Kota the Friend is a rare breed. It’s not every day that an artist primarily driven by the intrinsic desire to create rises to the upper echelons of an industry dominated by consumerism and attention economics. In a way, he represents a total rejection of the quintessential Hollywood music scene; beholden to no label, no apparent commanding desire for money or status, none of the paralyzing sense of obligation to fans borne of desperation for eternal relevance. At least ostensibly, he makes music just to make music.
Last Friday’s independent release of his fourth album, Everything, not only highlighted his individuality as an artist but, raised a question that so rarely takes such a public stage: how does art evolve in a vacuum?
My first reaction to the album was: same old Kota. It’s not that his sound hasn’t evolved- the flow is more effortless, the lyrics wiser, the production smoother- but it’s incremental change. In a way, it feels like a more honest evolution. His music doesn’t bow to reflect the hits on the radio (or TikTok or whatever), nor does it get so formulaic and repetitive that it becomes a parody of itself, like so many A-list artists. It doesn’t even become increasingly esoteric in some *ahem* Childish, oblique rejection of the mainstream (no hate here, you do you DG).
But it does change. Kota doesn’t reject growth as an artist, he just grows in his own direction, at his own pace, seemingly motivated by nothing but a deep-seated need for artistic expression. On “Seven (Interlude),” he says “I gotta create, to know I’m alive, to know that there’s always gonna be something more.” It’s increasingly apparent that Kota’s “something more” isn’t money, power, or fame. What he’s striving for is an expansion of self, a commanding hold on the only truly bottomless well: the ability to create something out of nothing.
With pure goals come pure practices. It’s important to recognize the necessity of growth for survival, but it’s infinitely more important to recognize that the need for growth is an obligation to no one but oneself. Everything reveals that Kota the Friend has made that distinction, and has achieved the relief that comes along with it. It’s not that he’s a stranger to the grind- you have to grind to put up those numbers as an independent artist- but his characterization of his relationship with work and art is neither obsessive nor compulsive. He doesn’t let the endless pursuit prevent him from appreciating the fruits of success.
As he puts it himself, in a spoken interlude, “One day I’m gonna die, you know? And so none of this will matter. All of the work I put in will not matter […] since none of this will matter, I may as well balance it.” When you create just to create, there’s no need to work any more than you want to work.
If Kota the Friend can be a case study for the triumph of art over the industry, growth as an expression rather than growth as a response, or the noble pursuit of inner peace… well, he makes a pretty good case! In the penultimate track of Everything, a soliloquy from actor Lakeith Stanfield appropriately summarizes the album, thematically: “To have everything is to be dead. As long as there’s something to strive for, something to continue to work towards, we validate our existence. Just try to have some fun while you’re doing it.” Fighting the good fight is what keeps us alive. Just remember every so often to take a break and remember what you’re fighting for.