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SWAN Songs: Kansas City rapper A’Sean on his new EPs, vulnerability, and embracing what makes you weird

A'Sean. Photo by Jelani Rice.
It’s a hot and humid late April afternoon on Kansas City’s Northside. Rapper and singer (more on that development in a moment) A’Sean and I have arranged to meet at the Gregg/Klice Community Center’s outdoor basketball courts. As we sit on the bench courtside, a group of friends plays a pickup game on one end and a middle-aged man sings out loud and engages passersby while he hoops (rather erratically) by himself on the other end. A travel baseball team is stepping off a bus and preparing for a game at the Urban Youth Academy next door.

“I spent a lot of time up here as a kid,” A’Sean says as he runs through the community center’s amenities. It’s just a short drive from the Greenleaf Apartments where he grew up and where we spoke for our last magazine interview following the release of his album One Big Happy Family in 2019. Though he’s proud of those songs and what he accomplished with them, A’Sean says he’s in a much healthier headspace now, nearly two years later.

“When I released One Big Happy Family, it was such a dark place and time for me,” he says. “At that point in time, everything in my life, all the happy shit was centered around the music … I feel like I [was] not desperate, but too eager and ready for something to be more than what it is in the moment. Versus now, I’m just finding more joy in the process and just understanding that this is probably the more fun part of it.”

I could relate to the feeling; having grandiose visions and ambitions for what I wanted to do after graduating high school, lacking the professional skills needed to properly bring those ideas to fruition, and due to youthful naivety, being frustrated and confused when things didn’t fall into place. “I wasn’t ready for what I wanted,” I say before A’Sean finishes my sentence, “-- at all, bro.” “I thought I was ready with One Big Happy Family,” he continues. “No, you weren’t,” he says with a laugh, speaking to his past self. “Not at all. You would’ve fuckin’ crashed and burned if the world you wanted was handed to you at that point.”

A'Sean. Photo by Jelani Rice.

In addition to his personal growth as an artist, A’Sean zooms out and discusses how his generation of Kansas City musicians has grown along with him over the past several years. “I’m seeing real music industry people tweet about artists here,” he says. “Just seeing that is eye-opening and provides more hope than we was already working with, with the little shit we had. I think we startin’ to figure it out. At first we was moving around this motherfucker blind as hell...”

One very noteworthy part of A’Sean’s growth has come from his taking vocal lessons. “I’ve always wanted to sing,” he says. “I grew up with different types of music in the house, so singing was something I always enjoyed. Never was good at it. I still wouldn’t say I’m good at singing.” Aside from the long-standing interest, Kye Colors recommended Drake's Better Than Good Enough documentary in which the pop-rap superstar hires a vocal coach. “The coaching has been dope,” A’Sean says. “I’ve learned so much about music. Understanding timing, structuring songs, knowing what key to be in, which ways I can purposely play with my voice, figuring out where my range is at, just all of that. It’s been real fun. Especially ‘cause it’s like you’re learning more about the shit you wanna do. The vocal class is probably one of my best investments, honestly.”

A’Sean seems to be getting returns on that investment already, too. You can hear some of his melodic vocals in action on his new EP with longtime friend and collaborator [Walt] titled Seven Days. [Walt] had been taking a hiatus from working on music for a bit, but he told me in a recent phone interview how participating in Kye Colors’ Wasteland Sessions -- an invite-only event this past New Year’s Eve modeled partially after J. Cole’s ROTD III sessions -- left him feeling inspired. “I called Sean and asked him if he wanted to do a project,” [Walt] says. “We’ve always spoken about doing another project together and he was down. The same day, he pulled up on me and started working.”

Considering that A’Sean and [Walt]’s friendship and working relationship date back to their freshman year of high school, it wasn’t hard to shake off the rust. The six-song release took only seven days of recording to complete, thus the title and the album art’s biblical imagery. Past efforts of this duo were often packed with as many bars as the songs could hold. There are just as many meaningful moments on Seven Days as there were on those older tracks, if not more; it’s just the presentation that’s different.

A'Sean. Photo by Jelani Rice.

All six songs were produced by [Walt] and feature a mix of rapping and singing from the pair. Three of those songs include substantial amounts of time with no drums happening, allowing gentle guitars and sunset-hued keys and synths to provide the backdrop for the emotive storytelling that takes place. The EP’s stories include a heartrending tribute to a late friend on “Taz World,” a vintage R&B summer jam about a strained relationship on “Language,” and the long road to learning proper self care on “On Tour.”

