Inspired by his grandmother's health struggles, the rapper teams with producer ASTRO to take a deeper look within

A key moment in Rookie Year, the new full-length from Columbus rapper Kashis Keyz, occurs near the end of the album, on the song “January 26th.”

The track opens with Keyz, an Alive Bands to Watch alum, reliving his hardscrabble childhood, rapping about his family clipping coupons to buy groceries and eating bland bowls of porridge every day for breakfast. He then pivots to his music career, labeling 2020 the “year for separation” and stating that his drive comes from a desire to push beyond these early financial struggles. “Money the motive,” he proclaims.

But these big words begin to erode after the track is interrupted by a voicemail from Keyz’ grandmother, whose health struggles shape the song’s more revealing second half. “Grandma’s dying, don’t know how to feel,” Keyz raps. He then recounts how she was the first person who encouraged him to take up music, opening up the realization that his motives for creating actually go far deeper than the potential dollars.

“I was in Connecticut at the time [I wrote the song]. That’s where my mother, my sisters, my grandmother live, and my grandmother, she had just gotten off bed rest, and there was this low-key thought: ‘Yo, grandmother is dying.’ And it wasn’t even just a thought. We flew down there last year because she had two strokes,” said Keyz, joined by album producer ASTRO for a late-February interview in Olde Towne East (Rookie Year is out now). “So it was looking a little bleak, and she was dead-ass the person who got me started rapping. … So then it was like, ‘What the fuck am I really doing this for?’ And it was this realization that I was losing track of what was driving me.”

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Though jarring, the record’s pivot doesn’t come completely from out-of-the blue, arriving at the tail end of a steady evolution that takes place throughout. While early tracks like the hard-hitting “Foreign” and the skittish “Blues” find Keyz alternating between playing the romantic field and broad-chested boasts (“I’m done with trying to be so humble,” he spits on one song), a gradual maturation takes place as the album unfolds. On “Cross Faded,” Keyz even questions his value within a blossoming relationship. “I know that I want you/I don’t think I deserve you,” he raps, an admission that might have been unthinkable even just three or four tracks earlier.

“Me, myself, I have misogynistic characteristics sometimes. I feel we all do. We all have those negative traits, and I’m pushing through my own trauma and drama and whatever is associated with that,” Keyz said. “I’m growing, and I feel it’s always represented in the music. … There were a lot of points of vulnerability on here.”

This vulnerability was aided by the working relationship between Keyz and producer ASTRO, who spent more than six months collaborating on Rookie Year, though their friendship goes back nearly a decade.

“I talk to him so much that I kind of know where his creative space is,” said ASTRO, who has only been producing for a year. “That’s why there’s so much diversity. There’s songs where there’s hard trap drums and they’re very aggressive, and then some songs are thoughtful. … So we started like that, working without a focus, and then around December [Rookie Year] started to come together.”

Keyz said it was the first time he’d fully invited anyone inside his creative process, which left him feeling exposed but allowed the music to grow in unexpected ways during the time the two traded songs back and forth. “I wouldn’t say it was a strenuous process,” Keyz said, “but it was a process that promoted growth between the both of us, both internally and in respect to our relationship, for sure.”

Throughout Rookie Year, Keyz takes advantage of ASTRO’s sparse, varied beats, racing through up-tempo numbers like an Uber navigating city traffic and allowing a more reflective side to surface on a handful of mellower cuts. The rapper also experiments more with Auto-Tune, transforming himself into a melodic crooning robot on select songs — adopting a new skill in an effort to expand his musical scope.

“A lot of people won’t necessarily listen to what you say off the top but they will listen to how it’s coming across,” said Keyz. “As a rapper, [Auto-Tune] has given me another toy to play with. … And that’s been the whole thing, not to disguise what I’m saying, but to put a light film on it so that it’s gold and shimmering and people are like, ‘I just want to touch it.’ And after they do, and after they pick it up, it’s like, ‘Yo, he’s actually talking about something crazy.’”