From singing the hook on Chance the Rapper’s no-one-rides-for-free anthem, “All Night,” to providing the Neptunes-esque bounce on Joey Purp’s “Girls @,” to crafting a new wave-inspired synth odyssey with Kami on Just Like the Movies, Knox Fortune has been the catalyst for some of the most joyfully eccentric moments of Chicago’s recent rap renaissance.
Armed with a Grammy for his contribution to Chance’s Coloring Book and a prominent song placement with Tommy Hilfiger, Fortune could have easily doubled down on one of the styles that he’s already mastered, yet his debut, Paradise, is a collection of crunchy, phosphorescent tracks that shine on the strength of his easy charisma and skill at arranging and building original sonic textures. Fortune’s ability to pair sparkly pop melodies with idiosyncratic production has prompted writers to liken him to fellow genre-jumper Beck, but the sound of Paradise is diverse enough that Fortune does feel like the rare artist who is actually post-comparison, not just dubbed that by an ambitious publicist.
“I want [my album] to be a product of the now, which is funny because people tell me it sounds—not old—but nostalgic, which I totally think is cool because I’m all about timeless music, and if nostalgic equals timeless, that’s kind of cool to me,” he says during a stop at the NYLON office. “But I just want people to take away that it’s cool to have a unique take, essentially.”
In person, Fortune is affable and open, but he also emanates a sense of ambition and willingness to buck conventions. When asked if there’s any sort of musical endeavor he hasn’t had the chance to try yet, he floats the idea of making an ultra-modern shoegaze record where he serves as the arranger and producer and expresses a general desire to be the center of the Venn diagram for wildly disparate sounds.
“I kind of want to just create a way to randomly generate cross-genres, like press a button and press a button and it’s like brrrrring ‘country music and R&B,’” he says, imitating the theoretical machine, like he’s Donald Glover searching for a rapper name. “‘Alright... now I’m going to try a country R&B song,’ or something like that because I think that sort of music is so futuristic and very much so how people our age listen to stuff.”
After just a few minutes of conversation, Fortune comes across as the ideal partner for a creative project, and it’s easy to see why so many of Chicago’s newly minted stars have sought him out as a collaborator. He’s inventive and unconventional—he drew the cover art for Paradise and all of its singles—and his approach to working in the studio makes it abundantly clear that a career as a “type beat” producer was never in the cards.
“To be honest, one of my things I’m not too strong at is when someone tells me they want a specific thing—that’s just not how I like to work. I don’t like to chase an idea somebody else has, I really like to start something with a completely blank canvas and just throw darts at it and see what happens and then it informs me as I start to go,” Fortune explains. “Like, ‘Oh, this kind of has a little retro vibe, this might be good for Kami. Or these drums, what if I sped this up a little bit? If I sped this up, it might be really good for Towkio.’ Or if it has a certain bounce, I might be like, ‘I want this. I’ll just take this for myself.’”
Chicago’s musical moment has turned into a full-blown movement, and in many ways, Fortune is the nexus between the city’s vibrant rap and rock scenes. Paradise not only features Joey Purp and Kami on standout tracks, but contributions from Whitney’s Will Miller, who provides the soaring trumpet on “Torture,” as well as Colin Croom and Cadien Lake James of Twin Peaks, who worked on “Help Myself” and “Spill,” respectively.
“I kind of am the bridge between a lot of artists... They’ve all kind of known each other, but it’s not very often that we’ll all be together. But I was kind of the person who was like, ‘I work with Joey all the time and I also hang out with the Twin Peaks dudes a lot,’ so I was kind of the dude that would call in Colin Croom to a Joey session or something like that,” Fortune says, also referencing an epic night in Amsterdam when he, Purp, Whitney, and Twin Peaks all DJed together. “We all respect each other, everyone does good work, so it’s easy to clique up with these people and be like, ‘Vic Mensa, this is Julien from Whitney.’”
Croom says that Fortune’s excitement to see his friends create and succeed is not only inspiring but also part of what makes it so exciting to be in his orbit. “Knox has a pop sensibility and the know-how to make it next level on his own. He's got a closeness with his music, but still gets hyped on the music his friends make, no matter the genre,” says Croom. “All that energy radiates back into the Chicago music scene and makes you wanna do the same, to keep lifting up musicians and friends. That makes this scene very special and keeps me grateful to call Chicago home.”
As Fortune kept crafting quality music from behind the scenes, the pressure began to grow for him to step out into the spotlight on his own, which is something that he addresses on “Stars,” arguably one of Paradise’s best songs. Initially written at Rick Rubin’s studio Shangri La, which Fortune describes as “the greatest place on Earth,” the song is probing and personal—it truly feels like Fortune having a second to himself amid the incredible yet chaotic last year of his life. Atop buzzy synth chords, he ponders his future, singing “You could be a star/ You could be so much bigger than that/ You could see the planet, but I guess it’s not in your plans yet.”
“It came from a very genuine place in me, it was about myself, kind of. It was like, ‘You could be a star, you could be so much bigger than that,’ and that’s more so people telling me that when I’ve always kind of been more down-to-earth, sort of behind-the-scenes, not super limelight-y. I don’t enjoy that stuff all that much,” he says. “So it was kind of just a take on how people were approaching me and, like, rooting for me, but at the same time, it was like rooting for something that I might not even want myself to have.”