When discussing “On Tour,” A’Sean again alludes to a subject he had touched on earlier: the dangers of an artist centering their entire life around their work. “I’ve been going to therapy and shit,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot of the reasons why I work so hard is because at some point, this may have been what I’ve been living for. Once you take a passion and that’s your lifesource, you start to lose the love for yourself.”

Lyrics that sound like those of a straightforward love song are really communicating the stress he’d been putting on himself as an artist and the important elements of his life that he neglected by doing so. It’s an exercise in grounding. “It’s easy to get caught up in that love [from supporters] and live in that and just keep working, then you look up and it’s like, damn, I haven’t got my fuckin’ hair cut in three months, I haven’t bought new clothes, I ain’t went on no trips, I ain’t did nothing for myself … Nothing.”

A’Sean ditches metaphor completely on “Try,” a song from his other new EP, A Perfect World, that he crafted with local producer 1Bounce. His raps on the song touch on the ways he’s been impacted by his parents’ struggles with addiction, the bad habits that plague his own life, and a brave revelation that he survived childhood sexual abuse.

“The pandemic, I feel like, was heavy on a lot of people and a lot of that shit I was talking about [on that song] was heavy on me,” he says. “When I wrote the song, I wasn’t worried about people [knowing these things]. I kinda wanted someone to check on me.”

He says he appreciates all the people who tell him they like his work and how relatable it can be, but he’d resented the fact that people often don’t think to ask how he’s doing personally. He says he’s moved past that feeling however, citing how difficult it can be for people to discuss those hard topics and that it’s not his fans’ job to check on him. “You’re the entertainer,” he says of his role. “You just chose to be the vulnerable guy … That’s what I got a therapist for.”

Instead, he’s simply proud of himself. “It let me know that as an artist, there isn’t a boundary that I’m not willing to break. That’s the one thing I’ve held on to for fuckin’ 18, 19 years and I said it and I didn’t have any fear about people knowing that,” he says of the lyric about the abuse he endured.

A Perfect World, released on March 28 (only three weeks before Seven Days), features a more traditional hip-hop sound than A’Sean’s collaboration with [Walt], but is no less enjoyable. The contrast between the two really only speaks to his versatility as an artist. While A’Sean and 1Bounce have performed on many of the same shows and share collaborators and acquaintances, this EP was their first time working together. They’d both been open to doing a project for a while, but it was just a matter of timing.

“He’s telling his truth,” 1Bounce says of A’Sean in a phone interview. “That always will resonate with me and a lot of other people.”

For better or worse, A’Sean is a truth-teller, and a lot of times, the truth can be an ugly thing. I point out how both One Big Happy Family and A Perfect World have ironically positive-sounding titles despite their often-grim subject matter. He says he enjoys playing with that irony. “I feel like positive titles to things are good things to put into the air, just for your own self … and your own energy.”

A'Sean. Photo by Jelani Rice.

Karma, osmosis, manifestation; whatever you want to call it, it feels safe to say that this positivity has only been helpful in A’Sean’s endeavors so far. His clothing brand, SWAN, has been selling well as of late. A friend that was passing by the basketball court during the interview even asked if he had any merch on him to sell (he didn’t, as he recently delegated order fulfillment to a friend so he could spend more time working on music).

Inspiration for the brand name, which stands for Secretly We’re All Nerds, dates back to his childhood. “I used to be like seven, eight years old and make these voices up in my head,” he remembers. “Each voice had a story and background … Nobody else I was around ever talked about it, so I kept it to myself. But my sister’s husband would find my notebooks full of these stories I’d write down. They thought I was rapping ‘cause they didn’t read it, but nah, these were my comic book characters … That’s when I knew I was a little weird.”

The SWAN name came to him a year after graduating high school. He’d been inspired to make a documentary after observing that several of his classmates and acquaintances who were popular and played sports in high school were going to college for art and other creative pursuits. “Oh, you were a weirdo the whole time!” he says of those classmates, wearing a sly grin. “You made fun of the kid who ran around like he was a Naruto character. You watch Naruto, too. You’re weird. It’s okay for you to be weird.”

While he hasn't had the opportunity to make that documentary yet, this idea, a wide embrace of individuality, he realized, would be the perfect ethos for his brand. “I honestly feel like one of the first steps to happiness is accepting the shit that is different about you,” A’Sean says.

It feels good to watch someone spread their wings.

Both EPs are available now on all streaming platforms. You can find SWAN merchandise at


[This article first appeared in Issue 2 of Shuttlecock's free monthly print edition. Click here to read more about the issue and find your copy.] 

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