Damani Nkosi: The Thoughtful King

Photo: Pascal Kerouche

Every so often, hip-hop bears witness to a voice that has the potential to lead the culture towards a brave new horizon. A voice that rings with distinction and supreme clarity, valiantly shattering stereotypes with each metaphor. With the literal translation of his name serving as the title of his forthcoming debut, Inglewood, CA artist Damani Nkosi is poised to assume this very role with his long-awaited album Thoughtful King. Featuring a stunning supporting cast such as Motown recording artist BJ The Chicago Kid, Grammy nominated R&B vocalist Musiq, Grammy winning producer Warryn Campbell, and Grammy winning jazz pianist Robert Glasper, Thoughtful King boldly raises the lyrical standard while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of contemporary hip-hop’s sonic palate.

Long before his unique lyrical gift attracted the attention of some of the industry’s most recognized and respected figures (Dr. Dre, Swizz Beatz, Snoop Dogg), Damani honed his craft as an Inglewood hip-hop hopeful under the influence of groundbreaking artists like NWA, Ice Cube, and LL Cool J. In the midst of his challenging environs, he found a thirst-quenching oasis in music and basketball. For good measure, his father cultivated a profound understanding of the black experience for him early on. From reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X in the third grade to attending an afrocentric charter school, Damani was receiving an integral foundation at the hands of his father.

Damani entered the recording studio to record his first song in 1999. He began vigorously networking and collaborating on the Los Angeles underground hip-hop scene. By the end of the decade, the battle rap scene had begun to flourish on the West Coast. Always up for a new challenge, Damani quickly adapted his skills and began to sharpen his lyrical prowess in this arena with the goal of making a name for himself. By 2000, his tactic proved successful when iconic hip-hop producer Dr. Dre invited Damani to collaborate on various projects for his then nascent Aftermath Records imprint. “And that’s when things changed for me.” 

A muse in the studio, Damani relished in the opportunity of being an inspiration for one of the most widely revered names in hip-hop. And it appeared that his stride was unbreakable. The following year, Damani landed a spot coveted by many independent hip-hop artists nationwide – a feature in The Source magazine’s Unsigned Hype column.

In 2001, Damani decided to make moves on his own accord. He was featured on “Hate On Me,” a track from Dogg Pound emcee Kurrupt’s Space Boogie: Smoke Oddessey album. The following year, he released the track “Move” featuring Pusha T and Malice of hip-hop duo Clipse. The song became a staple at Los Angeles hip-hop radio mixshows, including the influential 92.3 FM – The Beat, creating a strong buzz for Damani as an up and coming solo artist. “Move” sparked a whirlwind of activity for Damani, all of which was confirmation that he was indeed moving in the right direction.

Following the success of “Move,” Damani entered a period of intense recording. In attempts to find the right sound to achieve his goal, he paired himself with various producers over the next few years. The result was a profusion of mixtapes, starting with 2002’s The Street Album. On the heels of the success of “Move,” The Street Album announced his arrival as a recording artist in his own right and further confirmed his status as an emcee to be reckoned with.

Grammy winning producer Swizz Beatz recognized Damani’s potential as a break out artist shortly after, forging a relationship with the burgeoning emcee during this period. In 2005, Damani met Grammy winning producer Warryn Campbell during his incessant search for the perfect beats. Having had a streak of hits with artists such as Mary Mary, Luther Vandross, and Brandy, Campbell had been looking for the right hip-hop artist to develop.

The two hit it off immediately and set about recording new material. The result was the Congratulations, Playa mixtape. The mixtape’s breakout track “Gotta Stay Paid” was an instant hit in the Los Angeles area, with radio stations such as Power 106 and The Beat adding the cut to their respective playlists. Additional tracks such as “Inglewood,” and “Only In LA” (featuring Dazz from Dogg Pound and Dub C of Westside Connection) also garnered radio spins, helping to vault Congratulations, Playa to classic status on the independent Los Angeles scene. But the mixtape and his collective musical output over the past few years also caught the attention of major labels in New York.

That same year, Damani landed a recording contract with Sony Urban. Under the aegis of Campbell’s My Block Entertainment, However, the victory would prove to be bittersweet. Just as he’d crossed paths with Sony Urban, Damani had begun a metamorphosis of sorts. He had grown discontent with his previous subject matter and was eager to explore the full breadth of his artistry as a lyricist. But balancing what the label demands with what he was compelled to create eventually became a daily struggle. “While I was doing songs like ‘Black Man Stereotype,’ they would come into the studio and tell me they needed something more like what was on the radio at the time. So I eventually gave in to it.”   

