When Playboi Carti dropped his debut mixtape last week, it featured two well-known names within his orbit: Lil Uzi Vert, Carti’s good friend and frequent collaborator, and A$AP Rocky, who brought Carti under his wing via the Harlem MC’s AWGE collective. But there was a third feature on a song called “Flex” named Leven Kali, and though he’s been making noise in the industry for months now, he seemed to come out of left field on the tape.
Born in Santa Monica, the 22-year-old singer/songwriter/producer (who used to be a D1 golfer) is an all-around talent with a hefty portion of pop infused into his songs. He borrows some of his phrasing from hip-hop, but he’s more like a mix of Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars, blending lush production with breezy vocals primed for the dance floor.
With his recent singles “Joy” and “Cassandra” bubbling online, Leven spoke to XXL about how he linked up with Carti, what he did on the track and who he’s working with now. After the interview, spin some of his best joints via SoundCloud.
XXL: Tell us about yourself.
Leven Kali: I’m from Santa Monica, West L.A. and I’ve been born into music, everyone in my family does music. Tommy [Nowels, his manager] and I kind of just joined forces, we went to the same school, and we’ve just been pushing music. We both played sports in college and we dropped that shit to really push our music and focus on writing records, producing records, doing artwork, music videos. And we’re kind of right now just doing all that type of creative shit and making our own little movement out here in Santa Monica. And it’s grown, and it’s tight. We’re on the Carti tape, we’ve got stuff coming out, I have a project that I’m working on.
How did you and Carti first get in touch?
I was in New York and he was in New York at the same time. One of the people on his team, we had a mutual friend connection, so we linked up on a random session with no goal but mind. But we just got along really well and it was a good night, so we just made that song in the first night and it was cool. And that was really it, it was really random. It was just through friendships and connections. And A$AP Rocky, we met a couple times and kicked it with him.
It was kind of just being around. It seems random, but it’s really not. If you look at my SoundCloud, I have tracks with this guy Brandon Thomas. He produced [OG Maco’s] “U Guessed It” and Brandon works with a lot of people, so through all these friendships and connections we then get known around other situations and all that shit. So that’s kind of how it’s been happening. Pretty random, but since day one we’ve been fucking with these Atlanta cats.
Who produced the record?
I think the guy’s name is Castle Got Beats, and the other guy, I forget his name. And then I played music over the beat, so we kind of just co-produced it.
You produce as well, right?
So what did you play over the beat?
All the music. They did all the drums and 808s and then I did the music on top. It sounds like a harp and a piano kind of thing. A recreation of a sample.
Something completely random from some old video game or something. I don’t even know.
What was the recording process with Carti like for “Flex”?
It was tight. We were in the studio and they had most of the beat already there and we just kind of like went in the booth and were just chilling. We wrote that part together and I would sing and then he would do some ad-libs and then I would sing more and then he would do some shit and we kind of just bounced off each other for awhile. Extremely organic. Usually you hear about people sending beats and doing vocals from another studio. We were actually literally in the booth at the same time. I’d be singing and he’d be sitting down and then we’d switch back and forth and shit.
There’s a beat switch in the middle too.
Yeah, it was all the same session. I think it’s two young producers, one guy did the drums, the first half of the beat, and the other guy did the switch-up, but the sample’s the same. I feel like it flows pretty smooth.
It seems like your sound is already heavily cultivated. Have any labels approached you?
We’re figuring everything out right now. We’re still getting together our visual stuff on our end. We want to do a video for my single “Joy” we have out. We want to get our business together and we’re definitely open to all sorts of stuff.
So you’ve been talking to labels?
Labels call all the time. We’ve gone into meetings and stuff, but nothing’s happened yet.
Tommy Nowels, Kali’s manager: We pretty much met with a majority of the heads of the labels. Interscope, Atlantic, RCA. We haven’t signed anything yet or anything like that, but we’ve definitely been approached by a lot of labels.
Who else have you been working with besides Carti?
We did the last song on Drake’s last project, “Do Not Disturb.” That’s a song I wrote with Snoh Aalegra that they sampled on that joint. And then I’m working a lot with, like…. Honestly, everybody. A lot of my friends from back home. Topaz Jones in New York, Brandon Thomas, been working with Usher a little bit recently, Ty Dolla $ign. We have a song coming out on Skrillex’s next compilation tape. It’ll be tight.
What do you have coming soon?
Right now I’m working on an album and an EP. I’m gonna put a little project out, probably five songs, in the next couple months. We have a song out right now called “Joy” and “Joey” been doing well. We have a song coming out called “Smile” to be on the lookout for. We’ll drop that joint in the next three weeks to a month, and then that’ll be the single for our upcoming project.
“Joy” and “Cassandra” are gonna be the two songs from the SoundCloud that kind of make it onto these projects. We’ve still been working on them. We actually did an outro for “Cassandra” with Southside. We have a lot of crazy collaborations from people you think would fit into the sound and people you wouldn’t think fit into the sound. That’s kind of where we’re at, trying to be the bridge between the trap world and the social world.
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