Compared to most rappers, CONNIE.K is pretty new to hip-hop. Growing up in a fairly conservative household in Cary, Illinois (part of the suburban sprawl he calls “Chicagoland”), Conrad Kisunzu ‘16 was surrounded by classical music and gospel — hip-hop and R&B didn’t really have a place in his life. Unlike many music-makers of his generation, he doesn’t claim to have been raised by Biggie, Pac, or even Kanye. He played the oboe, sang with his family and practiced the piano. That’s why it’s somewhat remarkable that he’s now the proud creator of “Daylight Savings,” his six-track hip-hop debut.
Kisunzu has come a long way since his freshman year. From the beginning, he was never sure what role music would play in his time on campus. “My whole Stanford experience has been like a journey for me, in terms of embracing being an artist and being a Stanford student,” he says in a recent interview. While music has always been a part of his life, he didn’t feel truly comfortable sharing his artistic side until recently. For the most part, he kept it at home: “My sister and mom were more of the singers in the family,” he clarifies. “I knew how to sing because I needed to be able to do harmonies with them, when we were in the house or whatever, just to add another voice.”
But after joining Everyday People, an R&B a capella group, Kisunzu gained more confidence. He started to bring his passions to the public, posting pop covers to YouTube and finally singing in front of crowds. Last year, he performed a cover of Childish Gambino’s “3005” at Stanford’s Got Talent that included a live freestyle (he rhymed “verbal” with “hitting gerbils,” but anything is fair game — it was off the dome, after all). Now he serves as the musical director for Everyday People and is developing a new project — an R&B and electronic fusion group called Escape Hatch — with Kevin Coelho ‘17, Johnny Weger ‘18 and Ladidi Garba ‘14. Oh, and his EP is dope.
“Daylight Savings” is a collection of five originals and a remix (a fresh take on D.R.A.M.’s groovy single, “Cha Cha”). The project is Kisunzu’s first attempt at hip-hop, discounting ciphers with friends, and he says it was inspired by an unusual suspect: the Stanford student music scene. “I never really had the impetus to make a project. But then last year, there was a lot of creative energy, just people creating their own projects,” he noted. He gave nods to Tyler Brooks ‘16, Chris Russ ‘15 and Mike Mendoza ‘15 — all members of The Outsiders, a student hip-hop collective — as special inspirations. “They were making something for themselves. I realized the only way I was gonna grow was if I actually did something, too.”
And so, “Daylight Savings” was born as a summer project, recorded with his friend Shamik Ganguly working behind the soundboards. While all of the beats on the project were lifted from Soundcloud producers, Kisunzu injects his lively sing-song flow, clever lyrics and more than a few shout outs to create an addicting sound and stake out his ownership of the tracks.
One of his more understated strengths is beat selection. On “Standstill,” his flow dances over a free-flying Wave Racer production, bouncing between the producer’s rhythms and accents as if they were made for him. On “Grape Juice Cocktail,” he changes the mood, singing longingly for that special someone over a laid back Tennyson beat: “Look at you, with the faceless sin / Seeing a wide-toothed grin, that the heart ain’t in.” The title track, “Daylight Savings,” is a swaggering study in wordplay over a Dilla-swung Kaytranada joint.
Kisunzu’s flow is often reminiscent of Childish Gambino, but according to him, the similarity is incidental. While he’s a big Gambino fan, he’s not trying to copy anyone. But it’s worth noting that CONNIE.K and Gambino both share a similar musical space. Their work is generally accessible to all kinds of audiences — that is, you don’t have to be an OG hip-hop head to get down with their style. Kisunzu explains, “I’m not trying to be anything that I’m not. I’m just a suburb kid, who’s relatively nerdy, who likes to rap.” Sounds a lot like Bino to me.
This true-to-yourself approach is also inspired by Kisunzu’s biggest idol, Chance the Rapper. Again, while he doesn’t try to explicitly emulate Chance’s sound, he is creating in the same feel-good, authentic spirit that makes his fellow Chicago native stand out. In Kisunzu’s own words, Chance “is just a good guy, trying to make good music and make people happy.”
That’s what drives his own craft, too. He wants to make music you can groove to, that can make you smile or go to dark places and still feel “warm and inviting.”
On the closing track, “Dream Deferred,” Kisunzu delivers his creative manifesto, finally embracing the fact that music has been his driving passion since day one. “[Dream Deferred] is me coming to the realization that I do love this, that I want to put my heart into it,” he says at the end of our interview. After years of treating music as a side project, he’s ready to change the script.
Langston Hughes first asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?” in 1951, musing over the limits placed on dreamers. During his time at Stanford, Kisunzu has lifted his own self-imposed inhibitions, becoming a performer, a writer and a creator. “Daylight Savings” is the first step he’s taken to fully embrace his artistic dream. It’s a remarkably well-executed and enjoyable work, and it’ll be exciting to see where his talents take him. So, to finish Hughes’s thought: Will this dream dry up, “like a raisin in the sun?” Or will it explode?
You can listen to “Daylight Savings” on Kisunzu’s Soundcloud page, soundcloud.com/connieok.
Contact Benjamin Sorensen at bcsoren ‘at’ stanford.edu.