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Kodak Black's 'Dying to Live' avoids the big questions, missing the mark in the process

'Dying to Live' continues to show Kodak's gift at confessional rap. But, disappoints in certain areas.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.

The dichotomy of Kodak Black has always been one of the most interesting parts of his artistry and aesthetic. On wax, he'll rip his bandages off to excavate new truths and emotional understanding for his fanbase. Without the backings of a melody to blend the message, he avoids having serious conversation. When on Hot 97 recently, he chose to end the interview before opening up about a sexual assault case that he's set to go to trial for. Last year, Kodak decided not to expound on videos he recorded saying that he would fight Lil Wayne. And, yet, he raps about his experiences in jail and more without filter. This adds a degree of fakeness to Kodak's music. It's like a guarded portrait of him that will be painted in broad strokes, but will forever be incomplete.

Dying to Live is Kodak's second studio album. It follows 2017's Painting Pictures, which attempted to paint his troubles through strokes of innocence, wrong timing, and predestination. Dying to Live is a selfish album, an LP of personal comments connected by Kodak's inquisitive tone that rarely leaves him out of focus. Purposely vague comments on the legal system never get to where they should, and there's an "I'm the victim" sentiment that runs throughout. Its refusal to take responsibility spits in the face of what Kodak always attempts to portray with his authencity, making its faults feel all the more realized. It's too bad that brief glimmers of brilliance turn up on occasion.

Here are five takeaways from Dying to Live.

Don't Waste Your Time Looking for Sexual Assault Commentary

Dying to Live continues to show Kodak's gift at confessional rap. His rhymes about street violence and other types of criminal activity play more as admissions to get off his chest instead of chest-pumping braggadocio. Throughout the album, Kodak opens up about what he's done, what he's about to do, and what he will do if things won't work out in rap music (which they will, they always will). "Testimony" and "If I'm Lyin, I'm Flyin" are separated in the tracklist by thirteen spots, and are largely the same testaments to post-prison dreams of success. On "Needed Something" and "Calling My Spirit," Kodak digs deeper than the streets, centering the lens on his innermost thoughts and wishes. This makes the album a tad more personal than his debut and street-glamourizing mixtapes beforehand.

You would think with this kind of introspective and reflective step-up on Dying to Live would at least acknowledge his current legal situation. Much of Kodak's appeal comes in the way that he contextualizes his legal experience with everything else he has going on, in as little words as possible. But, strangely enough, the experience is largely absent. Aside from what could possibly be deflection, Kodak doesn't address it. I guess my hope was that someone in hip hop would finally speak on a incident that the genre sweeps under the rug, since they're always open to discuss any other legal situations on wax. But here, as usual, rap turns its blind eye.

"Testimony" is all about playing the victim

Kodak's album opener leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It's a conflicting residue because the production is somber, heartfelt, and inspirational in the way that music playing during fourth-quarter comebacks in sports films can be. But, the lyrics that accompany the whimpering production are cringe, sobering, and a realization of how rappers use music to sway public opinion.

Through two verses, Kodak essentially blames his troubles on the devil. "Everything I went through made me who I am 'cause he be testin' me," he raps in the first verse, almost pleading for understanding. He goes for the emotions by reflecting on his troubling activities, while in school and how he "breaks bread" with his family. But, the overall message of "look, it's all a test" makes the taste turn out sour. Kodak knows that his fanbase will swallow his message without chewing. So, he puts it at the front of the album as what could maybe be a response to his trouble, which is just vague enough to be arguable. It's a manipulation tactic meant to discredit accusers and makes sure that the conversation about sexual assault that needs to happen will once again be pushed off.

Lil Pump and Juice WRLD appear on the best songs, although not Kodak's favorite

In an interview with The Beat 103.5, Kodak revealed that he only collaborated with Lil Pump and Juice WRLD because of their ability to attract large amounts of streams. He said that his collaboration with Juice WRLD, "Moshpit," isn't his favorite. But, he knows that it will stream. It turns out that Kodak must have fluid buildup in his ear because "Moshpit" is one of the best songs on Dying to Live. It's wacky, cartoonish production hums along while Kodak -- and then Juice WRLD -- methodically chug along with it. Kodak's restrained vocals sound at home on the stream-centric cut, which makes it odd that out of all of the other questionable songs on the album – seriously, "From the Cradle" is whimpering at its worst – he wouldn't be a fan of this one.

