By Julian Nebrada
King of Nothing is the alias of Houston native and Columbia University sophomore Daren Napier. The King has a large and commanding presence. He’s at least six-foot with a deep voice and loud laugh. His sophomore project, Coke White Tiger, tracks a broken relationship and personal anguish during a leave from school. Darren’s lyrical style blends clever zingers ("I’m the Eric Taylor of my team/ Turned a couple players into kings”) and moments of wrenching poetic honesty (“I’m barely getting by while you champagne pourin’/ Tried to live a lie but I can't ignore it.”) into an impressively cohesive and enjoyable mixtape that is worth a listen.
Julian Nebrada: Has it always been rap for you? There’s a song at the end of Coke White Tiger that’s definitely closer to rock.
King of Nothing: I find that the best way to express myself is still through what I grew up listening to first. When I have to write something or express something, rap is the way that it manifests itself most articulately. But as I got older I started listening to different stuff, and I really like playing with genres or writing songs for other people. So the last track on Coke White is an homage to that.
JN: And when was it that you first started rapping?
KoN: I wrote my first song when I was nine. It was a shitty poem I wrote about a girl and I just sang it. My mom thought it was really cool, and that was the only validation I had in my life as a fourth grader — I was a fat kid who wasn’t good at sports.
JN: You mentioned earlier your mom was a writer.
KoN: My mom used to write romantic fiction, and there’s nothing in the world that will put you in a weirder mood than opening up your mom’s book for the first time and reading “let me see that dick.”
JN: That makes sense oddly. In terms of influence, you talk about listening to T-Pain in one of your songs, and there’s that great Mariah Carey sample [in “Carol and Sullivan II”]. And then “Coke White Tiger” comes from a Frank Ocean lyric.
KoN: I was seeing this girl for a long time and Channel Orange was the big artistic representation of that relationship.
JN: That definitely happens. If you listen to music around certain people it leaves a mark.
KoN: “Coke White Tiger” is from “Monks”: “A coke white tiger woke us from our slumber to guide and protect us to the end.” So I kind of just wanted to capture that. Like whenever I was writing for this album, I would always think about that and think of this big God-like animal who’s being this invisible protector for me.
JN: I was going to ask you about Lux is Reaching, who’s listed as the executive producer on the album.
KoN: He produced PCP (Winter Days), but basically he’s my best friend in the world. His role was just making sure that everything fit and was cohesive thematically, that the album was sequenced in a way that people could understand it and its message. He was the person who was in studio every session making sure I wasn’t cutting any corners. From a production standpoint, and in getting the production from point A to completion, he was there every step of the way.
JN: Where did this record start?
KoN: I had to take some time off from school after fall semester last year. It was rough. Definitively the worst time of my life. I was back in Houston, in this weird relationship with this girl where I was trying to keep this thing that I didn’t want to end, but knew it had to. Being back home and not being able to deal with that situation in person was really stressful.
And then one day I just started writing. The first song I wrote was “January Jones.” I totaled my car so I was walking to the bus stop to go work at a shitty Mexican restaurant. I was thinking about how every winter since I’ve been a legal adult has sucked. Like in 2014 I was always hanging out with this girl and she would tell me she had a fucked up sense of humour because she watched Russell Peters way too early. So I was humming to myself and Jimmy Q had sent me a bunch of beats. I opened this one and it’s a minute-and-a-half long and I thought it was just a throwaway, but it turned out to be great. I was listening to it in my headphones and it just came to me: “Turned on my TV to watch Russell Peters / took me back to that bullshit with Srini.” I remember sitting down and I plotting that song out after a night shift. It was twelve thirty in the morning and I was riding the bus back home. I just sat there and planned it out. And when I finally rapped it to myself for the first time it just sounded so much better than anything I’d done before.
JN: Is that a process for all your music?
KoN: I try to be a stickler about not making music unless I genuinely have something that I need to articulate, which means the time in between projects is a long one. Before this [project], my last one was a year ago. This [record] was definitely an “aha” moment. There were so many things that I desperately needed to talk about. It was how I stayed sane for the whole winter. I think there are moments on Coke White Tiger where you can hear and look at the lyrics and tell “he needed to do this for himself.” “January Jones” is a good example. You hear some of those songs and you know this is about someone. Whatever happened between those two people is a genuine thing that caused him trauma. My hope is that when people listen to it, they can identify with some of the stuff I’m going through. Even in the moments in the later part of the album where I assess some of my own faults. Even the breakdown for “January Jones” is: “What if I lied?/ what if the blame was all mine?”
JN: Do you do other writing work also? Outside of rap?
KoN: Well I’m a film major, so when I graduate at some point my plan is to move into film and TV.
JN: I imagine Donald Glover is a model?
KoN: Yeah, I mean, I think what every young, creative, black person wants to be is Donald Glover.
JN: And you’re back in New York now.
KoN: I’m working right now with Jimmy Q on a joint EP.
JN: That’s going well?
KoN: Yeah, I mean I think the biggest transition for me and the biggest thing that’s benefited me from the music-making process is understanding that there has to be a happy medium between what you personally need to get out in a project as an artist and what people want to hear. When I first started off as King of Nothing it was very much like, “fuck the audience. I’m just gonna make shit that makes me happy, gonna have weird drums, gonna make obscure references that people don’t get, and I’m going to have seven verse songs.” But I got to a certain point where I’m listening to more popular artists and realizing that there’s an art in just having music that people have a good time together to.
JN: On Coke White Tiger, that’s the balance between how the project came out of this dark side of your life but also strives to be very catchy.
KoN: I think there’s a synthesis [on CWT] between songs where I say stuff that I need to and songs that are for people to hear and enjoy. As well as there being songs that are a combination of the two.
JN: It must be strange to think of this depressing time of your life and for people to have positive reactions to it.
KoN: But that makes me happy. I mean, I make it to make myself happy and I hope it makes other people happy. And so that people can understand that even if my situation isn’t identical that somebody understands on some base level that shit isn’t always going to be great.