Kembe X Credit: Courtesy the Artist

In an October interview with Lyrical Lemonade, Chicago rapper Kembe X (born Dikembe Caston) described a rocky patch in 2017 that brought him to a breaking point in his career. He’d been talking to R&B singer Kehlani, opening up about his lack of confidence and disinterest in his creative direction, and she asked him if he wanted to continue with music at all. The conversation gave Kembe a sense of clarity. “When I left, I was thinking to myself that I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to keep making music,” he said. “I felt like, at that point, a part of me died. Not to be funny, but I think that part was the piece that gave a fuck about what people think.” Since then, Kembe has tapped into a new sense of urgency, and it animates his second album, October’s I Was Depressed Until I Made This (FocusGroup/Empire). Kembe proved he had advanced lyrical skills with his debut mixtape, 2011’s Self Rule, and he’s since developed a pop sensibility to match. Now based in Los Angeles, he’s figured out how to modulate his voice to make his material sparkle even when he’s working with grimy productions; on I Was Depressed he brings a suave exuberance to weary, blown-out beats (“Move Around”), cloudy, deconstructed trap (“859”), and a sample-based collage (“Killscope”). On the triumphant, gospel-flecked “Voices,” Kembe reflects on the darker moments of his personal journey, seeming to feed more fuel to his punched-up vocals with each reference to his parents’ contentious divorce, his family’s history of alcoholism, or his own past struggles with drug dependency—the hardships he’s overcome lend an air of invincibility to the song’s heavenly melody.   v