs like ‘Lean’ or ‘Handles’, the listener can tell that music means a lot to you.
I didn’t want to do it, because I felt like everybody else was doing that shit. Those artists are fine, I like ‘em, but I want to stand out as much as possible. I listen to PIXIES and Smashing Pumpkins and Foo Fighters and Weezer. I’ve listened to all of that shit my whole life, before the world got more savvy on that stuff.
I always had these songs where I was trying to emulate that type of style, but I never put them out. I wouldn’t even let folks hear them. I did it one time and folks kinda didn’t like it. It was cool, but they weren’t fucking with it for real, how they were with ‘Nike 2’. But a song like ‘Handles’, that shit just hits me. Or ‘Pretty Thoughts’ or ‘U In A Gang’. I couldn’t not put those on the album, because while the sonics are my preference, I think what brings people who don’t really listen to that type of music to it is the lyrics.
Hopefully, people hearing those words can be a universal thing.
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You’re really into the idea of duality, even the phrase ‘Angelic Hoodrat’ is meant to represent the two sides of you. When did it take on the meaning it has for you now?
I really started to understand myself more in the three years of making the album. I was in a whole different space, doing shit that I shouldn’t have been doing. I grew into what I feel is a really good space to be in. I feel like it was kind of a subconscious thing when I first said it, but as I grew I realized, “Okay, this is probably what I meant by that.”
I’ve always played with the concept of religion, because my faith is a topic I’ve struggled with. When I was a kid, I’d be in church with people who I saw selling drugs in the neighborhood. It would always make me wonder, how is being good a black and white thing? I just think the idea of a drug dealer going to church or a pastor being in a strip club is interesting. There’s bad in good people and good in bad people. I think that’s mostly what the angelic hoodrat is.
In addition to the more melodic tracks like ‘U In A Gang’ or ‘Anti-Gravity’, you’ve also got a few more straightforward rap songs like ‘HIT’ and ‘Chevron’. Is the writing process for you different for those two types of records?
To be honest, I never really know. I don’t go in saying, “I’m just finna rap on this.” To me, the rap songs are melodic, too. I hear the flow of it, the notes in my tone of voice on a song like ‘PTSD’, the same way I hear the tones in a song like ‘Handles’. It’s an “I’m in it” type of thing. It’s all the same to me. There’s no different process. I hear the tone and I hear the note first and then the words, they just come.
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You brought up your song ‘PTSD’. That topic is something I’ve noticed more rappers like G Herbo or 21 Savage talk about recently. What do you think of the changes in hip-hop to be more open about struggles with mental health and trauma?
It has to do with the fortunate coincidence of this new generation of rappers being comfortable enough to talk about it and the world being open enough to hear it and accept it, because I don’t know, bro, I feel like black people as a whole have PTSD just in general. I do believe that. It’s more so with people that come from areas of poverty, because poverty produces crime.
I grew up in a real fucked up area and I’ve been the victim of violence and shit. I feel like that shit affects decisions I make and my comfortability in certain areas and situations that I shouldn’t be uncomfortable in or shouldn’t be thinking a certain kind of way [about], but I can’t help it.
I don’t look at it as a trend, I think it’s just a coincidence, but it’s not even that much of a coincidence to me because people have been having PTSD.I think it would be cool if there are more rap songs called 'PTSD'. To let people know that this shit is a real problem and these people really have mental health issues. This ain’t just a rap song. That G Herbo song was beautiful.
I have anxiety and depression issues, but fortunately come from a place where people were always conscious of mental health and made it clear there were resources available to help. If that wasn’t something I was exposed to and I didn’t hear about in the music I engaged with, things would’ve been a lot tougher.
I’ve always heard songs that touched on it, though. They’ve just never been big hits. I always listened to 2Pac. That’s why I’m the artist I am today, because I always liked those artists who were unafraid to talk about that type of stuff.
Folks give him a lot of hell, but I remember even someone like Boosie, my brother played some of his songs that touched on that. It’s cool that they’re more out in the open now, but I feel like for the hood and shit, these songs were the therapy.