"Gnarly" with Lil Pump is also an enticing collaboration with a melodic base that the pair are on. The production's subtle guitar gives the song its beating heart, while Kodak's chorus showcases his ability to create a perfect vocal recreation of any melody. The word "gnarly" does sound purposefully weird and goofy in 2018. So, when Lil Pump comes in with his equally goofy melodies and lines, the track gets even weirder. But, it's more adventurous like "Moshpit" and serves as a rare highlight.

"ZEZE" is still historically bad

Few songs in hip hop history have gotten such a well-received snippet in comparison to a finished song like "ZEZE." An October Instagram clip in the studio played the opening seconds of the song, featuring Kodak dancing gleefully to tropical drums. When the song came out, it sounded a mess. There's way too much bass eating up the vocals on the chorus from Travis Scott. The addition of his signature "Skrt skrt" ad-libs feel like another unnecessary flourish. And then, Kodak's addendum at the end of Scott's main theme feels unnecessary. Offset's the only one who understands he should keep it relatively calm.

"ZEZE" is still as bad on the album. It doesn't even make sense on the tracklist, as it's louder and more vibrant than anything else. When it comes on, it wakes you up immediately. Kodak should have made "ZEZE" a promotional single for the album and scrubbed it from the tracklist. At 16 tracks, Dying to Live could have used a little tightening because it does bleed together towards the end with a lot of the introspective tracks touching on similar subjects. "ZEZE" isn't introspective. It's meaningless and unfocused. Removing it makes the consistency a little more digestible. In the age of digital streaming and changing albums after the release date, it's not too late.

"Malcolm X.X.X" is almost biblically tone-deaf

Kodak collaborated with XXXTentacion on 2017's "Roll In Peace." The two were both from Florida and had something of a friendship before growing apart and beefing, as most rappers do since conversations about feelings aren't widely encouraged in the hip hop community. When XXXTentacion was gunned down in June, it caught Kodak off guard like everyone else. Like many others, he also made a song about it. It's not necessarily a reflection of their personal relationship, nor a socially conscious plea for peace from gun violence. Kodak made a song comparing him to Malcolm X. Yes, you read that right.

"Malcolm X.X.X." essentially says, "He was shot and killed so, BOOM! Malcom X." The track includes two clips of a 1963 interview with Malcolm X about the Black Panther Party meant to -- I guess -- draw some kind of comparison between a seminal figure of the Civil Rights Era, and a violent rapper accused of aggravated battery and witness tampering. The lyrics don't explicitly mention Malcolm. But, there's a brief moment meant to make the comparison clear. To summarize, XXXTentacion was caught without a gun, attempting to change his life, and was killed. These three traits are -- somehow -- equated to Malcolm X, who was assassinated by that Nation of Islam after he split from it. It's like comparing apples to oranges.

If he just cut the interludes and changed the name of the song, "Malcolm X.X.X." would be much better. It's a vulnerable track that exposes Kodak's brilliance in emotional storytelling. But, the comparison that exists is as equal parts lazy and annoying. The interludes also have nothing to do with anything that the song entails. It's such a slapdash job that it almost spits in the face of the album itself, and the memory of X.

Dying to Live should have given some of the same energy it does to reflecting on past legal and emotional strife to shed some insight into Kodak's sexual assault case that's currently ongoing. Maybe not some grand statement of the truth -- due to the ongoing nature of the case -- but, instead some kind of acknowledgement of what's going on. Telling the world that "the devil is testing me" isn't the kind of awareness that comes across as genuine.

Aside from the utter disregard for women and the legal system, Dying to Live has a few moments of unexpected brilliance in its songs created solely for streaming purposes. Lil Pump and Juice WRLD are the highlights, thanks to eclectic production that escapes Kodak's often preferred somber cuts. But, the majority of the album focuses on emotions and past transgressions, which makes its inability to comment on the present seem like a conscious choice. It's hard to turn a blind eye to it because emotional and legal commentary are Kodak's hip hop vices. Dying to Live is an album where Kodak is concerned about his own emotions, and not anyone else's.

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