Kyle‘s voice trails off. “Sorry, I’m trying to find the best place to post up,” the Ventura, Calif., rapper says. It’s Wednesday afternoon, four hours before his sold-out show at Philadelphia’s Trocadero Theatre. Yet some concertgoers have already arrived. “I see some of my awesome fans pouring in,” he says. “I feel like they’re gonna recognize my voice.”
Kyle has been known for his goofy charm since he started rapping in high school — first as Super Duper Kyle, then as K.i.D, or “Kyle is Determined.” During shows, he rides a yellow surfboard into the crowd. Early hit “Don’t Wanna Fall in Love” is a floor-filler sampling ’90s one-hit wonder Jane Child. After outshining Big Sean in Donnie Trumpet‘s “Wanna Be Cool,” Kyle danced for Chance the Rapper‘s Optimistic Challenge the day before Donald Trump‘s inauguration.
But Kyle should get used to even more attention. “iSpy” is Kyle rewriting that schoolyard ditty into a summer fling anthem, though its fairground organs and Little Rascals-style “O-tay!” add an extra dose of playfulness. Not only is “iSpy” close to being the country’s No. 1 single (currently it sits at No. 5 on the Hot 100), but it bumped Migos‘ “Bad and Boujee” off the top of Billboard’s Rap Songs chart.
While on his headlining tour, Kyle opened up on the unexpected reason behind his sunny disposition, how he celebrated his most recent chart feat, and what to expect of new music to follow.
“Raining Love” was your first attempt at a “bigger record.” What sparked those ambitions? I wasn’t chasing the song. Up until then, I had only worked with my friends, neighbors. I was rapping to ripped stuff off YouTube. I had first moved to L.A. and I started working with this dude named Bedrock. So this was my first time getting to be in a nice studio and to work with a good producer and not just freestyle for three minutes. Bedrock really tried to make a song. It was the first time I ever felt like Ja Rule. That’s the only way I can describe it. I didn’t think I sounded like Ja Rule, I just felt like Ja Rule. Don’t even analyze it musically.
How did you first realize that people were responding to your music? It was on Facebook, actually. I was doing this obnoxious rapper thing and adding every single person from the surrounding high schools. I would add them as friends. Then, as soon as they clicked ‘accept,’ I would spam their Facebook wall with all my videos. Half of them hated me. But the other half would be like, “Hey, this song is cool.” I saw my first ten fans, and then my first 20 fans. I remember this one time, some kids drove by playing my “Lemonade” freestyle. I was with my mom, and me and my mom felt like Ja Rule.
You first went by Super Duper Kyle to remind yourself that you have complete control over your own happiness. Why was that important for you to convey? I always tell people, your happiness is the most important part of your life. Not how much money you make. Not how tall you are. When you’re a little kid, you don’t understand that life is full of problems. I named myself Super Duper Kyle the day I figured out, I’m gonna have to fight to be happy every day. I wanted to show that to kids and anyone else that is ever going to become a fan of my music. I wanted to swoop in and save the day, and show them that we all have the power to be as happy as we want to be.
But what brought on that realization? You’re still young. But there are people who only figure that out well into their adult lives. When I was around 15, turning 16, my grandfather had passed away. Sorry to get on a super sad note. But, yeah, he was kind of like everything to me. For the first time I was getting depressed, after always being this happy-go-lucky guy. It’s the first time I hit a wall, and I didn’t feel like I could get over it. Kid Cudi‘s music actually played a big part in helping me get over that. But months and months turned into a year, two years of being depressed. And I was like, damn. I can either throw in the towel right now. Or I can choose to get up and fight. When I say “fight,” I mean, as small as they are, spend every day figuring out a reason why today is a good day. That helped me bounce back, and I because Super Duper Kyle. Nothing could bring me down.
Now you have “iSpy,” which is now your first No. 1 Billboard hit. How did that song come together? I was in the studio that day, and everything I had made before that was hella sad, right? Sad, emotional, emo-guy music. Ayo was the dude who produced it. I’m like, “Bro, we need to make the most feel-good banger ever right now.” We were in the same mood, I guess. I sat at the keyboard and started playing [sings]. And as soon as I did that, I looked back at Ayo, like, “Whoa.” I let Ayo play it for real, ’cause I suck at the keyboard; I’m not that raw. Then I hit up my friend Lil [Yachty]: “I think we got a little banger to save the kids.” And Lil Boat was all for it — “I love the kids.” He came through and bodied it in ten minutes.
