Although the trend of endless posthumous hip-hop albums has been getting increasingly concerning as they become increasingly disjointed and disrespectful, the case of late Chicago rapper King Von feels a little bit different. While for the most part labels have been capitalizing on being able to release as much music as they please from beloved artists, Von was a much more underground name when he was killed at the age of 26 in late 2020 – since then, through his associations with larger figures, especially close friend Lil Durk, who appears here, Von’s legacy has grown and cemented itself all after he’s been gone. It’s all thanks to the stories that others have told about him. Technically, What It Means to Be King is Von’s second studio album, and it certainly showcases a hungry and passionate rapper who knew he was on the rise. Von’s sound is fiery and aggressive, ejecting each word like they tasted terrible in his mouth. While his beat selection and certain elements of his style get repetitive over the course of 19 tracks, this is another tragic showcase of an artist who could have made some huge waves.
The project opens with “Where I’m From,” a brief intro built around a piano track that’s a little more complex and striking than many of his contemporaries use, the beauty of the instrumental being juxtaposed with Von’s bars yelled through gritted teeth about the gang violence in Chicago taking some of his friends. As the track ends with a hit put on Von himself, unfortunately mirroring real life, the story and the instrumental transition nicely into “War,” as the piano becomes a more eerie and aggressive loop with a rattling trap beat, Von now boasting about his abilities to dodge his own demise. Von has the cadence of a horrorcore rapper or a trap metal artist when he really pushes his voice, and when he builds from a whisper to a yell in the second verse it really brings out his special set of invigorating abilities. Dropping mic-drop bars like “God’s texting me saying it’s getting too crowded” in the middle is just an added bonus. When Von and some other rappers like him get specific, talking about real people, real premeditated murders and the real gang wars that led to them while taunting the other side, it’s both pretty concerning and wildly exciting – Von has such tangible passion behind his words because he was really in the middle of a war. “Facetime” certainly has that energy, kicking off a run of similarly hard-hitting feature appearances, but G Herbo’s low-effort verse diffuses the energy. 21 Savage appears next, but the single “Don’t Play That” is a lot more pop-oriented than you’d expect – Von succeeding at a bouncy, Migos-style flow over a bubbly synth hook as well is reminiscent of the versatility and potential we only learned Pop Smoke had after he was gone.
The run of high-profile guests continues with “Straight to It,” a track featuring Fivio Foreign that defaults, as expected, to his NY drill wheelhouse. While a lot of drill beats sound the same, there’s something especially infectious about the bassline on this one, and Von actually sounds like he showed up to the studio ready to dominate Fivio on his own turf – his gritty cadence works well on the more nocturnal sound of drill as well. “Trust Nothing” is built around a highly overused style of chilling piano beat, but it still ends up becoming one of the best tracks here because of the undeniable chemistry between Von and Moneybagg Yo – they both have a certain kind of cold-hearted conviction, but Von delivers it with spastic energy and Moneybagg is calmer and more assured. The back-to-back tracks “Evil Twins” and “Too Real” are both very short, but “Evil Twins” stands out due once again due to the camaraderie on display with Lil Durk, who plays well into the track’s concept as the two even sound the same as they talk about doing gang activities together with some horror-movie level bars. “Rich Gangsta” features more back-and-forths, this time with Tee Grizzley. The track has a catchy, quotable hook, but halfway through the project the constant barrage begins to wear a little thin – a breather of any sort would have been much appreciated, as this track just follows similar lines with a weaker instrumental.
The album’s second half becomes a little more hit-or-miss – tracks like “Mad” and “Get Back” continue to uphold the aggressive trap formulae, but Von’s vocals have such an added degree of uniqueness that he can save tracks like these from becoming too derivative. “Mad” has some engaging interlocking rhythms in the instrumental, while Von’s performance is one of the most absolutely frantic here as he delivers a flex track of the highest order. “Get Back,” while it does have another incredible performance from Von, is brought down a little by the presence of O Block affiliates Boss Top and DqFrmDaO, who don’t have the same presence and charisma. The tracks “My Fault,” “Change My Life” and “Hard to Trust,” on the other hand, all see Von attempting something a little different to varying degrees of success. “My Fault” is a more melodic track with A Boogie wit da Hoodie which is a little bland tune-wise, but still rather catchy despite A Boogie’s messier verse. “Change My Life” features a lower-key glitchy synth instrumental that puts all the focus on Von’s voice, which unfortunately occurs on one of the more repetitive and borderline offensive tracks lyrically. “Hard To Trust” is the best of the bunch, with another melodic hook that sees Von on more of a storytelling angle as Dreezy appears to tell her side of the story.
While the final tracks of the project essentially just provide more of the same, “Get It Done” hides one of the best tracks here near the end. With some West Coast-style rubbery bass notes and a striking church organ in the back, Von once again does what he does best and invites the lesser-known OMB Peezy on board for a standout feature – he matches Von’s energy, which is hard to do. “Chase The Bag” and “Go N Get Em” don’t deliver many more surprises before “Grandson for President” offers a final shot of cypher-style energy and things fade out with some conversations between Von and his grandma and son.
Hearing a project like this one just makes me wish that I had become acquainted with Von’s music in any way at all before he passed away – it certainly joins Pop Smoke’s Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon and Mac Miller’s Circles in the trifecta of posthumous hip-hop albums that sound like they were handled with the utmost care.
Favourite Tracks: Trust Nothing, War, Get It Done, Don’t Play That, Mad
Least Favourite Track: Change My Life