For years, Kyle Harvey was a self-proclaimed nerd. "You just don't know how uncool it is to be Kyle until you're Kyle," the breakout rapper behind the Lil Yachty–featuring, chart-topping single "iSpy" says, cruising through downtown Chicago in the backseat of an SUV. "And you're talking like this" – slightly nasally, a bit of a lisp – "and niggas be just roasting you all day long."
He's currently on the way to Metro for a sold-out show. It's hours before he'll take the stage and already a line of giddy teenagers winds around the block. But the MC who performs as Kyle is fixated on his tough early days. "I just felt like not talking," he recalls. "Because when I did people were making fun of me. That's just the way it was."
Spend time with the 23-year-old and it's hard to imagine him as anything other than the life of the party. Dressed during his meeting with Rolling Stone in what can best be described as skater-nerd-chic apparel – short jeans, red ball cap and plaid sweatshirt – Kyle is full of unbridled positive energy. To what does Kyle credit the disconnect between his current and past selves? Simple: in his teenage years the rapper was reborn as the happy-go-lucky man we see today. The one who spends 20 minutes selling a radio host on how he climbed up a beanstalk to take a selfie with Oprah; crowdsurfs on a literal surfboard at every one of his shows; and, most importantly to his budding career, concocts a playful brand of feel-good rap that's resonating with listeners in a major way. His hit ode to Instagram flirting, "iSpy," sits at Number Two on the Billboard Hot Rap Songs chart and has amassed more than 170 million streams on Spotify.
He'll admit his ray-of-sunshine personality is not for everyone. "Sometimes it's gonna rub people the wrong way," Kyle says. But the Southern California native says it's all in service to his fans. "All I can do with my music is try and be a light for people who are in a dark time," he explains. "Like, 'Shit isn't that bad. You're not ugly at all. Look at me!'" He smiles, flashing a fake gold tooth he inserted into his mouth moments earlier. "I just try to pick people up."
His ability to connect with a variety of listeners, Kyle says, stems from a diverse upbringing. Raised by a single mother and sharing a "tiny little shack" with eight family members in a blue-collar section of the San Fernando Valley, the mixed-race Kyle and his two siblings were the only non-Hispanic residents on his block. When he was a pre-teen, Kyle's family moved to the nearby suburb of Ventura, a wealthy and largely white beach community. Kyle says he was suddenly "the only black kid" in his neighborhood. "It was a culture shock," he says. "When I was in the valley I was the nerd. And when I moved to Ventura they want to put me on the football team. I was telling the counselor, 'Please, don't sign me up for football. I'm trash.'"
It was in drama class where Kyle found his outgoing personality and singular voice. He credits that collection of "the most nonjudgmental group of people" as "probably the most pivotal thing to shaping my personality." "It's really just playing," he adds of acting. "It helps you come out of your shell."
In high school he adopted the "Super Duper Kyle" persona he still inhabits today. It began as a rallying cry to spread positivity. Every morning Kyle would convince himself the day was about be a good one, "and I started taking that attitude to school and seeing kids that were sad and trying to pick them up," he recalls. "I was walking around high-fiving people and telling them they were awesome."
But it was largely a front: He says he was severely depressed around this time. At age 16, after his grandfather passed away, Kyle turned to music to cheer him up in his alone time. He says Kid Cudi was the first rapper who was "rapping about real shit" and whose struggles with depression the teenage Kyle could connect to. "At the time everybody in hip-hop was so damn cool and so damn perfect," he explains. "And Kid Cudi came out and he was the first person I could relate to that was hurt. 'You're not weird for being depressed.' Kid Cudi has saved lives. He saved my life."
"I just try to pick people up."
He'd been singing in his front yard since he was a child and messing around with recording since junior high, but during high school Kyle began pursuing music in earnest. He'd record vocals onto his aunt's computer using a program called Studio One, covering a microphone with a sock to "get the pop filter." His earliest offerings were recorded under the name K.i.D., and consisted largely of YouTube covers – most notably Drake's "Headlines" and Big Sean's "Supa Dupa Lemonade." At the time, he'd do anything to spread his music, including spamming people's Facebook walls. "I really started off my fan base one person at a time," Kyle says. Even back then, he let his core mission statement guide him: Kyle says that much like his music today, his first mixtape, 2011's Super Duper, centered on "a depressed kid who is fighting back. Whatever the world's gonna throw at me, I'm good. I was going to be my own superhero and save my own day."
Following 2013's Beautiful Loser and 2015's Smyle, as well as collaborations with Chance, G-Eazy and Kehlani, Kyle amassed a legion of fans who not only loved his music but viewed him as something of a role model. It's a responsibility he doesn't take lightly. "Some of [my fans] would rather just hear advice from me than the music," he says proudly. "I could stop the set and just talk about shit. I love the fact that they look to me for that."
Now, as he begins to think about his next full-length, due later this year, and contemplates how best to follow up the smash success of 'iSpy," the rapper is not backing down from his outsize ambition.
"I want to affect as many people as possible," Kyle says, lounging on a backstage leather couch before his Chicago show. "Like John Lennon. He made 'Imagine' and literally changed an entire generation of people. I have a golden opportunity: to not only impact these kids that are coming to these shows but take that and apply that to the world."
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