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Arts + CultureMusic'Long Way From Home' proves Ian Kelly's among the...

‘Long Way From Home’ proves Ian Kelly’s among the best Bay Area wordsmiths

Standout new EP balances clash between making art and meeting the capitalistic demands of economic survival

In 2018, ever-provocative KQED writer Pendarvis Harshaw wrote “Ian Kelly and the Role of the Bay Area Expatriate.” The layered story explores Ian Kelly’s journey from California to North Carolina, and outlines how the local emcee left East Oakland to pursue rap enlightenment on the East Coast—and how aspiring artists sometimes leave home in order to pursue a more successful lifestyle elsewhere.

For those who don’t follow hip-hop closely, North Cackalacky has been responsible for producing some of the most pivotal artists and record labels in rap—and I’d argue that outside of the nation’s biggest markets, they have the most impressive, pound-for-pound scene in the country.

Their list of exports includes mainstream names like J. Cole, Da Baby, and Dreamville—one of rap’s most coveted pools of talent. But beneath the surface, they’ve also gifted us with Rapsody (who is the most slept-on female lyricist of her generation), Little Brother (the rap duo with a cult following), Kooley High (a rap group that features Tab One), G YAMAZAWA (a National Poetry Slam champion turned viral rapper) and Cordae (a popular contemporary and former member of YBN). There’s also Khrysis, 9th Wonder, and of course, Jamla—the record company that has largely defined underground hip-hop since 2008.

So, how exactly does Ian Kelly—a proud son of the East Bay—tie into this important East Coast rap market? In 2018, he signed to Jamla.

And hence, the title of his January 2022 EP release, Long Way From Home.

Though Kelly—who formerly went by Kells—has returned to the Bay since then, and can be found rocking shows or kicking it all over the region as a member of the rising artist collective, Grand Nationxl, he has maintained a sense of East Coast swagger when it comes to making his music. And it seems his time away from the Pacific has also sharpened his perspective in a sobering way that any of us who have ever left the Bay feel when we return.

As great as it is here—the outdoors, the diversity, the culture—it’s also one of the most difficult places to thrive and stand out, especially for middle- and working-class communities. In his latest project, Kelly dissects this contrasting truth with his signature combination of Nas-like storytelling mixed with his Too $hort-influenced hustler’s mentality. The result is one of the more provocative rap efforts, defined by the complexity and density of East Coast wordplay with a West Coast energy that centers around what it means to be an artist in the modern Bay Area.

I’ve followed Kelly’s career since his 2018 album, CHAMPIAN, which highlights his regional roots and being a fan of the Golden State Warriors, among other relatable topics. Since then, I’ve seen his constant grind on social media and IRL, where he is often near a microphone and delivering samurai-quick words over laced instrumentals. And through it all, he hasn’t taken his foot off the gas. His relentless dedication and spontaneous creativity couldn’t be more authentic to the Baydestrian lifestyle.

“This world is never balanced but can’t knock me off my axis… got it out the mud, can’t tell me nothing ‘bout rappin’” he spits on the opening track, “Long Way From Home.” It’s the start of what goes on to become a narration of the artist’s current struggles and hopes in his return to a rapidly changing California after being gone for some years in Carolina.

There’s a sense of pride and celebration in his homecoming, but also a reality check as he processes what it means to seek success as a musician who has had to leave his neighborhood in order to reach the levels he’s capable of—yet seeing those around him struggle and stagnate. There’s a raw honesty throughout the short, four song project, which consistently returns to the idea of making a home by any means.

The second track, “Dead Presidents,” looks at the complicated reality of needing money to comfortably take care of family members. He reveals how in his pursuit of success, he has battled temptations and resists the allure of material riches that a California lifestyle requires. “You should never claim to be a king without helping your people eat… is that compassion fatigue or ease on my mental peace? I see money makes the world go ‘round, as we breathe.” Kelly directly mentions the rising cost of living, paying exorbitant rent, and juggling bills—an undeniably harsh reality for anyone in the Bay, which is consistently ranked as one of the most expensive centers of the country to live in.

As a listener, I appreciate how he attempts to balance the clashing desires to make his art and exist purely, while also needing to meet the capitalistic demands of economic survival: “Money [is] the root of evil but make grandma smile… helps my momma in the clutch if her car breaks down.” At its core, his EP investigates what it means to achieve recognition as an artist and feel a sense of personal comfort—not only for yourself, but for your people—and how it’s a constant paradox for Bay Area creators, who have to make moves around the clock, especially in 2022, when even the price of basic things like crossing a bridge continues to rise by the year.

Yet, despite the socioeconomic barriers that have tried to keep him in check, Kelly divulges glimmers of satisfaction and growth on “I’m Coming,” as if sharing a blueprint for those with dreams of shining, too: “We never had to beg for a co-sign, now we hangin’ elevated like a clothesline/ this combination preparation for the whole grind, this is how you turn your life into a goldmine.”

Silky features from the versatile JANE HANDCOCK, along with background singing from Dame Drummer and production from HitMakerDot coalesce to make a symphonic and mellow instrumental experience that compliments a deep level of introspective flow, yielding a total of 13 soul-giving minutes.

Though short, the EP is undoubtedly high quality. Think of a green protein smoothie: the lyrical content is nutritious and each verse packs a punch, rather than being a sugary and watered down waste of content; except, unlike a protein smoothie you’d buy in downtown Oakland nowadays for $10, this album doesn’t cost you anything except your attention. It’s true to Kelly’s style, in which the wordsmith honors his craft and puts his whole self into each word, each verse, each track—and that’s ultimately where he seems to always find his home.

You can purchase Long Way From Home here.

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