During our two-hour Zoom call, Cleveland rapper/producer Kipp Stone tells me that his zest for writing started with stories about a character he deemed the “Cleverland Hero.”
“It’s a shoebox under my bed [with] a bunch of stories,” he says while lounging in a chair in his home. “[They] would later turn into album ideas and stuff like that. I had a character called The Cleverland Hero and he was a musician on a mission to become the coldest. On his journey, he met a whole bunch of people. He met a clone of himself that killed his girlfriend. He met a [cover] band of ghosts. He met this dude in Nowheresville.” He tells me that he has an abundance of stories that he planned to eventually merge into a Cleverland universe.
His literary world has served as a conceptual framework throughout his catalog, including his debut mixtape The Cleverland Hero (which has been scrubbed from the net). The theme continues on his new album 66689 BLVD Prequel, which was released today. BLVD is shorthand for boulevard and an acronym for “breathe, live, vibrate, die” (“As a person, that’s what I feel like we going to do,” he says). 66689 is the number code for “otw” or “on the way” on old school “multi-tap” SMS texting, and Stone says the title is a reference to the Cleverland hero being on his way to his “best self.”
But the project is no fantastic excursion, it’s a raw depiction of Kipp’s inner dialogue, which the Closed Sessions signee says he heavily freestyled in order for the project to express his unimpeded thoughts. “If I would’ve sat down and wrote, I would’ve lost a lot of it, so I had to get that shit out right then and there,” he says, recalling that “something will happen, and I come home and make a song about it. This shit is straight from the tap. I’ll overthink shit if I start writing.”
Kipp Stone grew up on the east side of Cleveland with his mother and sister. He says his childhood “[was] fun, but on the flip side, it’s a lot of dilapidation and drugs and sad shit.” When Stone was five, he saw a man get shot in the head and walk up to him and his mother seeking help. He says the moment didn’t fully register until he was older, and it took for him to spend time in the Cleveland suburbs to realize that his previous neighborhood was abnormally rough. “It’s like, ‘Oh, these motherfuckers [are] in love and taking family trips, doing this and that, and then you go back home and it’s you, your mom, and your sister,” he recalls. “Your mom’s tired as fuck because she just got off work. We ain’t kicking it. We ain’t talking for real. I’m just doing my own thing.”
Stone lost himself in writing stories and, eventually, rhymes first inspired by 8 Mile: “My first song I ever made, I dissed Lil Romeo,” he laughingly recalls. “I think we was around the same age at the time and I had just watched 8 Mile.” During our call, he clarified that there were never any hard feelings for Romeo.
In time, Stone’s music palette expanded in part thanks to his singer and rapper father, who put him on to artists like Talib Kweli, A Tribe Called Quest, and KRS-One at the same time that he was individually discovering King Chip (fka Chip The Ripper) and Young Dro. He credits the latter two artists as “the building blocks of my whole style.” You can hear remnants of Dro’s dexterous, lyrical approach, as well as Chip’s knack for colorful punchlines throughout Stone’s catalog. But Stone says that much of his thematic inspiration initially came from fellow Clevelander Kid Cudi. “I got hit by a lightning bolt [when Cudi dropped] because it was all of the shit that I was feeling. I was doing drugs and sad. It was a lot going on in high school. Hormones. And he’d throw drugs and girls and coming of age [into his work].”
During his junior year of High School, Stone got into a nearly fatal car accident. “I almost died. I had glass in my brain. My nose was broken into a J shape,” he says. “My eye was split. I couldn’t close my eye for six months, and I had to get reconstructive surgery. I had to take skin from the back of my ear and put it in my eye.” He became dependent on the Oxycontin that his doctors prescribed him, and stopped going to school after a classmate’s insensitive comment about his appearance fully made him “check out.” Stone says his mom didn’t bother him about his sparse attendance because “she knew I wasn’t going to be in nobody jail or get nobody pregnant.” His family also recognized his talent for rapping.
In 2015, he dropped “30FTALL,” a competitive nudge to Cleveland rappers in the spirit of Kendrick Lamar’s then-recently released “Control” verse. The track got him his first national coverage. He dropped Cleverland Hero shortly after that, then signed to indie label Closed Sessions which he called a “perfect fit” because the Chicago-based entity is “for the artists.” But his signing wasn’t the start of happily ever after. He says he was so underwhelmed by his lack of artistic growth (and fan response) to his 2017 Dirty Face Angel album that he took it off the net and went back to the drawing board. He spent the next three years working a 9-to-5 and recording the album that would become Homme in a house that was literally falling apart, from a lockless front door and nonworking appliances to falling ceilings in multiple rooms. Stone says his internal dialogue mirrored his frayed home conditions.
