As the linchpin of LA crew Fade to Mind and an increasingly in-demand producer for the likes of Kelela and D∆WN, Kingdom has played a vital role in the recent evolution of club music and R&B. Chris Kelly speaks to the genre-blending artist about “happy accidents” and the “dark side” of clubbing as his debut solo album, Tears In The Club, finally surfaces.
Tears in the Club is – if anything – an evocative album title. Are those tears of joy, an outpouring of emotion in a safe space; a state of ecstasy, chemically assisted or not? Or are they tears of pain, when that safe space becomes violent and dangerous, or when those substances turn our body chemistry sour? That duality has long been key to Kingdom’s music, where pneumatic beats and metallic synths coalesce into icy soundscapes shattered by sultry R&B vocals. Depending on his mood, he’s been able to push his tracks either towards agony or ecstasy: hearing ‘Stalker Ha’ at the peak hour is a drastically darker experience than hearing the Kelela-assisted ‘Bank Head’.
As a DJ, Kingdom has seen both modes in action. When he came up in the New York club scene a decade ago, he remembers “safety and a lot of camaraderie.” But as he moved beyond his own backyard, he “started to see some of the dark side of what can happen” in the club, particularly violence. “[The club] is supposed to be a place to celebrate […] something that’s going to bring us together,” he says. “And then something goes terribly wrong and there’s blood.”
While the violence Kingdom has seen firsthand has been limited to an “incident or two,” the experiences “opened my eyes to my own shelteredness.” And after the recent tragedies in Orlando, Istanbul and Playa Del Carmen, Mexico (to name a few), that sense of shelteredness has been exposed in clubgoers worldwide. “That wasn’t my intention, but [the album title] speaks to that as well,” he says. “You really don’t know what you’re getting into when you go to a club to see a DJ.”
“For the first time, I wanted to make songs with a melodic core that a singer would want to sing on”
But Kingdom hasn’t stopped DJing or making music, and Tears in the Club is the most complete expression of his vision yet, delivering on the promise of what he’s done his entire career. Since his earliest releases, Kingdom has worked to bring R&B voices to new, experimental club spaces. His first single, ‘Mind Reader’, found New York talent Shyvonne playing diva over a slab of mutant garage; 2011’s ‘Take Me’ featured Electrik Red lead singer Naomi Allen on what quickly became a Kingdom trademark: a frigid hybrid of club, hip-hop and R&B. His groundbreaking collaborations with Kelela would follow, capped off last year with Dawn Richard’s Infrared EP.
Tears in the Club is the culmination of those collaborations, with Kingdom seeking – and finding – the best way to work with vocalists. “For the first time in my career, I wanted to make songs with a melodic core that a singer would hear and want to sing on,” he explains. “For a moment, thinking of them before me: how do you make them feel safe, figuring out what works and what doesn’t.”
Working with Kelela and Dawn – successes he calls “happy accidents” – provided a first taste of what a true collaboration could be; for Tears in the Club, he pushed the process further into unfamiliar territory. “I’m not a chord change, technical musician,” he says. “All my previous music, even if it sounds melodic, it all comes from experimenting and remixing.” This time around, his learning curve was figuring out, say, which key a song was in and “trying to write actual songs.”
Neither Kelela or Richard are featured on Tears in the Club, which was both a creative decision and a logistical one. “It’s really a challenge, especially when singers are all trying to do own projects,” he explains, “and that’s something I really respect.” Not reuniting with his previous collaborators allowed him to make music free of those associations. “I like the idea of coming back to Dawn and Kelela, but it was cool to depart from what I was already doing.”
“Syd would kick the engineer out of their seat and start chopping up her own takes”
Freeing him from his past work opened him to a whole new slate of vocalists. He and SZA were mutual fans, and he looked to combine her neo-soul and alt-rock-influenced sound with his own brand of “weird, fucked up, radio music.” The resulting collaborations bookend the album and find different spots in their common ground. SZA’s distinct voice and ear for melody sound at home on the woozy, off-kilter ‘What Is Love’.
“She writes off the top of her head,” he says. “It just rolls out of her seamlessly. She has this gift [for songwriting], it really comes second nature to her.” Their other collaboration, the club-ready ‘Down 4 Whatever’, came later in the process. By then, Kingdom had been experimenting with singing his own Auto-Tuned, lyric-less melodies, and while he has no ambitions to be a singer, “getting those ideas on my own beats felt really good.” The memorable hook of ‘Down 4 Whatever’ started as one of these demos. “She changed parts of it, but the essence was something I wrote,” he recalls. “It was really cool to see a singer I admire go ahead and use something I wrote.”
In the same way that he brought SZA into an experimental club context, Tears in the Club also features The Internet vocalist Syd, another young talent exploring the outer fringes of mainstream soul music. The resulting track, ‘Nothing’, comes in two flavors: the spacious original and an “East Coast Club Mix” that recalls the I-95 club music that influenced his production on Kelela’s ‘Rewind’. Syd is also an accomplished producer in her own right, which Kingdom experienced firsthand. “She would lay some [vocal] lines, and then kick the engineer out of their seat and start chopping up her own takes,” he says. “It was cool to see her take over the whole thing.”
