Kyle won’t stop clowning himself. In a back room of the labyrinthine Atlantic Records offices in midtown New York, the 24-year-old rapper — flanked by a coterie of friends playing pingpong and one emptying the innards of a Backwoods cigar onto a table — shows off his “snaggletooth” and demonstrates his “white soccer mom” voice. “When you roast yourself, it makes everybody else comfortable,” he says.
Affability defines Kyle’s music as much as his persona. The artist (aka SuperDuperKyle, born Kyle Thomas Harvey) is sometimes lumped in with “bubble-gum trap” — think Lil Yachty, whom he featured on his breakthrough surprise hit, “iSpy,” which peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2017. “iSpy” placed him in a new group of MCs as a class-clown type: In the song’s video, his head is superimposed onto a child playing in a sandbox and on a seesaw.
But he’s also a more complex artist than the precedent suggests. Before he was a radio star, the California native straddled trap, jazzy R&B and funk for the better part of a decade. Following the success of “iSpy” and rising single “Playinwitme,” featuring Kehlani (29 million on-demand streams since March, according to Nielsen Music), he’s releasing his major-label debut, Light of Mine, on May 18. Along with features from Khalid and Alessia Cara, he included gospel group Take 6 on the album — which is an exercise in self-healing, he says, after feeling trapped by his insecurities.
“I wanted to make something that didn’t just show me in a perfect light,” says Kyle. “I wanted it to show me in a more broken, hurt light and then document the process of me overcoming that. That’s the theme of the album: being in a dark place [and] looking for the light at the end of the tunnel.”
In 2016, when Kyle started working on Light of Mine, he says he “had sacrificed pretty much every friend I ever had and all of my relationships with family because I was never home.” In February of that year, he kicked off a whirlwind U.S. tour with Hoodie Allen and blackbear, but was coming up on a decade of rapping without a breakthrough moment. “This music career was taking forever to happen. Life started throwing heavier and heavier shit at me. I couldn’t carry it anymore.” He realized he had two options: either wallow in sadness or fight for self-love. “That’s what I faced — losing that relationship I had with myself and love you have for yourself. If you can’t love yourself, you can’t love other people.”
He addresses it on his album intro — “I nearly had a mental breakdown and eight months later I had a hit/ I guess life is like a box of chocolates/ You never know what you finna get” — and throughout the project, he touches on topics like anxiety and alienation. But he stays true to form musically, with dreamy production from M-Phazes (Eminem) and Ayo (Cardi B).
Born in Northridge, Calif., Kyle started rapping at 13 and recorded his first mixtape in his grandmother’s living room, under the name K.i.D. Between middle school and high school, he moved with his family out of the Valley, from a mostly black and Mexican environment to an all-white high school in Ventura. At home, growing up biracial — his mother white, his father black — was a simple fact of life. “It was funny,” he recalls. “My mom was driving a car full of three black kids screaming Incubus.” But he faced difficulty at school. “At some point, I had to ignore what people thought of me,” he says. “I had to be my own biggest fan from an early age. Once I learned that, it was like a superpower. That was the armor that got me through high school.”
His older brother, an MC who went by U.G.L.Y. (U Gotta Love Yourself), was a hip-hop presence in his life. “His shit was all about being turnt the fuck up, getting girls and getting drunk,” says Kyle, whose music was far more lighthearted. He soon started posting freestyles over beats from Drake and Lil Wayne on YouTube, and released his first mixtape, Beautiful Loser, on Indie-Pop in August 2013. After “iSpy” in 2017, he found himself opening dates for Chance the Rapper and G-Eazy.
Chance returned the favor at Coachella in April, coming out as a surprise guest during Kyle’s afternoon set. He plans on touring with Logic this summer, and will star in Netflix’s coming-of-age film The After Party this fall, co-starring French Montana and Wiz Khalifa. Now, he says, “I don’t mind the slow grind, because you get to take it all in a little more. If this shit popped overnight, you’d take it for granted. It creeps up on you how amazing things are going.”
This article originally appeared in the May 19 issue of Billboard.