Kanii: “I don’t hold back when I express how I feel”

Kanii: “I don’t hold back when I express how I feel”

Each and every week, it’s not uncommon for a new music sensation to emerge and skyrocket to sudden online fame with a hip-jerking hit. The latest is Kanii: a Washington DC-born dance-pop newcomer who embodies pure eclecticism in his music. Whether you’re swaying to his Jersey club beats, grooving to his ’80s-inspired melodies, or getting pumped up with his 2010s jerk-style tunes, one thing’s guaranteed: there’s serious promise in the 18-year-old’s songs beyond a flash-in-the-pan moment.

Kanii’s enchanting style has already earned him his first Billboard Hot 100 entry with the thumping ‘I Know’. The song adopts Jersey club’s signature rocking chair squeak and off-kilter bass, which is currently a favourite on TikTok. Initially, Cookiee Kawaii had spread the Jersey club gospel on the platform with her 2020 smash ‘Vibe’, but its popularity blossomed further once New Jersey rappers merged their regional sound with New York drill to form Jersey Club drill.

Kanii, surprisingly, doesn’t have an extensive knowledge of Jersey’s musical landscape. Instead, he uses his “very selective taste” to incorporate elements that he “may not have even heard before.” He adds, “I just follow the music instead of being influenced by something specific.”

Kanii on The Cover of NME. Credit: Kristen Jan Wong

“My generation; they love to move and dance,” Kanii says, explaining why he loves to keep that upbeat nature in his music. “The whole Jersey Club stuff started from and was kept alive through the dancing so as long as the music is keeping the high energy, it’ll stay popping.”

Boosted by a bassy remix by PR1SVX, ‘I Know’ has soundtracked hundreds of thousands of memes on the app. It’s not the only time he’s had viral success; in 2022, he gained attention with his bouncy 2000s-throwback ‘Attachment (She Wanna Love)’, and again last year with the ethereal 9Lives-produced ‘Go (Xtayalive 2)’. The latter also sparked another dance craze that is now an emote in the popular survival game Fortnite.

NME meets Kanii (real name Kani Shorter Jr.) on Zoom the week of yet another milestone: his Rolling Loud debut in California. His next step is preparing to tour with PinkPantheress as the support for the British artist’s first-ever North American tour. “It’s gonna be lit,” he says. “Honestly, I’m a little nervous, but you know, I think it’ll go alright.”

This January, he left America for the first time and embarked on the three-date European leg of his ‘It Was Nice Knowing U’ tour, which stopped in London, Amsterdam and Berlin. At the London show, NME wrote: “The endearing quality of his songs – particularly the soaring ‘Demon Girl’ – can be found in how his audience connects with his youthful love stories; this evening, the room belts out the lyrics in a cathartic, heartfelt exchange.”

Credit: Kristen Jan Wong

It wasn’t just NME who was left impressed by the gig. “PinkPatheress was actually at the London show,” Kanii reveals. “She was super incognito, but she was there… I never expected to travel somewhere like that through music, so it was nice.”

There are still a handful of dates left on Kanii’s ‘It Was Nice Knowing U’ tour, which will resume on April 9 in Chicago. The string of shows is in support of Kanii’s latest EP that was released in November of last year. The record is a collection of electrified pop tracks, conveying the ever-changing yet confusing nature of love through simple lyrics filled with emotional transparency.

“That one was probably my favourite to create,” he says of the project. “I feel like it’s my best body of work to date because I had a vision with that and I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I knew exactly what kind of message I wanted to get across.”

On his second major-label release, Kanii wanted to show his “versatility beyond the Jersey club stuff” he’s become known for. “My project before was pretty dance-focused and was very upbeat. With ‘It Was Nice Knowing U’, I delve into a more R&B-ish vibe while continuing that dance momentum.”

“If I put my all into my music, it could help somebody else”

On the EP, Kanii further cemented the unique sound he’s dubbed “retro-futurism”. He explains: “I take a lot of inspiration from the old stuff that I like and I try to put a new twist to it.” If this musical nostalgia seems trending among Gen Z and its budding stars, it’s probably because “our generation isn’t close enough to that era of music so we are showing appreciation to it,” Kanii says. The best example of this is his recent collaborative project with fellow “retro vibes” revivalists Nimstarr and Riovaz. They joined forces as The Heart Racers and in February released their debut self-titled EP, named after their first song together, ‘Heart Racing’ from Kanii’s 2023 EP ‘Exiit’.

Kanii shares their origin story: “Everyone in our fan base enjoyed ‘Heart Racing’ and we felt there’s not another boyband of minorities doing anything like this. So we were just like, ‘Yo, let’s really make it something more than just a song.’ So we ended up making the project and we’re getting a lot of good feedback so we’re going to keep pushing with it. Hopefully, it’s another project soon.”

