The GTW, also known as 24-year-old vocalist James King
The GTW, also known as 24-year-old vocalist James King Credit: John Sturdy

In a divey bar in Williamsburg, 24-year-old Chicago vocalist James King, aka the GTW (“Greater Than Wealth”), folds himself carefully into a booth across from me. He looks exhausted—he’s on a whirlwind tour of New York, hoping for a break—and he’s already regretting the effect that the $5 fries he ordered for lunch will have on his budget for the trip. Two nights ago he played to a small but enthusiastic crowd at the Glasslands Gallery, a nearby launching pad for up-and-coming underground talent. Later tonight, after our interview, he’s scheduled to perform at Baby’s All Right, another buzzy Williamsburg venue. In between there have been interviews, radio appearances, and all sorts of networking—with the associated stresses. It’s a pretty typical promotional jaunt, though he’s revealing himself to be anything but a typical artist.

King was born in south-suburban Hazel Crest to Nigerian parents who met after moving to Chicago separately. “Nigerians stick together,” he explains. He started singing in church as a kid, and at 14 he made his first beat, after a cousin introduced him to the popular audio-sequencing software FruityLoops. He began attracting attention in summer 2012 with an EP of rap-oriented material produced by Eddie “Bengfang” Yang (it earned write-ups from publications as big as the Fader and the Guardian), but when he started making music, he’d wanted to be a pop singer—and over the past year or so he’s returned to that ambition. “I’m not trying to out-rap anyone,” he says. His current goal is accessibility. “I want people singing the lyrics. I want to sing my own lyrics around the house. If I can’t sing it around the house, I probably won’t put it out.”

King took up rapping, he says, partly because of the cultural expectations about what a black kid on the south side should be into. “I felt I had to rap, because that was what I felt like I should be doing,” he says. “I felt like I should be bragging about how girls like me, when really sometimes it’s like, ‘I wish this girl would like me.'” Recently he’s begun to play with those expectations, turning them on themselves. “Now I can say, ‘Why are you only texting me? Why won’t you return any of my calls?’ I can say this girl threw my clothes in bleach. I can say shit like that and then put gun claps on a song.”

With his recent recordings—on his own and as a member of R&B trio Jody—King has returned to a more melodic vocal style and boosted the presence of various influences in his sound, including Nigerian music, Chicago house, Brazilian samba, and the broad range of electronic subgenres that fall under the umbrella term “global bass culture.” His recent single “Calling Cards,” with its 90s-style club beat, gliding vocal line, and unshakeable hook, exemplifies this new approach.

He’s also started to let his freak flag fly in other ways, most obviously by developing a dress sense that seems equally indebted to post-Kanye hip-hop fashion, the harmoniously clashing colors of traditional Nigerian dress, and the art-damaged aesthetic of the Chicago avant-pop producers he’s befriended, including The-Drum and Supreme Cuts. Trendy retailer Topman recently interviewed him about his personal style, and streetwear label Mishka has gushed over his recordings on its blog.

King credits Chicago rap duo the Cool Kids for expanding his understanding of what rap could sound or look like beyond the notions he’d picked up “as a black kid growing up in a hood-ass high school.” That group’s fascination with the sound and look of the 80s and 90s helped kick off hip-hop’s first real retro phase in the late aughts, and they played a pivotal role in the commingling of hip-hop and white hipster culture. “I wanted to be more pop,” King says, “but the feeling was real quirky, like the Cool Kids were.”

The picture where the GTW was actually wearing this mask was just too creepy.
The picture where the GTW was actually wearing this mask was just too creepy.Credit: John Sturdy

The other major turning point in King’s artistic development came in October 2012, when he met The-Drum and bonded with half of the duo, Jeremiah Chrome, over their shared love for Al B. Sure. That friendship, he says, “helped me meet other like-minded people.” Soon he was connecting The-Drum to musicians he knew from the south side. “Having my friend morph in with it, it’s like this urban clash of do-whatever-you-want.” King, The-Drum, Supreme Cuts, and fellow Jody members David Robertson and Khallee Standberry-­Lois are now the nucleus of a growing scene that functions like some sort of colonial organism that can split into discrete units based on the needs of different projects—a working method that calls to mind Atlanta’s sprawling Dungeon Family collective, which included OutKast and Goodie Mob.

Jody is currently at work on an EP, and the anticipation for it is starting to snowball, due in large part to their surprise set at last year’s Lollapalooza—they took over when Supreme Cuts experienced a catastrophic equipment failure onstage. (King calls it “one of the scariest moments of my life and one of the most fun.”) But for the time being at least, King is concentrating on his solo material. He’s in the middle of recording an EP called Chigeria that he plans to release during the World Cup, an event he says helps connect him with his African roots. His plan is to turn the globe-spanning influences he’s accumulated into pop music—the kind of pop that regular people, not just tastemaking underground fans, listen to on the radio.

“We’re getting street sounds and making them pop,” he explains. “When Rihanna first came out with ‘If It’s Lovin’ That You Want‘ when I was a kid, that really helped me with, ‘OK, I can take my culture and put it into what I do.’ She was from Barbados doing that stuff and it was pop. So I look at Rihanna as a role model.

“I don’t want to put out too many songs,” he continues. “I just want a few to resonate with people. And I want to shoot videos for every one. Like the Backstreet Boys did.”