Bktherula is in another dimension

BKTHERULA wears jacket archive RAF SIMONS courtesy of ARTIFACT, trousers LUU DAN, boots UGG, hat archive BLESS courtesy of ARTIFACT and jewellery (worn throughout) talent’s own

She is one of the most exhilarating artists in rap. She’s also a quantum physics student who operates in a place she calls Level 5. The 21-year-old beams us up to the surreal philosophy behind her psychedelic, genre-hopping sound.

Taken from the new print issue of THE FACE. Get your copy here.

Over oysters at Brooklyn’s Dumbo House, the members-only club of choice for New York City’s cultural and financial elites, Bktherula is telling me about – what else? – her massive, horror-themed toy collection.

I have, like, the original Candyman, a 1990s fuckin’ toy,” she says, as the suits around us twiddle their thumbs over laptops and coffee. It’s old as fuck and it’s going for a lot… But I’m never selling that shit.”

The rapper born Brooklyn Rodriguez proceeds to proudly run me through the figurines that inspire her psychedelic music: on the walls of her home studio in Atlanta you’ll find a massive Annabelle doll, a sinister Conjuring nun, a Killer Klown here, a Friday the 13th Jason figurine there. The 21-year-old is the proud owner of more wholesome toys, too, such as a gaggle of Spongebob characters and an assortment of Tech Deck mini skateboards.

My brother used to have the WWE toys and, on my birthday, I would get mad as hell when I didn’t get the same thing,” she says. I got, like, girly shit.”

Bk’s collecting hobby stems from pure childhood instinct. But it also points to her obsessiveness and eclecticism as a curator, mirroring the rapper’s funhouse approach to songwriting. Since first generating underground heat in 2018, she’s chased raw feeling like a lab scientist, deploying melody and madness to hone a style she describes as mantra music”. She’s a star among a new generation of American rappers – from fashionista Babyxsosa to rage rappers Ken Carson and Destroy Lonely – embracing unhinged rhyme patterns and fluid flows. The kind of artists who draw more inspiration from Chief Keef and Playboi Carti than J. Cole and Drake.

Today, Bk’s wearing crisp carpenter jeans she found on Amazon and a splotchy black and blue tee commemorating her recent, fourth album, LVL5 P1 (it stands for Level 5 Player One). A sea of chains drowns her neck, while the teal tips of her long brown braids match the Crayola kids’ plaster below her left eye that’s covering a healing dermal piercing. She stands out like a glowing thumb in Dumbo House, but if she’s turning heads, she’s totally unfazed.

Bk says that since the age of 16 she’s been operating on what she calls Level 5, an egoless” place and mindset somewhere in the fifth dimension [a conceptual, unobservable micro-dimension of space”Cosmos Ed.]. She claims to be uninhibited by rules and pressures by untouched clout, and navigates the universe on her own terms. She put a name to the idea after she graduated from high school (“My science teachers loved the fuck out of me cause I love fucking science, bro”) and enrolled in online quantum physics classes at the University of Tokyo.

I woke up and felt all these feelings that I never felt,” she says of her spaceship-to-Damascus moment. I had all these thoughts that I never had [before]. Then I went to everyone else and tried to talk about it and everyone was like: What are you talking about?’ I realised, wait… no one else goes through this? This isn’t a 16-year-old going through 16-year-old’ type shit?’” she says, still incredulous.

Jacket CARHARTT WIP and dress (worn over) ANNA BOLINA

As prolific as she is cosmically inclined, the newly enlightened teen dropped three albums and a string of tracks between 2020 and 2021. But none of her previous projects compare to LVL5 P1, released in February this year. The album trims the fat, flipping through Atlanta trap, scuzzy rage rap and gooey R&B like a highlights reel.

Each style represents a different Bk persona, with characters taking turns to steer the creative vision at any given time: pretty bitch” Tanya comes out on the glacial club cut Back. Rue Santan explodes across the cybernetic stomp of the album’s intro track, Tan. Rula is all about lust and decadence, cataloguing her Rick Owens collection while reminiscing about an old flame on the thrilling Destroy Lonely duet Forever, Pt 2. There’s also Tanjenica, a new, particularly unhinged character we might hear more of on the upcoming LVL5 P2. As Bk puts it, I don’t know when they’re about to pull up.”

She’s aware of how eccentric this all seems. I’m gonna be portrayed as crazy, especially because I have more knowledge. People who have another type of knowledge are going to be portrayed as crazy, because they’re not [on the same] level as other people.”

She pauses, then lowers her voice, making me lean in amid the thrum of the restaurant. If you look around, we’re kind of the only people that are, like, very, very, very expressive. It’s not on purpose. This is just Level 5 shit.”

