This post appeared in the May 2013 issue of The Cut Magazine.
It was mid-August last year during convocation when I first heard a song by Kai Roberts. He was performing the opening song Celebrate off of his recent mixtape Carnegie Café. Over a year later Kai has released Carnegie Café as a free download online and after listening to a few songs it becomes evident why it has taken this long. I got the chance to sit down with him recently and discuss the year plus long project that became Carnegie Café.
Part One: Who is Kai Roberts?
Kai started rapping in the 10th grade and has since performed sporadically in Pittsburgh at venues such as Street Live and District Live, in addition to everywhere at CMU. He began with a group of his high school friends who called themselves H.N.T. Since then Kai has continued rapping and producing with members of H.N.T. as well as other CMU students. Carnegie Café is his second album after Kai his solo debut, Life, Lights, and Passion. When asked about the two projects Kai stated, “I feel like there was very related material.”
Part Two: How did Carnegie Café come together?
From start to finish Carnegie Café sounds as one put together, professionally recorded album. In days where Juicy J can record Bandz A Make Her Dance as his lead single to Stay Trippy in a hotel room, it can sometimes be overlooked when a complete album like this comes out. Kai attested that the music studio at Carnegie Mellon as well Tufts Sound Recording were where the recording took place.
Carnegie Café largely came together last fall when Kai was taking a leave of absence from CMU. Speaking on how the album was created, “I had some of the beats left over [from the making of Life, Lights, and Passion,” while others were produced, “Right when I had the idea for the song”. I have found often that lyrical rappers may produce some of their own songs because it allows them to more clearly get their message across. Kid Cudi and J. Cole both recently produced their entire albums that came out in 2013.
With Carnegie Café Kai was attempting to get out, “My raw emotions that I was feeling during that leave of absence.” In this sense, Carnegie Café became Kai’s largest way of venting these emotions that he was feeling. Kai did admit to making some sacrifices to allow Carnegie Café to have a broader appeal, but for the most part the material is raw and directly from this time in Kai’s life.
Kai was not always able to open up as he does on Carnegie Café and even admitted to being quite shy in middle school and high school. Kai attributes college and the anxiety he was feeling to how he was able to open up. He went on to say that, “The anxiety I was going through pushed me to challenge my fears.” It was not easy for Kai to overcome these fears, but he repeatedly told himself, “You know other people are going through the same stuff,” and he was right. Who at Carnegie Mellon can not relate to anxiety and stress after all?
Part Three: What’s Carnegie Café like?
The title itself hints at the majority of the subject matter; life as a student at Carnegie Mellon University. The songs contain a multitude of lines referencing the focus on schoolwork, the lack of social life, and of course the stress culture among other things. With the additional themes of popularity of relationship struggles, I feel that any college student can relate to parts of the album, specifically students at CMU. Seriously, I challenge and college boy to not laugh the first time they hear “About Those Grades”.
Although Kai, was experiencing negative emotions at the time the album is in no way depressing. Throughout the album, tidbits of humor are spliced in and uplifting songs are mixed in with the more emotional ones. Touching upon his own music he stated, “Kai’s music will be humorous to some extent, serious to some extent, it will be introspective. That will stay consistent, but I feel like the way I do it might change.”
Kai mentioned that he likes to, “Play with this idea of coming out of a dark place and reaching a light.” He went on to say he does not know where it came from, but that both of his albums relate to the concept in a way.
I believe Kai has improved greatly on his ability to convey this message from his first album to his second. The individual songs may have their own meanings, but Kai ordered them to convey a greater meaning in the end. An example is how in “Popular”, Kai questions what it means to be cool and popular, but this message is only a portion of the whole story.
Kai himself described chronological order of the album in an excerpt here; “[It begins with] me coming into college, me getting into the music grind, after a while realizing college is a little more real than I thought it was, and then the second half is me developing into the ‘I’m going to be myself and I’m going to keep positive’ mindset I have now.”
Part Four: Takeaways
I was truly inspired to write this piece after becoming friends with Kai Roberts on FaceBook. Kai would post these lengthy statuses’ that were very inspiring and garnered dozens of likes and replies. His sheer honesty on a public platform such as FaceBook showed just how passionate the subject matter on Carnege Café was to him. It immediately became evident that this was not a normal hobby, but it was a large part of Kai’s life. Music is not only Kai’s source of venting his own emotions, but also his source to inspire the next depressed college student to recover and look at life positively again. He proclaimed to me that, “It’s really refreshing to hear me actually inspiring someone.” Thus, I cannot finish this piece without noting some of the biggest takeaways Kai intended this project to have. Hopefully, this piece will reach someone who will be inspired. I know I will be playing songs from Carnegie Café throughout my time at Carnegie Mellon and likely afterwards as well.
- Anti-cool/Be Yourself (Examples: Popular & Stressed Out):
- Be Fearless (Examples: Believe & Keep It Moving)