It’s only day four of his 10-day Januarywriting camp and KayCyy is hellbent on enforcing the rules.
At a private location in Malibu – where an assortment of producers, rappers, pop-punk singers, R&B mainstays and a management team have all been tapped to assist with what will eventually become the uncategorizable melody-maker’s first major release, tentatively titled Who Is KayCyy? – is a list of 10 directions written on a piece of printer paper. Most of the rules, which have been taped to a studio wall, are relatively standard: “Be completely honest,” “wait your turn” to speak, “no posting snippets.”
One requirement in particular, however, is what KayCyy — born Mark Mbogo in Kenya — hopes will steer the direction of these sessions: “Have fun, but this is war.”
“I’m not going to stop, and everybody around me is not going to stop,” KayCyy tells Billboard over the phone in mid-January. “I want everybody to have that mentality.”
If KayCyy and his team are headed to battle like he suggests, he needs a uniform properly tailored to his vision. Hence his additional, unspoken rule – which didn’t make the cut on the piece of paper, but was very clearly followed – that everyone wears orange when they enter his creative space.
“It’s a uniform, and looking like a team, and looking like we’re locked in on the album,” KayCyy says. “It’s not really like jail, but just jailed in on the album. Like not leaving. ‘You’re here, you’re wearing orange.’ That’s the vibe that we’re on.”
Just listening to the way he speaks about studio restrictions and collaboration, KayCyy is very clearly a mentee of Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West. Indeed, his fingerprints are all over Ye’s most recent Grammy-nominated set Donda. The Columbia-signed KayCyy has writing credits throughout the album – like on chilling ballad “24” and breakout hit “Hurricane,” and his voice can be heard on “Keep My Spirit Alive Pt. 2” (formerly its first part). Plus, he and Ye’s shared manager Abou “Bu” Thiam claims he laid down around 300 reference tracks for the project, many of which have seemingly gone unheard.
Nevertheless, being part of one of Ye’s most spiritual works to date wasn’t just a product of happenstance. KayCyy had been creating music since he was 14, and preparing for this moment all his life.
Living in Kenya until age nine, Ye’s new protege spent his early years frequenting church with his family. So when it comes to “24,” a gospel-influenced track he and Ye co-wrote immediately following the death of basketball icon Kobe Bryant in January 2020, KayCyy had no trouble tapping into his faith. His mother, who would encourage him by sending him scriptures as reference points during those sessions, was a big part in bringing that out of him.
“The spark had to be church,” he says. “Praise and worship is always the intriguing part of church to me. I would just be interested in everything that was going on in the music – the choirs, the pianists. My mom always had me in church so that got me into it. And then just being in school, doing choir, and stuff like that. It was an easy class for me, I found out that it was actually helping me a lot.”
By age nine, KayCyy moved to Minnesota (“It’s cold, I guess it gets you ready for the cold world”), where his musical horizons expanded – specifically around the time when he fell in love with his first favorite album, Ye’s 2008 effort 808s and Heartbreak – a turning point in the Chicago creative’s career. On that record, Ye put rapping aside to reflect on personal losses with the type of hair-raising melodies and vocal effects that KayCyy is now building his own career off of.
KayCyy also soon got a glimpse of music history when he watched The Jacksons: An American Dream series, a ‘90s ABC mini-series about one of America’s most instrumental musical lineages, about a hundred times over. Seeing the Jackson 5 launch their careers by covering other artists introduced him to a new sampling of soul music – from the offerings of James Brown to Jackie Wilson. “I started studying them,” he says.
KayCyy’s years absorbing knowledge in soul, and even more from the guy who chops up the soul, got him to pack up his things and move to New York after graduating high school in 2016. For three, maybe four years, KayCyy – whose moniker is short for “King Confidence” – sharpened his skills while crafting atypical autotuned-out melodies and writing out of a basement, before he eventually connected with Bu in Los Angeles. After Bu heard one song, the connection was instantaneous.
“He was in a meeting with a big-time executive,” Bu recalls. “After that meeting, he went to see me. The guy he went to see told him, more-so, ‘I don’t love the kid – but I love this song of his, I think I might buy the song.’ KayCyy was kind of offended by that.”
In turn, KayCyy put his trust in Bu; a man he related to based off their shared African roots (Bu is Senegalese) and a man who previously discovered and signed another music-altering genre-fuser in T-Pain. But the manager’s goal wasn’t to put KayCyy on right off the bat. Instead, he would tap into his A&R skills to develop the young star by placing him in the presence of genius, and letting him find the genius within himself.
“Not only did he go through my school of Harvard, he went through Kanye’s school. He went through high school and college,” Bu says of KayCyy’s formal and informal education. “Now his music IQ is just incredible. He can go into the studio, create a song, take the song apart. It’s incredible to see his process of how he’s working.”
West’s “school” was no remote-learning situation, either. It was hands-on, required KayCyy’s full attention, and got off to a bit of an absurd start around the beginning of the Donda sessions around the top of 2020. Ye had roughly three songs completed when he asked Bu for recommendations of new artists to lay down references and offer him melodies at his Wyoming ranch. The manager knew just the guy.