Fortune is trending the right way towards becoming that kind of star; Paradise is a sleek, no-filler project where any of the 11 tracks (save perhaps for the ultra pitch-shifted intro, “No Dancing,” of which he says, “I just thought it was a good, captivating intro song where you can be like, ‘This is weird, I don’t know what to expect from this album anymore. I thought I knew, but now I don’t right off the bat’”) could easily be a breakout single. While he feels that an album makes a much stronger statement than releasing a handful of singles or EPs, Fortune was also conscious of how people’s modern listening habits don’t really allow for the kind of throat-clearing records that new artists were once allowed to make.
“I wasn’t trying to have people, like, sit through an 18-song album by an unknown artist. That’s not fair to a listener or interesting potentially, even if it’s good,” says Fortune. “So I was just trying to think of, What do I want? What am I looking for from music right now? Do I want an 18-song project? No. Not at all.”
Instead of a sprawling album, Fortune crafted one that seems poised to age well both in the near and distant future. The bright, warm synth tones and gritty texture of tracks like “Lil Thing,” “Stars,” and “Stun” are tantalizing, suggesting something perpetually just out of reach that keeps you playing them back. His penchant for mid-tempo breakbeats and bright hooks would have made Paradise a perfect summer hangout record, but even with the accelerated life cycles of records in 2017, there’s no reason to think it won’t work just as well in that role next year. Fortune has been working on some of the tracks that made it onto the record for four years, and he says that while he occasionally struggled with the lengthy gestation process he feels like this is the right time for this music to see the light of day.
“I think there are some moments where I wish I had put out some of these songs beforehand because I thought they might’ve been more cutting edge in that year or whatever,” he says. “But I don’t know if it would have succeeded the same, I think like four years ago or five years ago stuff was a bit more woozy and chillwave-y and stuff, and I think this is a bit more guitar-y and melodic and produced.”
The culture of music has certainly shifted over the past few years to enable a record like Paradise to thrive; there’s more stylistic overlap and genre-blending than ever before, and the combination of more willing ears and playlist culture has helped to expand listeners beyond close-minded single genre fandom. But Fortune himself is also at a place in his career where he has the gravity to release such an idiosyncratic project and make people turn their heads and pay attention.
After years of laying the groundwork in Chicago, his star rose precipitously with his feature on Chance’s Coloring Book, where his gleeful tenor prompted a slew of “Who is Knox Fortune?”-style pieces from nearly every major music publication. Fortune told Complex that experience was a kind of catalyst for him to kick-start his solo career, but both the making of the track and the accolades that came after were appropriately unconventional.
“I recorded ‘All Night’ by myself in a room at CRC, which is where Chance records in Chicago, just alone with no engineer,” he says. “I remember being in the booth, just kind of like, 'You’ve just got to sing your heart out on this one and do a really good job.'”
From there, the song took off, and Chance wound up being the darling of the 2017 Grammys, taking home Best New Artist, Best Rap Performance, and Best Rap Album. The latter earned Fortune a Grammy of his own, something that surreally washed over him while watching the awards at a party in Los Angeles.
“It was crazy. I was just in this room, and he won the first two awards, so everyone was just, like, party mode. But I don’t know if anybody really thought he was going to win Best Rap Album, and when he did, I was in shock. I knew that was the one that was like, if he wins Best Rap Album, then I get one, too, but I just wasn’t banking on it at all, and I was already just happy for him. He got Best New Artist, which is such a cool award to win,” Fortune recalls. “We’re all celebrating, kind of like, "Woo, Chance won!" And M.K.—who’s like the radio programmer for Haight Brand, who are [Chance and my management team]—is like, ‘Knox won a Grammy too!’ and everyone in the room was like ‘Yeah!’ And I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ It didn’t even feel real, I called my mom, and she was tweaking.”
While he waits for his Grammy plaque to arrive—Fortune’s plan is to leave it safe and secure at his parent’s place for the time being—he already has another mainstream breakthrough to be excited about on top of the release of Paradise. “Girls @” is being used to promote the latest line from Gigi Hadid and Tommy Hilfiger. While his newfound award-winner status, which he jokes will earn him major clout if he’s ever in a parent-teacher conference or trying to teach at a college, has given him new perspective on the power of institutions like the Grammys and mainstream radio, he says that the Tommy ads are closer to what he always envisioned for his career.
“I wanted my music to be in a skate video or be in a movie... I never really considered Grammys or awards or something like that, even radio play. I kind of wanted to get my music licensed in an advertisement and stuff like that, that’s always been super-cool to me. So when the Tommy thing came around, I was just kind of flattered, because it’s Gigi Hadid, which is a pretty big deal. She’s like the model of the moment. And Tommy Hilfiger, which is obviously like a classic company,” Fortune says. “And it also was reassuring to me that I do make this really good commercial music sometimes, and that’s something I’ve always enjoyed. I used to work at a jingle house actually, in Chicago. I don’t think that necessarily informed my music style, but I do, I guess, have an understanding of licensing music and what people are looking for, so to me, that was really cool. These tastemakers are pegging us, Joey and I, to make them cool.”
At times, he says, this new phase of his career feels a bit “backwards and forwards.” After doing press runs with Joey Purp and Kami and touring for more than a year as Purp’s DJ, it’s a bit strange to be doing similar interviews and playing familiar rooms on his own. However, beyond that dissonance is a deep appreciation for the moment he’s having and both the power and pressure that comes with it.
“I’m obviously immensely proud that I’m taking on this myself as opposed to just being a background dude who doesn’t have the same responsibilities as, like, the star or the name on the bill,” he explains. “So it’s really gratifying to me that I’m taking on a lot of responsibility and being the face and being the name and all that stuff.”
Fortune may have been hesitant about whether he wanted his star turn, but with major accolades, plenty of talented peers in his corner, and a terrific debut record, it seems like an inevitability that he’s certainly well positioned for.