The dancey notes in Kanii’s music are inspired by Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and the other Motown stars he heard while driving around with his grandfather as a child. Similarly, his mother’s love for Beyoncé and Keyshia Cole nurtured the yearning soul he taps for his signature candid lyrics.

“My lyrics are the most authentic to what I have going on in life,” Kanii says, detailing how he can write so openly about his feelings. “I feel like if I put my all into my music, it could help somebody else. I don’t hold back when I express how I feel. I know there will be someone too scared to put it all out there and could be listening to the music to express themselves.”

Credit: Kristen Jan Wong

Kanii’s biggest inspiration is Michael Jackson, whose decades-long career (with its share of controversies) changed pop music forever. “He’s the GOAT of all GOATs in my opinion,” Kanii says. “Even now, no one’s captivating the world like how Michael Jackson did. So, that’s what draws me into his artistry a lot. He was a perfectionist and it pushed me to want to be the best at what I do and take it seriously.”

Kanii listens to Jackson “more than any other artist”, citing his 1995 funk-rock song ‘Tabloid Junkie’ as his favourite track. “From listening to his old stuff in the ’80s – that’s where the whole retro-futurism thing that I’m tryna push originated from. I was like, ‘Yo! This shit is fire!’ I’m always taking sound selections from the ’80s and trying to revive it and make it feel new.”

Funnily enough, one of Kanii’s contemporary heroes believes there’s similarities between him and Jackson. Trippie Redd is a seminal name from the SoundCloud melodic rap era in the late 2010s – when Kanii was discovering his own musical tastes. In what Kanii calls a “full-circle moment”, Trippie Redd featured on the remix of his 2023 single, ‘Sins (Let Me In)’. Kanii had gone from having Redd’s 2020 mixtape ‘A Love Letter To You 4’ on repeat in school pre-COVID to finally meeting his idol in a studio session.

“I want to be around forever through the music”

“It was lit,” Kanii remembers. “I was super quiet – I’m not usually the loudest person in the room – but he was like, ‘Yo, what’s good? What’s your name? You want to play some music?’ I did and he was like, ‘Bro, you sound like a mini Michael Jackson’”.

Kanii is the definition of bedroom pop. At just 12 years old, he tried his luck making music “on BandLab before BandLab was even big.” He got hooked and decided that he wanted to be a pop star. TikTok has been instrumental to his journey, and Kanii is well-aware of the connotations some foist onto the term ‘TikTok star’.

“People throw that around like it’s a negative thing,” he says. “TikTok is a discovery app. People call people TikTok artists, but it’s because they’re finding music through the app. I feel like 90 per cent of the music that people are listening to on mainstream radio or playlists like New Music Friday comes straight from TikTok. That’s just what it is.

“Before it was TikTok, people were coming from Instagram. Before that, it was Facebook, Vine, Myspace, and even Musical.ly. Billie Eilish’s ‘Ocean Eyes’ was popping up on Musical.ly back before it was TikTok. There’s always going to be some platform pushing out new artists.”

Credit: Kristen Jan Wong

Besides, Kanii doesn’t think the term applies to him any longer. “I’ve slowly gotten out of that whole realm of being a ‘TikTok artist’ because I’ve had songs do well that weren’t pushed super crazy on TikTok. The proof is in the pudding – I can drop a music video unannounced and it’s still getting views. The fanbase is there.”

The music video he is referring to is an unofficial one for the kaleidoscopic throwaway ‘hate me’, which perfectly shows Kanii’s ability to channel his experiences into succinct songs that capture the rawness of human emotions. Over the brooding beat, he scorns a past lover who he despised with his fucking soul, asking them: “Why the fuck you always up to somethin’?

When NME asked if it exemplifies Kanii’s new musical direction, he replies: “I’m doing more melodic stuff. I’ve been trying to dabble into the rap vibes and expand my sound.” He also confirms he is working on an album, but it’s “very early” to tell what it will sound like.

When looking to the future and his plans for global domination, Kanii simply wants to make sure his “kid’s kids are straight”: having a career that can sustain generational wealth. But, money isn’t the be-all and end-all.

“I wanna heal people through music,” Kanii says. “Your memorability through the art that you create is what keeps you around forever, and I want to be around forever through the music. I feel like Michael Jackson is never going to die because he had the craziest impact on the world that people are going to be talking to him until the end of time.

“Right now, I’m working on creating the best music that I can and putting my all into it, because I know that real music speaks. So as long as I’m trying my hardest, it’ll get to somebody.”

Kanii’s ‘It Was Nice Knowing U’ is out now. His EP ‘The Heart Racers’, with Riovaz and Nimstarr, is out now

Listen to Kanii’s exclusive playlist to accompany The Cover below on Spotify and here on Apple Music

Words: Kyann-Sian Williams
Photography: Kristen Jan Wong
Styling: Moses Zay Fofana
Label: Masked Records/Warner

The post Kanii: “I don’t hold back when I express how I feel” appeared first on NME.

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