Exercising his creative agency, Damani also developed a group called Western Union (also known as Dubb Union) featuring himself, producer Soopafly, and Los Angeles-based emcee Bad Lucc. Hip-hop icon Snoop Dogg heard the group and immediately expressed interest in signing them. They appeared on Snoop Dogg’s 2006 gold-selling album The Blue Carpet Treatment. Yet even after recording a full solo album for Sony Urban, it was apparent that his relationship with the company was past its prime. And with Snoop Dogg’s interest in his new group, Damani left the label after a year on its roster and shifted his focused to Western Union.

Photo: Pascal Kerouche

Soon after, the group inked a deal with Doggystyle Records and went on tour with Snoop Dogg as the opening act. Western Union released their debut album Snoop Dogg Presents: Dubb Union on Doggystyle/ Koch in 2008. Damani released a video for his solo track “Here Comes Damani (featuring Snoop Dogg)” in 2010. The video, flaunting a guest appearance from Snoop Dogg himself, was featured on MTV.com and debuted as the new joint of the day on BET’s popular 106 & Park television program. It was also around this period that Damani began to travel abroad. Visits to China, Brazil, and various European countries served to further expand his horizons and helped him to gain perspective on his life and career.

As part of a natural creative progression he began to notice, his travels began to influence the music he was making. The result was the On Vacation mixtape released in 2011. Skillfully weaving conventional bragging writes with his unique perspective, On Vacation featured songs such as “The International Flow” and “My Soliloquy.” But the mixtape, produced by Campbell, was only a mere hint of how his world travels would eventually alter the subject matter of his rhymes and inform his view of his place in the world. During 2012, Damani entered a self-imposed creative fast. That year, he made the conscious decision to refrain from writing and recording altogether. After pursuing his career goals for a decade, he began to realize that he was changing as an individual. He didn’t feel the same about hip-hop and his art needed to reflect these profound changes. A sabbatical was in order. “I didn’t write one line,” he says of the experience. “I wasn’t inspired by anything in the game. I wasn’t fulfilled. I got tired of the conversation of me bragging about my endeavors. I needed to just get away from it all.”  

With that, Damani packed his suitcase and left it all behind. The contiguous string of jaunts to Berlin, Paris, New York, Switzerland, and Prague that followed helped the Inglewood emcee decompress and see the world through a new set of eyes. Upon his return to the US, he began writing material influenced by his recent travels. The restoration of passion and affirmed purpose that these profound life-changing experiences facilitated is the sheer essence of Thoughtful King.

Over the course of 11 tracks, Damani is reborn as a new emcee moving with intention and focus. Executive produced by Campbell and Damani himself, the album takes listeners on a journey through the soul of a man on a mission to make his mark on hip-hop by speaking truth to power. From the opening track “The Origin,” featuring his own father explaining the literal translation of his name (Damani meaning “thoughtful” and Nkosi meaning “king”), it is clear that Thoughtful King is a work of distinction. The album flaunts a muted live instrumentation aesthetic melded with break beats and guest vocalists, resulting in an expansive jazzy affair with an undeniable hip-hop edge.

“A Man” featuring Young Money artist and Maroon 5 keyboardist PJ Morton is a syncopated chronicle of Damani’s wondrous journey through his life and career thus far. Assisted by Musiq and Robert Glasper, the album’s first single “Now That’s Love” is a head nodding ode to how an intangible emotion has such a dynamic effect on life. Helmed by Grammy nominated producer Jairus Mozee, the soulful banger “Rich (featuring BJ The Chicago Kid)” reaffirms that – contrary to popular thought – money indeed does not make the man. “In the beginning of my career, it was all about getting the money, the cars, and the house,” he explains. “As I evolved, I began to understand that the money, the cars, and that house don’t mean anything if your soul isn’t right.”

“Ethiopia,” featuring vocalist Sid Sriram, is a stripped down jazzy affair detailing the stunning beauty and remarkable presence of an Ethiopian woman Damani unexpectedly found himself captivated and enraptured by. One of the album’s most honest tracks, “Through Me (featuring Major)” finds Damani purging his ego with the realization that the life changing favors he has facilitated for others is made possible by the divine spirit – not himself.

 A consistent and engaging effort from beginning to end, Thoughtful King is evidence of an artist embracing growth and fearlessly following a natural progression. A sonic document of a man evolving and coming into himself in a world and an industry of demands, preconceived notions, and expectations. Damani’s journey has led him around the world and back again. And the knowledge he has gleaned along the way fortifies Thoughtful King with an air of truth and honesty that is virtually unparalleled in contemporary hip-hop.

Damani_Now_Thats_Love_CoverArt Now That’s Love out now on iTunes

Follow Damani on Twitter

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