For Laney Keyz, Rap is a Serious Balancing Act

The Oakland-bred rapper discusses rising fast while doing his best to stay grounded.

“I don’t want to be famous.” 

In under ten minutes, Laney Keyz has twice repeated this proclamation — and even he admits that it is an unusual sentiment for a rapper to hold. If you have listened to his music, you might have heard it put (more melodically): “I’m not looking for no clout / I know that fakes come with it.” Anonymity, he makes clear throughout our interview, isn’t an artistic statement, it is a necessary defensive posture. 

A more forceful iteration of the idea: “I don’t care to be famous at all.” 

But if you have been paying any attention at all, to the taciturn 23-year-old rapper from Oakland, it is clear that Laney Keyz will soon have trouble avoiding fame. In the last five months he has released a handful of singles whose enthusiastic reception suggest a musician rapidly outgrowing — or perhaps skipping entirely — the “local rapper” moniker. Yet even as fame outpaces his best intentions, Laney Keyz’s digital fingerprints remain remarkably sparse. At the time of our interview, only seven videos were posted to his YouTube channel (where, it should be noted, they average views in the hundreds of thousands). His account on music streaming services have even fewer songs posted — and even more streams. 

In the middle of a pandemic that has put the music industry on indefinite pause, Laney Keyz appears to have come out of nowhere. In some ways that is exactly what happened, in some ways that is exactly how Laney Keyz wants it told. “I’m from Oakland,” he says plainly, “I ain’t from nowhere.”

Of his upbringing, Laney Keyz is strikingly — and deliberately — reticent. He was raised alongside five adopted siblings. He didn’t meet his biological parents until he was a teenager. He now lives in Los Angeles, but maintains a close connection to his family in the 510. There is, of course, more to this personal history. To Laney’s manifest discomfort, past interviewers have pried details about adolescent years marked by frequent incarceration, stories of siblings, an uncle known around the neighborhood for rapping. They like to hear him draw parallels between his journey and Meek Mill’s (a noted influence of Laney’s).  It isn’t that Laney doesn’t consider these details important to his musical rise, but rather, his survival instincts resist oversharing. Hearing him describe in such general terms events like his most recent stint in jail, the decision to devote himself to music, and the family he credits for keeping him from trouble, you’d guess that Oakland really was nowhere — or rather, anywhere. But the microphones and interviewers have arrived with their questions, expecting answers, and Laney says, “I have to make that compromise.”

At this point in his career, no word better describes Laney’s day-to-day: compromise. Perhaps the most important example of this is found in his musical composition. Listen to a song like “Drop Top Coupe,” and you might think you have Laney pegged. First there is the title’s glorification of fancy whips, then there drifts in a smooth Spanish-style guitar, and inevitably we arrive at tales of amorous misadventures in a penthouse. Or the song “Russia” — again, we have a car (at least in the music video), next the gentle plucks of a guitar, and finally a catchy, elastic beat. Taken together, these songs embody what Laney Keyz calls a “melodic kind-of-like trap sound.” The hesitance and qualifiers are critical. Because, as Laney makes clear, this isn’t the style of music that he wants to create forever. In fact, this style isn’t even a style, it is a “kind-of-like” style. It isn’t a realized substance.

Laney is clear-eyed and honest when he tells me that the music he has thus far released doesn’t represent his ambitions or the depths of his personality. “You couldn’t play one of the songs that I have out and understand the kind of person that I am.” While he acknowledges how fun his current singles are — their banger-qualities as it were — to him they are stepping stones in the direction of a sound that is more meaningful. There are obvious contradictions here. Namely, this self-described introvert is admitting to the necessity of fame (or something like it) to achieve his ends. 

Laney’s story exemplifies the dictum that music made by people of color, especially rap music, is inexorably tied to the social conditions that engender it. This is obvious enough, but what people often fail to consider are the various compromises enmeshed in that relationship. For Laney, it means artistic achievement is both diluted by, and derives value from, its utility; in this case, helping to get his family out of Oakland. Because remember, Oakland is nowhere. 

“People blowing up out of Oakland, the Bay Area… I could literally count on one hand — I could count on less than one hand — all the artists that are actually lit from the Bay Area.” Here, the word “lit” doesn’t function as a commentary on the quality of their music, but on the fact of the artist being secure — in every sense of the word. 

The resurgence of the Bay Area sound over the last decade might lend itself to a paradisiacal image: the Bay (a term that is just code for Oakland) is a place that is always popping; here, the music never stops, the latest singles move fluidly from recording studio to house party to Spotify. You’d imagine every week someone is breaking big. But a survey of chart-topping hits reveals that the ubiquity of the Bay-area sound is more a product of its appropriation from producers and artists outside the region; and not the result of a mechanism for uplifting local talent. Speaking to Laney Keyz, you’ll find a sober-eyed evaluation of what it’s really like: “Where I’m from you got two choices: you gonna pick up a gun or you gonna pick up a book. I did the second one.”

It is striking that the rapper didn’t see his choice as one between a gun or a microphone. Or a gun and a tape-recorder. Laney describes biding his time in jail reading self-help books and “story books.” And maybe it speaks to the untenability of books as a viable path to success that Laney ultimately became a musician. Or maybe it just speaks to Laney’s grit that he broke the equation introduced above, creating and bubbling in his own third option. (Here it’s worth noting that Laney takes his stage name from Laney College, a place he describes as a middling community college in Oakland where admission nonetheless symbolizes a triumph over poverty and crime.)

So what happened when Laney picked up the books and later a recorder? Simple: a quiet rise beginning with a low-key audio setup in his home and part-time songwriting for other musicians. Later he recorded a mixtape (since taken down from streaming sites) with San Jose producer Traxamillion. After that came his early singles, a big boost from a collaboration with Lil Yachty, and more collaborations with Lil Keed and Lil Tjay waiting in the wings.

All the while, the dual questions of authenticity and compromise have loomed over his journey, and Laney meets them with self-awareness and ease. Even as he critiques the tropes of women and cars in his music videos, he is preparing the release of a new music video that will showcase more genuine lyrical content. At the same time that he pokes fun at his melodic trap croon, he is sitting on a vault of singles so eclectic that he jokes I wouldn’t recognize him on the track. And while identifying as an introvert, Laney craves a genuine connection with his fans. “I don’t want anyone to forget that I’m human,” he says in a marked display of vulnerability that comes after a half-hour ducking questions deemed too prying.

None of this should be interpreted to suggest that Laney Keyz is simply putting on an act while he awaits a moment to turn into the “real” rapper that he sees himself to be. Even as he compromises, Laney is adamant about holding onto the people that keep him grounded. High on that list are his family members, some of whom he has already helped to move out of Oakland. Along with family he speaks often of humility. He speaks about loyalty to old friends. Asked about the producers he has worked with, Laney indicates a preference for in-house partners, people he can trust. “I don’t fuck with 90 percent of the people in my messages.”

Through all the layers of obfuscation, it is clear who Laney isn’t trying to duck questions and accountability from. One of his latest singles, “Russia,” is marked by distinct reprieves from the braggadocio and partying during which Laney speaks plainly to the people back home. “Stay tuned / We gonna make it out the hood one day soon.” Caught beneath the bounce and the beat, this line almost slips between the cracks. Maybe, like a coded message, it’s meant to. It’s Laney turning to his family, winking at his real fans, promising a day when won’t need to compromise.

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