A lot has happened in the year or so since Key Nyata released his breakout lo-fi Two Phonkey and wrote and recorded his again-delayed, again-anticipated fourth album, The Shadowed Diamond—his latest collection of almost entirely self-produced space-Cadillac psych-phonk rap, due for release August 10. The local rapper turned 18 and graduated on time from Garfield High School this June—but not before spending his school year rocking venues from the Vera Project to Chop Suey to Neumos opening for some of Seattle's biggest names, and touring with the internet-based rap collective Raider Klan, making stops at mega-festival Coachella and ultra-hip streaming showcase Boiler Room LA along the way.
Key Nyata half chuckles, half shakes his head at the term "internet famous," but acknowledges his online origins and fan base—gained after Raider Klan founder Spaceghostpurrp posted a video for Key's runaway hit (and still fan favorite at his shows) "Get High (I Wanna Smoke)" on his YouTube channel early last year. "It's pretty cool, but it's kinda superficial," Key admits. "I'm not attacking any wave or trying to ride any wave, I'm just trying to be me and do what I do. I wanna have longevity."
His tour experience and local grind also helped him develop relationships with other artists the traditional way, far from the internet. After Key Nyata performed an opening slot at Neumos last year—on a bill that included Fresh Espresso and Kingdom Crumbs—Fresh Espresso rapper/producer P Smoov invited him to come by his Robot Room studio in Pioneer Square and "vibe out." Smoov played him the whomping, synth-heavy beat for TSD's "My Way" (the album version of which features verses from local villain-rap kings Nacho Picasso and Avatar Darko), Key rapped over it, and then he decided he wanted to record the entire album there.
It's the first time Key Nyata has recorded in a studio. Much of his and the Raider Klan's lo-fi sound and aesthetic was built on echoing a low-quality '90s tape hiss through laptop production software and built-in computer microphones—a quality that Key says wasn't avoidable. "It's how I was forced to make music, I didn't have a choice. It wasn't like, 'I'm gonna make lo-fi music 'cause it sounds good'—fuck that shit, that shit's corny. Like, you can go to a fucking studio but you choose to be in your room? I didn't know anybody. I didn't have connections." After spending time in a studio and recording more guest verses in person, Key says he's at the point of not liking internet collaborations anymore. "It takes away from the feeling of the whole shit; it's just easier to catch a vibe when you're there with the person."
There are plenty of guests on The Shadowed Diamond—the aforementioned Nacho Picasso and Avatar Darko on "My Way," the more positive local Dave B on "Follow Me," LA's ice-cold Vince Staples on "Long Way," P Smoov on their coproduced "We Dwell on Planet Earth." TSD also features two ex–Raider Klan members, Chris Travis and Ethelwulf, who recorded their verses while on tour before starting a Twitter beef that ended with them leaving the group. "Blvck Buddah" is the first and likely last track the three rappers will ever be heard on together.
The end result is an album that shows a deeper and darker, yet louder and more polished version of Key Nyata's signature sound. A couple lo-fi tracks are still sprinkled in, but most are studio-mastered slaps that hit hard when cranked up. His lyrics are deceptively simple—the sneaky triple entendres, wise-beyond-his-years musings, and life lessons can easily go over the heads of casual listeners. The perspective in Key's lyrics comes from a turbulent couple of years—a bad concussion he got playing football caused him to leave sports, nearly fail out of school, and get caught up in drugs, crime, and "a whole bunch of crazy shit." Seeing the dead-end path he was on, he decided to formulate a plan to make it as a rapper. "I had to plan it out, otherwise I knew what my fate was gonna be," he says. "I just didn't wanna make anything that sounded like anybody else. That was my main goal." The Shadowed Diamond furthers Key Nyata's individual style—blending new influences with his foundational ones into an album that both Key and producer P Smoov compared to "being on drugs" in separate interviews.
"I quit smoking weed going on two years ago, and driving around the city listening to that record just makes me feel like I'm stoned," says P Smoov. "But it's still clever if you listen to what he's saying—it's like that drug from Limitless where it just increases your brain potential."
One of the biggest, trippiest highlights of the album, both beat- and lyrics-wise, is the six-minute outro on "This Journey"—a dynamic, shifting, peaking expedition that starts with a faraway piano riff and sends it through a DMT portal. The hook—one of the only consistent parts of the song—ends with an astute summary of everything that led up to and went into The Shadowed Diamond: "On this journey there's gon' be a lotta bumps/Now what's up/But they make me who I am/I'm the motherfuckin' man."
"'This Journey,'" Key Nyata adds, is just "a warning," a sign of where his sound is heading after this album. "I think that's gonna be my thing—extraordinary outros."