Bu sent KayCyy over to the Cowboy State, and he was joined by another young artist to assist with giving Ye a fresh perspective. That’s when things got dicey.
“KayCyy made some references and the other kid made some references, but the other kid’s references were actually really bad,” Bu recalls. “And Ye was so disturbed by the references that he was like, “Send em’ both home, they gotta go. I’m not feeling them, they f–king up my vibe.’”
So there Bu was, trying to figure out how he was going to tell the then-20-year-old that he had to fly home because, for what he says was the first time ever that Bu recommended someone Ye didn’t like. But, as fate would have it, Ye eventually sent a text saying that “the kid with the melodies” could stay. From there, the music superstar “literally fell in love with” KayCyy, who ended up creating an appropriate amount of references for a behemoth of an album, and finding writing credits – and features – scattered throughout.
“Their connection was special,” Bu said. “More than anything, Ye is a genius, right? If you ask me, he’s the most influential creative of our generation. There’s no one else above him. So a young student learning under him in high work, seeing this process – that’s the best experience you could ever ask for as a young guy. It helped shape him, mold him, and give him understanding.”
As for the melodies that captured Ye’s attention, those too are a result of KayCyy’s African roots, stemming from music his uncle would play in the car driving around in Kenya, or the reggae his family would use to soundtrack his home life. The ear-grabbing melodies can be heard throughout his recent Drake-co-signed single “Stay Up” with Lancey Foux, which sees KayCyy in a pocket reminiscent of those he’s rubbed shoulders with, like Travis Scott or Playboi Carti. The song launches KayCyy into a disruptive synth-storm, as does much of his ever-evolving solo catalog, with a tranquil flow that keeps him grounded. The song marked his first post-Donda single, following his two previous croon-heavy projects Patient Enough and Ups & Downs, both of which remain on Spotify.
When asked how he crafts his melodies, which continue to give his releases hints of punchy vocal flourishes to mesh with his cosmic production picks, KayCyy admits he finds the “gems” in his mumbles. He often starts a song by feeling the arrangement from within himself, and when it comes out as a slur of sounds that eventually earn lyrics. Luckily for him, those Grammy-nominated mumbles have caught the world’s attention thanks to his career-altering link-ups with Ye in Mercedes-Benz Stadium and beyond.
“It gave me a major push,” KayCyy says of the Donda sessions. “A lot of that is what I learned and what I took and what I applied to my stuff and my career. I’m just seeing how [Ye] has his operation moving–it’s in a genius way. It’s different from a lot of art. If you really there, and you pay attention, you can take a lot from it and use it for your own.”
If anything, KayCyy is taking a very Yeezy approach to his 2022 output. Joining him in the studio for his album-writing camp is everyone from Louisiana spitter SSGKOBE to Machine Gun Kelly’s pop-punk right-hand man Mod Sun. He’s teased collaborations with Kid Cudi, Alicia Keys, Daniel Caesar, and enough big names that he’s also joked on Twitter that Prince and Michael Jackson might make an appearance on the thing.
“I haven’t seen someone want it as bad as he does in years,” Mod Sun says of his time in the Malibu studio with KayCyy recording vocals for a track. “There wasn’t a moment of silence over the course of four hours. He would jump in between five different songs at a time and really wanted everyone there to be a part of it. He gathered an army of extremely creative artists in the same room and was allowing everyone to offer ideas.”
As for what Mod thinks of what KayCyy’s cooking up, he’s called it “some of the most inventive music I’ve heard in a long time – between the sonic landscape of the music and KayCyy’s unique experimental approach to melody and flow, it sounds like music I’ve never heard before.”
While some of KayCyy’s musical connections have been a product of his studio link-ups with Ye, others like Mod have been made through KayCyy’s own ear for talent across genre. However they ended up in Malibu, people are showing up for the kid with the melodies.
“As a creative, I’m someone that can put people together and know how to make it work,” he shares. “You’re gonna definitely identify a KayCyy melody. If a random person heard the ‘Keep My Spirit Alive’ hook, from the feedback that I’ve gotten, it’s like, ‘Oh, who is kid, who is this person?’ It’s letting people know more of those. Getting more of those melodic flows here, more of me now, in a full body of work.”
The album itself — which the musician calls “one of them ones”– has yet to be given a release date, but in the meantime, KayCyy has unleashed two videos and tracks for the month of February: “OKAY!” and “The Sun.” The first is an experimental ad lib-focused drum-less punch with just the right amount of outer-space sonics, complete with French DJ Gesaffelstein production and a kaleidoscopic video released on Feb. 12, while “The Sun,” arriving soon, also features some contagious melodies in its chorus, with Gesaffelstein on the boards yet again.
As ambitious as it sounds, KayCyy explains he’s “trying to shift the sound” of music as a whole with this new material. He describes it as “next level,” or “2030,” and after a year of listeners wondering exactly who he is – and occasionally misspelling his name – KayCyy is ready to answer any and all questions. As his very-certain manager asserts, he’s ready to change music.
“It’s that time,” KayCyy says. “I’m obviously excited for these singles to come out in the world, to start to hear the music. It’s inspiring, but I want people to be really excited for the whole body. I think the music’s gonna be a lot of healing.”