Bk learned to embrace herself after being hardened by experiences beyond her control. The clearest memory she holds from her Atlanta childhood is of being bullied intensely, I guess for not being like everyone else,” she says. I just wasn’t trying to dress like other n****s or talk like other n****s. I got bullied one time for wearing a hoodie and overalls.” (Ironically, she’s now making waves in the fashion world, fronting a Marc Jacobs campaign in June and walking the runway for Nigerian designer Mowalola at London Fashion Week in February.)

Bk found herself in music. Her dad, once a member of an underground rap group called Planet X, played her their old cassettes in his SUV. When she was seven or eight, she would perform raps she scrawled for him, asking for his critique. According to her mum, a singer, Bk always wanted to be on stage at the VMAs and BET Awards that would play annually on the family TV. She helped her daughter make her first track with a tape recorder when she was nine.

By 14, Bk had posted her first song on SoundCloud and was fully immersed in the platform’s churn of underground rap talent, much of which emerged from her own city. She started attending weekly shows, networking across different generations of Atlanta hip hop, eventually performing at intimate events hosted by local media platform Lotus Rosery.

Then, just as her career was taking off, Covid struck. Bk tells me she was lonelier than ever during the pandemic. But the isolation also helped get her mind right, as she took time to work out, practise yoga and let her natural hair do whatever it felt like.

She still feels more comfortable dressing in a masculine way, but thinks that some of the fans she attracts for doing so are fuelled by hip hop’s deep-seated misogynoir. I’ve seen a lot of people say, Oh, we fuck with Bk cuz she don’t talk about her ass,’” she says. But it’s like, yo, damn, why can’t you just fuck with me because I’m making good music?”

One prominent fan: the artist formerly known as Kanye West. In August 2021, Bk tweeted that she had made music with Ye. Their mutual, Mowalola, the once-design director of Yeezy Gap, had introduced him to Bktherula’s music. Ye was so impressed he flew her out to Los Angeles to work on music for his album Donda. But when I bring up Ye, her speech falters.

What do you want to ask?” she says eventually, curtly.

Just basically… what was that like?”

I [had] just turned 18,” she begins, carefully. It prepared me for what the industry was like. It let me know this shit ain’t really…” She pauses. “… what I thought it was, and everyone doesn’t have the same thoughts that I have.
I don’t know. I just realised that I belong somewhere of my own and not under someone, you know? No malice, but I felt like I belonged somewhere…” Another pause. “… not there.”

Any kid would feel that way around, like, 40-year-olds,” she continues, you know what I’m saying? Imagine being young as hell and you meet the greatest artist of all time. If I was to be there now, it would have been a completely different story. But I was young, emotional, sensitive, and I didn’t know shit about how business works. It was a very good learning experience.” At this point, one of her managers, who’s been sitting with us at the table without saying anything, asks me to change the subject.

Although the Ye collab never saw the light of day, Bk won the approval of another maverick rap superstar: NBA YoungBoy, the extremely popular outlaw from Louisiana who’s renowned for unleashing raw emotion in the booth. Despite being ranked as 2022’s most popular artist on YouTube in the US, he’s distanced himself from most mainstream rappers in favour of outsider collaborators such as iLoveMakonnen. NBA YoungBoy is, if my understanding of the concept is correct, very Level 5.

Vest ANNA BOLINA, jumper (worn underneath) COACH and jeans LUU DAN

Earlier this year, Bk almost laughed off a DM from YoungBoy’s manager because she thought it was fake. But then YoungBoy himself called and told her he loved LVL5 P1 track Crazy Girl. Within days, she was at his mansion in Utah to shoot the video for their collab Crazy Girl P2, befriending his wife and playing baseball with his kids. She tells me that the experience was validating because a lot of n****s try to blacklist me and act like I don’t exist, and then the biggest n***a hit me and said he wants to work. I feel like that just showed me how I’m on the right path.”

A few days after our interview, I tag along to Bk’s FACE shoot at a studio in East Williamsburg. It’s around 2pm. The musician’s been here since 8am. Her manager is worried that she’s exhausted and won’t be fully present for her show in Manhattan tonight. Nonetheless, a sense of calm fills the air as the artist emerges from the dressing room dressed like a Jedi in brown, draped robes and
a furry, beige Margiela hat. Her hairdresser throws on a raucous song by rage rapper Ken Carson as Bktherula gets herself in the mode for the bright lights, probing eyes and flashy camera. Enter player one, fully Level 5.

Dress MARC JACOBS, jumper archive RAF SIMONS courtesy of ARTIFACT and trousers JW ANDERSON


Make-up Mollie Gloss producers Adam Lilley, Katherine Bampton and Jonah Candelario lighting assistant Jeton Bakalli stylist’s assistant Sebastian Acero

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