There was a line on ‘Anti-Gravity’ that really stuck with me that I feel like sort of fits into what we’re talking about now. You said, “Don’t be worried, be worthy,” and I was wondering what that line means to you.
I want it to mean whatever it’s gonna mean to anyone that’s listening, but to me - in 2014, I got shot and I really felt uncertain about how that night was going to end. I was just thinking, “If these are my last few moments on Earth, I don’t want to be scared. I don’t want to go out in fear.”
I was in an ambulance with my mom and I saw her and she was more afraid than me, but she was holding it down. Seeing her right there by my side, it made me want to be like, “If this is the end, I’m gonna be worthy and proud of my life.” In a weird way that situation made me accept myself more. That’s kind of what I meant by that.
It reminds me of something I’ve seen you talk about, which also comes out in the music: deriving your sense of self-worth internally and not letting it be set by your circumstances or other people.
It’s about never feeling like a victim. Even if you’re down, the victim’s mentality is not gonna help anyone at any time, ever. I’m not trying to be insensitive when I say that, but that’s just the decision I made in that moment to not feel like a victim. Instead, I wanted to feel grateful for everything I had done.
I ended up being very lucky that night and it gave me a much greater appreciation for life, but also a greater appreciation for myself and the people that love me and surround me. I’m more precise with saying what I want to do and the type of man I want to be. Those words made me feel like that.
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There was another bar that I wanted to ask about on ‘Chevron’. You say, “All my energy goes in these raps / All your energy goes into apps.” Obviously, there’s an easy read on what that line means, but I’m curious, do you feel like your personal focus differs from most people in your generation?
Yeah, but I was just flexing on that shit. [LAUGHS] It would just be moments where I was coming up and people would tell me, “Aww man, you need to be more active on social media.” I’m really not good at that shit. I don’t have anything to look into my camera and say on Instagram. I’m better at being an artist, so that’s what I am on my social media. It’s all my art, I don’t really be doing challenges and all that other shit.
People have made up challenges to my songs - 'HIT' in particular - and I’ll post them, but I’m really just not good at thinking of that shit... I ain’t trying to shade nobody, because there are folks who are fire being on Live and setting trends and doing dances and shit, which is cool.
I feel strongly that being good at social media shouldn’t be a requirement for being a successful artist nowadays.
People that like me like my music, and I’m really proud of that. They don’t like me for some other reason. I don’t confuse that. I’ve seen artists confuse their antics on social media with people liking their music. And then they get disappointed when they don’t get certain results. But it ain’t no confusion with me, and I’ve made it that way on purpose.
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Atlanta has a reputation as being a hip-hop city where artists all support one another. You’re making different music than the super mainstream Atlanta rap, so do you feel like you have that same level of hometown support in that way?
I think there are different versions of Atlanta that people live in. It’s such a big city and there are so many folks and different types of creatives. I feel like the industry and the mainstream type of rappers, when people think of Atlanta and they say, “Atlanta’s running music,” that’s what they’re thinking of. But then you’ve got the eclectic, off-kilter type of rap, and then you’ve got this other pocket of artists that’s DIY. That’s where I come from.
I definitely feel like I’ve got the support and I’ll always have it. I sewed my roots in that, and those people will still be the first ones that I’ll try out a new song for at local shows just to see. That’s what I did with 'HIT' before we put it out. I tested it around these shows in Atlanta and they proved it to me. If they weren’t fucking with it, then I knew nobody else would.
Hopefully, I’ll always have their support, because they’re always gonna have my support. I feel like I can find a good space to bridge that world and the “mainstream,” which is really just a lot of people knowing your music.
When you look back in six months or a year, how will you know if ‘Angelic Hoodrat’ had the impact that you want?
This is the best example I can think of: back in the underground a couple years ago, no one would put us on their shows. I couldn’t get on anybody’s shows because nobody knew me, so we would throw our own. This guy was helping me put the shows together and he’d let me use his venue. He told me, “When it comes to shows like this, it’s not about how many people come. It’s about how many people come back.”
Taking that same ideology and applying it to my music and this album, I think that the real success will show when people are asking for more. And some are already doing that.
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'Angelic Hoodrat' is out now.
Words: Grant Rindner
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