Keith Ape wears his American influences about as boldly as any Asian artist; born Dongheon Lee, he lifted the name “Keith” from legendary graphic designer Keith Haring.
The 24-year old has spent some years in Los Angeles after the success of his 2015 single, “It G Ma,” a viral trap hit which drew many comparisons– some unappreciative— to OG Maco’s “U Guessed It.” “Back then, I was personally just not ready,” Keith told Vogue for a September piece. “I think to blow up so suddenly, I wasn’t prepared for all the attention.”
The track made waves: over 60 million YouTube views, a spot in a scene from “Atlanta,” a successful remix featuring artists like Waka Flocka Flame and Dumbfoundead, all for a track featuring Japanese and Korean rappers in a historic collaboration. This is Keith’s capacity: breaking ground and creating new norms. Subsequent successful artists like Joji and Rich Brian had a lane for their music because of what Keith did.
But the song, whose title lyric aptly translates to “Don’t forget,” has been a difficult benchmark for Keith Ape to move past. He’s since spent the past few years doing collaborations with Ski Mask the Slump God, Higher Brothers and a particularly popular track with Rich Brian and the late XXXTentacion; none of which quite leaving the dent that “It G Ma” made.
Once upon a time, Keith Ape was the subject of a Noisey mini-doc promising a “Great Korean Invasion.” Years later, the Soundcloud trap rapper still hasn’t quite reached the apex that was dreamt for him after one hit track. He’s released his first official project, “Born Again EP,” in October to a relative lack of fanfare; no music videos as of yet, and only a few hundred thousand views on the Ninja Turtle audio track.
It’s a shame, because Keith Ape has grown to develop his style, still providing his unique take in a trap/cloud rap genre that desperately needs revitalization. The features are there; XXL Freshman Wifisfuneral raps on “Ninja Turtle,” and drill legend Chief Keef features on a particularly rousing number entitled “The Ice Ape.”
The production style feels like you’re partying in ice cold water; bright hi hats, melodies reverberating atmospherically, and Keith’s signature chaotic adlibs driving every rhythm to knock twice as hard. In a lot of ways, this is the progression we needed from Keith; but the audience seems to be a bit stagnant.
Hopefully, with music videos and radio pushes, the star tracks from “Born Again” will make the impact that they’re entirely capable of. They’re solid exhibitions of the trap genre from a Korean artist who is still only 24 and has all the talent necessary to become a pioneering Asian hip hop artist in the U.S. market. He’s in with the right crowd; 88rising remains a starmaker for young Asian artists in urban genres. As long as his dedication is palpable, his window will never close.