How did you react to hearing that it’s the No. 1 rap song right now? I’ll tell you exactly what happened. I woke up. I saw the [screencap]. I made it my background on my phone. Walked out of my bunk on the bus into the living room of the bus. My friends were already sitting there waiting. “We Gonna Make It,” Jadakiss and Styles P —we rapped the whole thing verbatim and cried. It was the greatest moment of my life. We’re all shedding tears. It was so dope.
“iSpy” had stiff competition. It unseated Migos’ “Bad and Boujee” — Oh, you’re talking about the rap charts.
On the Hot 100, you’re in the same company as Ed Sheeran. It’s like Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, The Weeknd, and then “iSpy.” So strange.
Why do you think it is popping off? I was lucky enough to have a pretty stable upbringing, so I feel like I know how to make music everybody can relate to and like. That’s always been one of my goals. I think you can have like, 8-year-olds out in the suburbs dancing, and you have like 80-year-olds dancing to it too. Everybody wants to feel good. You ask anybody on the street, “Hey do you like feeling good?” They aren’t like, nah. So I think that’s it: It’s feel good music, and we all want to feel good.
You also cite Will Smith as an inspiration. Is that the main reason why, his universal appeal? Yeah. He’s always been my biggest inspiration — the person I’ve wanted to emulate the most. He’s cultured, too. I feel like the more cultured you are, the more you understand people and the less you fit into a box. People just look at Will Smith as a person; that’s what’s dopest about him. That’s why I want people to look at me. I always tell people I’m biracial. I’m black. I’m white. I’m actually a little bit Native American. I think I got some Dominican Republic in me. I’m just a person. I don’t want nobody to classify me by anything other than my personality. My grandpa always told me there’s two types of people, good and bad. There’s not black and white, there’s not gay or straight. There’s good and bad. Everything else is your personal preference.
You’re on your North American headlining tour; I just missed you in Atlanta. How is it going so far? The tour has been going phenomenal, not even gonna lie. Everything is sold out; that’s the first time that’s happened, and it’s the big rooms. It feels like everybody in the crowd is excited, and that’s the best thing. They’re seeing me come out with the production I have now like, ‘He made it.’ I’m looking at them like, look at all these people, they’re so hype — I made it! Even though we haven’t made it yet, I love how much excitement is around me and my fans right now. We all feel like we’re winning right now, and that’s the dopest part.
That must feel amazing, since you’ve even given out your number to fans. I’m sorry, I just got blown away ’cause two years ago — this completely doesn’t matter. But two years ago, I played in Philly at the Trocadero Theatre. I played the small room, which is 215 [people]. Now we’re playing the big room, which is 1100 people or something. I just walked into the small room, and it’s like a restaurant. That’s crazy.
Speaking of two years ago, your last album Smyle came out in 2015. Is “iSpy” a good indication of what to expect? You know — Smyle, Beautiful Loser. People that are fans understand that we want to make music for everybody. So I got it. There’s a lot of big-time stuff on there. You can definitely expect some more stuff that sounds like “iSpy.” We can get happier than that. You can expect everything in between. I don’t know how else to explain it; You kinda have to know. But, expect it be my best songs I’ve ever written. That’s why I’m so excited about the music. I feel like I’m saying the most.
Do you know what you’re trying to say yet? I do have a grasp of what I want to say. I won’t say the title, because I want to keep that under wraps. But it’s kinda about what we were talking about earlier. It is a personal story about how I was down and out a couple months ago. 2016 was a hard year for me. I felt that battle of trying to stay extra happy. I felt like I was losing last year. [The album] tells the story of how I came back, and how I found my light again. I’m gonna show you how to do the same thing. If you out there having a bad year, somewhere in a really dark place, don’t worry. I’m about to brighten your day up.
Does it mean dancing like you were in Chance the Rapper’s Optimistic Challenge? Yes, optimism. That is a great thing I’m trying to say: optimism.