Key! has been one of underground Atlanta’s best-kept secrets for years, a stylistic chameleon with a golden ear for emerging talent. For over a decade, he’s released solo projects and single-producer collaborations at a wicked pace, and any of his albums can cover a wide range of lyrical and sonic territory. It’s not easy being the kind of rapper who compares guns to Harry Potter’s broomsticks one minute and begs a lover to “wear my shirt, spend the night” the next, but Key!’s work has always swerved between moods. His latest, Marquis, follows a run of falling action: He went to rehab and got sober after years of drug addiction and last year signed his first-ever label deal. Despite the changes, he’s still the same endearing, emotional goofball with a chip on his shoulder.
Like the Kenny Beats-produced 777 and the Tony Seltzer-manned The Alpha Jerk, Marquis is helmed by one producer, this time fellow Atlanta pulse-chaser DJ Marc B, who offers up a potent mix of rattling bangers and gleaming beats. Key! is rapping about much of the same stuff as before—absurdist money talk, tear-soaked love ballads, odes to friends—but there’s a wizened edge to his words. Lead single “You Need God” has the bouncy flows, sprinkles of melody, and silly punchlines that have become Key!’s trademarks, but his lifestyle adjustments occasionally come through in the lyrics. Bars like “If you can trip off life, I need a hit” or “Shut up sons, I got one daughter” would be corny if they didn’t sound so sincere.
Key! doesn’t bring up his recovery often, but his sense of adventure communicates his gratitude. His boundless enthusiasm glows like sunshine, and Marc B’s beats attempt to follow suit. Typical booming fare like the Soulja Boy-referencing “Crank Dat” or late-album highlight “Racks Don’t Talk Back” are fun, but the duo shows out by experimenting. “Cheat Code” dabbles in digital flutes and Nextel chirps that split the difference between plugg and chiptune and give Key!’s warbling voice ample room to swim. The ominous piano line and tinny trumpets of “That Fye” sound chintzy, like they could’ve been cut from the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas soundtrack, but Key!’s growls juxtaposed with fellow Two-9 member (and recent Dreamville signee) Jace’s nasal voice are urgent nonetheless.
Key! shares the Marquis stage with underground stalwarts and a new generation of Atlanta talent, but it never feels like regional nepotism—each guest brings as much to these songs as Key! does. Longtime collaborator ManMan Savage’s croons on the back end of closer “Love Like This” anchor the song after Key! hops between melody and straight rapping. Local maverick Tony Shhnow brings his brand of slick shit talk to “You Need God” (“I told the jeweler I’m a plug, put a brick in it”), contrasting Key!’s more affable verse with steely flexes.
In a recent interview with the Not97 podcast, Key! extolled the virtues of casting a wide musical net: “If you can be a little bit of everything, you’re the one.” He’s not talking about the calculated versatility of a megastar like Drake, or copycats attempting to suck the marrow from the bones of proven ideas. Key!’s appeal comes from how organic his world feels, his ability to adapt to nearly any style, his willingness to mix silly and serious. He never sounds like he’s forcing himself to keep up with a trend. In turn, his influence is everywhere, in the work of artists like WifiGawd, Duwap Kaine, and Luh Tyler. Marquis remains restless in the most forward-thinking sense.