The craziest week of Rory Fresco’s life started on Jan. 8.
That Friday, Fresco (whose real name is Terrell Johnson Jr.), woke up and did what he always does: check his SoundCloud to see how many plays his music, specifically his latest release, “Lowkey,” had received.
The song had dropped a week prior, on New Year’s Eve, and sat at around 6,000 plays. About usual. The 18-year-old left his father’s basement, which doubles as his bedroom and recording studio, to get breakfast. He returned 20 minutes later to an unusual spike: “Lowkey” at 8,000 plays.
A few minutes later: 10,000 plays.
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Excited and confused, Fresco called friends to make sense of the song’s sudden popularity. It was then that a fellow SoundCloud user alerted him to an unbelievable stroke of luck.
When Kanye West released his first “The Life of Pablo” album single, “Real Friends/No More Parties in L.A.,” earlier that day, SoundCloud’s programming algorithm selected Fresco’s “Lowkey” from a pool of more than 200 million possible other songs to automatically play afterward, via the “related tracks” feature. Basically, every listener who let West’s song play through on SoundCloud was being automatically directed to Fresco’s “Lowkey.”
Fifty-seven million. That’s the number of times people have trekked to SoundCloud to play “Real Friends” since its debut.
As of Feb. 16, “Lowkey” has amassed over 1.42 million SoundCloud plays.
In the meantime, popular blogs and publications like Complex magazine, Pigeons & Planes and The Fader.com have turned their eyes to Kansas City. The Fader said the local rapper was having music’s “best day ever”; another writer went so far as to call Fresco’s fortunes one of the greatest accidental breaks ever for an independent artist. (I reached out to SoundCloud’s press department for comment; they have not responded.)
Even more incredible than the exposure is “Lowkey’s” popularity within the harsh world of online opinion. The syrupy auto-tuned anthem is receiving almost universal praise from fans and critics alike.
“Yeezy brought me to this fire!” says one SoundCloud commenter. “Lowkey this should be on the radio in Cali,” says another. “Message me if you want to make an appearance in Toronto,” posits another.
Fresco has gained fans from every corner of the world from Los Angeles to London and Paris. He has given interviews to BET and received Twitter shoutouts from Funkmaster Flex.
Weeks later the hysteria has somewhat leveled out, but the buzz, along with a newfound pressure to capitalize and succeed, subsists. Plans for a follow-up single to “Lowkey,” his debut album “Hollywood Rebel,” and figuring out what will be his first real steps into the music industry have all suddenly been forced into overdrive.
The Best Week Ever is over. Now what?
I first meet Fresco a week and a half after “the day,” in his father’s Grandview basement where he makes all of his music.
It’s a cold, bare bones enclave next to the family garage. There’s a washer and dryer, storage rack full of shoes and a bed. Next to the bed is the musician’s setup: laptop, speakers, expensive production equipment and the musician — currently the most buzzed-about rapper in Kansas City not named Tech N9ne.
“Everybody in the city knows who I am now,” Fresco tells me. His voice is croaky and hushed, rarely ever raising above a murmur. For a musician, he’s incredibly — painstakingly — succinct, rarely saying more than 10 words at a time. “I like to let my work do the talking,” he says.
He’s tall (6-foot-2), spindly and fashionable in the vein of his idol and benefactor Kanye West — skinny H&M jeans, black Timberland boots, vintage polo sweater.
I ask if the pressure makes him nervous: “Not at all. I’m more than ready, honestly.”
This isn’t totally true. Fresco may be eager for stardom, but so far he hasn’t shown that he’s quite prepared for it.
In the days after going viral, when the buzz reached a fever pitch, he simply stopped answering his phone. For the student at Longview Community College who works part time at Best Buy, the constant barrage — fans and friends, journalists, record labels, opportunists — became overwhelming.
“This industry is full of sharks,” Fresco’s father, Terrell Johnson Sr., says. During the craziness he has stepped in and become Fresco’s acting manager, publicist and business partner. “It’s just about what blood turns them on.”
Few things turn the music industry “on” more than talented, undiscovered potential. And with SoundCloud’s growing reputation as the go-to app for aspiring artists, it’s irresistible to industry insiders in search of the next big thing.
The hottest new name in R&B right now is a SoundCloud discovery. Louisville, Ky., native Bryson Tiller was working at Papa John’s and living out of his car when he uploaded his song “Don’t” to SoundCloud in October 2014. Not long after, heavyweights like Timbaland and Drake were giving him co-signs. Now, Tiller has signed a major label record deal with RCA and released a debut album, “Trapsoul,” that’s being heralded as a game-changer by The New York Times.
Like Tiller, Fresco works from the disadvantage of being from a city not known for cranking out music stars: “You don’t really hear of people making it out of Kansas City,” he says. “But I am. My vision is to evolve KC’s rap scene.”
That vision begins with his forthcoming debut album, “Hollywood Rebel.” “It’s me telling my story of making it to Hollywood. … I don’t want to just work in a cubicle or take classes or work my normal life. It’s me rebelling against what society already has planned for me.”
Like nearly all rappers today, Fresco and his music are molded in the image of West and Drake. He plays planned “Rebel” tracks and there are jagged “Yeezus”-like synths and Chief Keef drawls and flow cadences. Brooding Kid Cudi chords and atmospheric production are reminiscent of Drake’s go-to in-house producer Noah “40” Shebib.
“Lowkey” showcases Fresco’s biggest asset: his ability to write, produce and perform (“I write and produce like 95 percent of my music,” he says). But it also shines light on his biggest flaw: the lack of a truly singular sound.
“Lowkey” has been compared to Drake, R&B act PartyNextDoor, and rapper Travi$ Scott. This is partly because the Internet can’t help but compare everything to everything else but also because “Lowkey” does in fact sound like all those things.
Tiller was able to find success by flipping the script. “Trapsoul” employs chest-beating rap, but only as second fiddle to earnest, soulful R&B. Its allure and idiosyncrasy lie in being the inverse of Drake and all his industry derivatives.
Fresco’s music so far (he has three other songs on his SoundCloud) is impressive but hardly unique. It’s something he admits and says will change with “Rebel.”
“It’s kind of hard to see with the songs I’ve got right now,” he says. “But you will see with some of the songs I’ve got coming that I’ve been kind of mastering my own kind of sound and flow. I’m still growing as an artist.”
We meet up again a few weeks later and things have been moving. Ten minutes before we sit down at a table at Magnolia’s restaurant in south KC, Fresco posts a link to his Twitter account teasing fans with a trailer for the upcoming “Lowkey” music video he plans to release this week. (Update: the video dropped Feb. 17.)
He has more time for music now after fulfilling his promise to quit his job after “Lowkey” hit a million plays. It has given him time for more important things, like being flown out to Universal Music Group’s New York offices to discuss a potential production deal, guest-speaking to students at his alma mater, Summit Technology Academy, and visiting the SoundCloud New York headquarters, where he was able to sign the “SoundCloud door” next to noted rap names like A$AP Ferg, Chief Keef and … Tiller. “A lot of people see my potential now,” he says, “(success) seems achievable.”
Fresco and his camp expect to make a decision on a label deal in the next two to three weeks and release “Hollywood Rebel” sometime in the fall.
When “Rebel” does drop, the first sound listeners will hear on the intro track is Fresco panting feverishly, running away from something. From what, exactly, we are never told. Is it expectation? Pressure? Record label sharks? His ex? Pesky journalists? Perhaps it is none of these things. Perhaps it is all of them.
Or maybe, Fresco isn’t running away at all.
Maybe he’s running toward something greater than he ever could have imagined.