Last November, 19-year-old Australian Instagram star Essena O’Neill hit her breaking point and walked away from a budding social media career. She deleted most of her photos and re-captioned those that remained, exposing inauthentic brand placements and uncovering her insecurities in front of 30,000 followers. “Only reason we went to the beach this morning was to shoot these bikinis because the company paid me,” O’Neill wrote in one new caption. “This was my whole identity. That was so limiting,” she said in another.
Self-referential pop subversive Kilo Kish probably understands. A graduate of New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology who’s a few years older than O’Neill, Kish was likewise an Instagram fashion icon — officially a singer, DJ, and designer, but more frequently an Internet content producer. A Google search turns up Kish’s EP, Across, and noteworthy collaborations with Vince Staples and Chet Faker alongside a Vogue roundup of rappers who photograph their food and a cringingly advertorial Coachella slideshow on Refinery29. Kish, like O’Neill, bowed out of the game. “I did a lot of work with different companies on social media activations. It started to feel very manufactured to me; I don’t like feeling like a brand,” Kish told W Magazine last month. “For bloggers, that is their business, but I am not a blogger. I am an artist.”
Welcome to Reflections in Real Time. The title of Kish’s self-released debut full-length meditates on both the immediacy of a social media-dependent society and her own narrowly focused lens: a snapshot of thoughts and concerns experienced between the ages of 23 and 24. Revealing, sarcastic, and earnest in equal measure, Real Time is the low-key anecdote to the tyranny of the personal brand.
On the introductory “Hello, Lakisha,” Kish rap-sings about family and identity, a lifetime of nicknames, and the obstacles encountered when putting the birth name Lakisha Robinson on one’s résumé. “Existential Crisis Hour!” lasts only a minute but poses questions lesser talents have spent far longer pondering. “If I didn’t choose to be born, and I’m meant to make my own rules, but I must die, is there a point?” asks Kish over the pizzicatos from a black and white television commercial. (“Yes,” claims the hushed voice of Donald Glover, a.k.a. Childish Gambino, in the background.) Elsewhere, Kish skewers the rigged taste-making system from whence she came: “I’ll have the quinoa with the ahi / Let’s talk about how we’re all carbon copies / Of each other with different hobbies,” she smirks, Nellie McKay-like, on “Distractions II: The Dilemma of Cool.”
Slinking around Kish’s lyrical diary entries is a collaboration with producer Ray Brady, whose percolating synths and arty horn flourishes sinuously flesh out a grab bag of start-and-stop beats. It’s a style with clear connections to the downcast, pop-adjacent R&B promulgated in recent years by the likes of SZA and Gayngs, here rendered purposely grainy. Drum hits fall at the front of the mix, swallowing up words; Kish freely admits to underproduction, titling one track “Humans + Ants in Proportion (Unfinished).” The offhandedly cool album that purports to be complete in its incompletion is certainly having a moment.
Unfortunately, it’s this same impulse towards the still-gooey magic brownie that winds up biting Kish back on the album’s interlude-heavy side B. The perky directness of the first few songs mellows as her thoughts become simultaneously more meditative and jumbled. “Intermission (feat. John Anderson),” follows up a verse from rapper Rejjie Snow with a slow piano solo that sounds as though it belongs on another record entirely. There’s nothing wrong with a two-minute, retro-futuristic dirge like “On the Mend,” but other than evenly filling out a 20-track album there’s no compelling reason for its existence.
Some of Kish’s best moments get marooned in the second half’s lazy river, but the album’s honesty comes from laying out her weaknesses alongside her strengths. Real Time is the living portrait of a young woman dissolving a prematurely commodified image in favor of expressed appreciation for the work in progress. “You should take my thoughts in spite of me / And my picture-perfect qualities / I’m just a photogenic wannabe),” proclaims Kish on “The Fears of a Dilettante,” riffing on the concept of “blowing up” to subtly critique her own social media history. But when she cries out “I have a good life, here,” it’s positively life-affirming.