“I had an existential crisis around that time, and I realized that all of my motivation for wanting to be successful and rap was bullshit,” he says. “While working on Homme I’m realizing that all I really want to do is get on so I can get a bunch of money and fuck a bunch of bitches. But then I read a book called Mastery that changed how I think about music, and then it became more so about [me] wanting to create at my highest level, whatever that looks like. That’s been my goal ever since. Money and fame is going to come with it, but the most important thing to me is being able to create to my highest capabilities.”
Stone’s friend Yatta Kandakai, whose voice is heard throughout 66689, suggested Robert Greene’s Mastery, a book that helped him hone his creative M.O. on Homme, a project that he says “reinvigorated my career.” Faygo Baby, released in 2022, also saw Stone writing about his youth. But Stone has delved into his present-day qualms on 66689 BLVD, a 10-track confessional. The project’s sharp drums and pensive production give him room to unfurl his precise delivery on tracks like the funky “Hive Mind,” and the reflective “Kill The Father (Freestyle),” where he navigates the internal strife between positive thinking and intrusive thoughts. On “Lakeshore” he compares himself to more commercially successful Cleveland artists and admits feeling “middle child syndrome” in his hometown because he felt his accomplishments were overlooked. He says the isolation makes him jaded about moments like crafting “100 Black Panthers” for Ta-Nehesi Coates’ Black Panther comic book soundtrack.
“If it’s not going to change my life dramatically to the point where I noticed a dramatic change, It’s just kind of hard to celebrate [accomplishments] for real,” he says. “Because it’s like some dope shit happened, but I still got to go to work, I’m still trying to scramble to pay the rent.
66689 has moments on so heavy that he says multiple people have asked him about his well-being after listening. “Ambigram Theory” riffs on the “type of day when even your mama get left on read,” with a “twice upon a time, there was a boy who cried suicide” refrain. Stone recalls, “Somebody called me [after listening to “Ambigram Theory”] and asked me was I about to kill myself, and I was like, ‘No, but I’ve been on suicide watch twice.’” He adds, “All of this stuff is really personal. A lot of this, outside of a song, I would [only divulge] to probably two, three people in my life. When I was starting the album, I knew I wanted to go somewhere I ain’t never been musically.” He carved new ground by freestyling roughly “65%” of the album, including “Ambigram Theory.”
Stone also improvised on “Passivist Prayer,” which starts with an intimate, assonant reflection of his psyche, before he adds emphatic crashes to the beat and bellows over them. The track shifts again into an idyllic soundscape where he rhymes, “words fail me, I’m feelin’ empty I need a change / the worst feeling is feeling like it ain’t shit to say.”
The song starts with his friend Yatta chiding him for acting like “he’s the only person with problems” (which Stone says is her real-life reaction to him telling her that he feels like no one loves him as much as he loves them). Stone says her 66689 appearances aren’t clippings of their live conversations but reenactments of them. Yatta was his major sounding board and de facto executive producer on the project, often staying on Facetime with him while he recorded and offering creative suggestions.
Her input may just be a harbinger for the collaborative creative direction he wants to take next. Stone says that his next album will be released under the name BLVD, who is “the Kipp Stone that gets to create at his highest capability.” He wants to have a live band help craft the next project. “I don’t want it to be a bunch of musicians that I hired,” he clarifies.” I want it to be people, that’s like, “Yo, I love what you’re doing. I want to be a part of this.”
Right now he says he only has a drummer. While ideating the BLVD band, Stone is also fixated on his personal growth. He says he’s planning to do a live “unplugged style” performance of the album in his mother’s living room. And lyrically, he’s focused on constant evolution.
“When I think about being good or being good at rap, I don’t necessarily think about being better than anybody. I just think about being in that pantheon of the greats,” he says. “Once you get to that level, it’s no real debate. You can’t compare certain people. Also for a very petty reason I wanted to master rap or be considered a master is because everybody say that you’re supposed to be the best. You got to be the best, and you’re supposed to believe that you’re the best. I want to actually be the best to the point where there is no debate.”