When this column started three years ago, Kirko Bangz was the lead artist. Around that time, he was releasing Progression IV, and instead of crafting it as a serious, fleshed-out mini-album to satisfy fans, he toyed around with flows. He made sure to invoke the spirit of Big Moe, the syrupy, larger-than-life singer and Screwed Up Click member whose main gift was reupholstering ‘70s and ‘80s R&B records to fit the language and slang of ‘90s and early-2000s Houston. The formalities of a Kirko Bangz project are still the same, so to speak. All the rich, layered guitar work from producers such as Trakksounds and Sound M.O.B. exists; Kirko has woven them so deep into the tapestry of his sound that they’re basically world-shapers for him.
For the longest time, anything I wrote about him relayed information about his Atlantic Records Bigger Than Me album and how it wasn’t out yet. About how once upon a time, Bangz was the surefire Houston rapper to whom national rap heads would love to attach themselves. He was handsome, a blender of styles in regards to singing and more-than-capable rapper. Most importantly, he had developed the kind of twangy, fluid consistency that could produce Houston-centric records without any feeling of being forced. Kirko Bangz was a Houston act. And you couldn’t take it away from him.
In the three years since, Kirko and his Eastside rap mentality have only gotten bigger. He still feels within reach; a localized rap star gone national yet won’t ever let you think of him as such. His “What Yo Name Iz” came seven years ago as a singalong twitch; lead guitar driven with a scratchy hi-hat and Bangz' persona geared towards a player with edge than a lovelorn heartthrob. A year later, he solidified himself with a thick, murky baseline from Sound M.O.B and his voice made to dribble off the beat. Rather than the croaky tone he displayed, Bangz was far more confident on “Drank In My Cup,” twisting together an image people ultimately became stuck with.
Kirk Randle, the guy who once marauded around Prairie View A&M and listened to the likes of Eminem and other bar-heavy rappers of the day, had become something else. Six years ago, netting two Billboard-ready records made you a star. Ever since, Bangz has cranked out single after single, eager mementos of what his “playa” lifestyle is and has been for some while. The fluttering synth concoction of “Worry Bout It” found a pocket with Fetty Wap. “Keep It Trill” is about a perfect playa song as can be, tales of multiple women woven around an interpolation of Keith Sweat’s “Right And a Wrong Way” along with Jon B’s “They Don't Know.”
When Kirko isn't being a playa, he's consistent in one area: family concern. Stardom hasn't changed what Kirko is as an entity to his mom and siblings. When he actually releases a single of consequence, “Rich” with August Alsina, it trudges along and trafficks in rags-to-riches motifs while also retaining some sense of gravity. Money never solved every problem, but it settled a few. It ends up creating a double-sided life for Kirko. Either he's going to make these tiny ploys of appeasement to his rapturous female fan base or he's going to occasionally find a middle such as the Zapp and Roger-influenced “Swang & Bang.”
In fact, Progression 17, Kirko’s latest tape, exists in a rather interesting space. The first half of the tape contains women-centered features, “Girls, Girls, Girls”-style reflection tied to songs about sleeping with girls who like girls and wanting a sophisticated, ghetto woman. The second half, beginning with “Lost Too Many Friends,” sends listeners down a road of textured, nuanced raps as Kirko writes letters to his friends slicing through his thoughts about life: “I got some shit on my heart/ But I don’t know how to release/ I want the money most of all/ I’m trying to find peace/ I don’t need none of the shit that people complain about/ But it’s like you gotta have it/ If not, you ain’t hot.”
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Progression 17 is enjoyable on two fronts, from a rapper who is enjoyable on many different ones. Kirko has plenty to say from a personal perspective, a day-to-day update on the life of a peculiar rapper. He can go to the dealership to pick through cars while keeping his distance from women. He argues that the concept of being fake doesn't exist to him because damn near everything is artificial. It turns from one mood to the next, slipping out of Bill Bellamy in How to Be a Player confidence and into pools of self-reflection and, in some aspects, doubt. Bangz gives himself moments of therapy in the midsection of the tape before looking outward. He's still cautious about love, quick to admit that he thinks with his dick and how he can't bring himself to talk to the woman he truly wants to be with. It's a mental prison and a hell of a mind fuck for a usually confident rapper who can't help himself but be confident.
For a mixtape, there are album-ready singles built around bluesy, urgent production from the likes of Bizness Boi, TrakkSounds, Kydd Jones and Kirko’s day-ones, Pyro and Ryu of the Sound M.O.B. “Can't Get A Break” allows Kirko to jump out of his own skin and rap from the perspective of others: a man down on his luck who hates his job; a student who can’t get through finals and a basketball star who finally fulfills his dream of making it to the NBA only to led his pride mess it all up.
The bond between Kirko and Trakk stands out during the last fourth of the album as the piano boy with a penchant for guitars and funk helms three of the final four tracks. Chris Rockaway breaks up the partnership a bit with “Vent 4,” the tape’s closer that gets slick with a sample chop of Thelma Houston’s “Don't Leave Me This Way.” Unlike previous moments of venting from Kirko, the fourth version of his Vent asks plenty of questions, just not in stream of consciousness. “Y’all can't tell me the preacher man don't look like the $60,000 for a feature man,” Kirko raps in mostly a pique of church and faith. Kirko believes, but it's a hell of an opportunity to wonder about damn near everything in the world. That's what progression is to Kirko, steadily asking questions and doing his damndest not to fall into old habits. It makes so much sense to chart it all down.