While SZA and Syd are relatively well-known acts, Kingdom also wanted to highlight new talents. One is Shacar, a Haitian-American singer who moved to New York from Florida about five years ago. Kingdom’s brother introduced him to Shacar’s music, and he was immediately drawn to his “unique tone.” For his part, Shacar was struck by the synesthetic aspects of Kingdom’s music. “His music always makes me feel safe, [like I’m] in a dark cave. I feel like I’ve finally escaped the world and I’m surrounded by silky, glimmering diamonds, shining bright in the night,” he writes. “It might sound weird, but I start seeing colors … and that’s when I know music is speaking to me.”
Recording their collaboration, the seductive R&B jam ‘Breathless’, the young singer found himself overwhelmed – he “freaked out” when he first heard the beat because he didn’t know what to write or “how to even start,” he explains, but after spending two months with the beat, the melodies and the lyrics came over a two day span. “‘Breathless’ is about suppressing yourself in a lifestyle of luxury and glamour. Wanting love and owning who you are, in spite of your imperfections, causing you to realize your inner worth is all that you have left,” he says, revealing that the song is based on a “true story.” And in his line “diamonds dancing, Versace tears,” Shacar found a lyric that speaks to the album’s title. “That’s how a lot of us feel […] I wanna cry sometimes, [but] I’m dancing instead.”
“I’ve worked hard before, but I’ve never put in the hours that I did on this album”
While he embraced Shacar’s versatility (“He has an R&B side but he can rap”), Kingdom wasn’t interested in enlisting more mainstream trap-R&B singers, whom he finds “less interesting and less surprising” on his beats. And he also appreciated that Shacar delivered a sensitive performance, rather than “aggro-masculine” one, which allowed him to keep the album’s feminine energy intact. “The point was to create something vulnerable that’s not afraid of its femininity, but still has that bold punch of club music,” he says.
Somewhere between a feature and a sample is the strange case of ‘Each & Every Day’, a song built around a Vine loop. “I’m really sad about Vine. It was one of the last places on the internet people were being really free,” Kingdom laments of the now-shuttered video-sharing service. “There was so much freedom and experimentation, and it was mostly teenagers and people in their early twenties. You only had six seconds to kill it, but that’s what was exciting about it.” He had stumbled across the page of Atlanta-based singer Najee Daniels, sampling and remixing his cover of Tye Tribbett’s ‘Chasing After You’. After spending countless hours with the sample, he connected with the singer and received his permission to use it and credit him (which wasn’t always the case when Vine users saw their loops go viral).
Tears in the Club comes out of the shadows and into the clouds on ‘Nurtureworld’, which flips an obscure, 15-year-old trance sample – 4 Strings’ ‘Take Me Away’ into club pop. “As a suburban, American kid, [trance] was kind of what dance music sounded like to me when I was young,” he explains. “A few commercial-sounding Euro-trance, Euro-house songs were what crossed over.” In the early 2000s, trance was on New York radio because it was the sound of clubbing in Long Island and New Jersey, and it also popped up in New York’s bootleg CD black market, sold by the same subway and street vendors who sold him reggaeton CDs. He discovered the track that is sampled on ‘Nurtureworld’ on a bootleg compilation with a title like NYC Underground Dance Party. “The breakdown is the best part of a trance song,” he says. “When the drums go away, there’s almost an Enya moment.”
The dreaminess of ‘Nurtureworld’ permeates the entire album, a tone that’s intentional. For Kingdom, much of the album is driving music, inspired by finally feeling settled in his Los Angeles home; it’s the soundtrack of California adventures and driving along the coast at sunset. “There is a tension to the album, but there is also a laidback, euphoric, California vibe.”
The album’s creation, however, wasn’t so laidback. “I’ve worked hard before, but I’ve never put in the hours that I did on this album,” he says of the 50-hour weeks he spent “treating it like a full-time job,” turning down gigs, tending to his mental and physical health, and focusing on the album. And while he’s excited to move onto the next challenge, he’s also working on a follow-up version to the album that will feature different vocals and new edits.
After the release of Tears in the Club, Kingdom will embark on a US tour in March and a European one in April. Then he’ll move out of the album’s “cage” and onto his next project, which he promises will be “darker” than this melody-focused album. Perhaps it will resemble the title track of Tears in the Club: with its horror score melody, chopped-up cries and distorted ‘Ha’ crash, it is the most sinister song on the album. The song “kinda named itself,” and eventually the whole album. “It stuck and resonated with me,” he says. “It’s a little too obvious, in a way, but it’s something I needed to say.”
Kingdom tour dates:
March 02 – Chicago – East Room
March 03 – Boston – Good Life
March 04 – New York – Knockdown Center
March 10 – Oakland – Starline Social
March 23 – Los Angeles – TBA
March 31 – Seoul – Cakeshop
April 01 – Hong Kong – Sonar
April 07 – Atlanta – Aisle 5
April 13 – Prague – Neone
April 14 – Stockholm – Slakthuset
April 15 – Copenhagen – Bakken
April 21 – Rome – Goa Club
April 22 – Barcelona – Razzmatazz
April 27 – London – Phonox
April 29 – Berlin – Gretchen