In 2017, Kenneth Coby played a bad show and decided to quit music.
As Soundz, he had co-written and co-produced hit singles for Rae Sremmurd, Justin Bieber, and Trey Songz. But like many songwriters, Coby harbored dreams of being a solo artist, and he was on the road opening for the R&B singer Jeremih, hoping to prove his worth. “Everyone has bad shows,” Coby says. But a long string of frustrating setbacks in an uncaring industry culminated in that subpar performance, after which Coby contemplated abandoning music all together.
He didn’t, and his persistence was rewarded last month, when he made a stealthy yet emphatic return as an artist. Coby’s first release under the name BMW Kenny, a 99-second single titled “Wipe It Down,” caught a TikTok wave: Nearly 1.5 million users on the app have now recorded videos of themselves cleaning a mirror as Coby raps instructions in the background. On Friday, BMW Kenny’s debut reached an important milestone on its journey to the world outside of TikTok, debuting at Number Three on Spotify’s Global Viral 50 chart.
This puts Coby in an odd if not unpleasant situation. For years, he lobbied the major labels to give him a chance as a solo artist, only to be ignored; now every major label is reaching out, unaware that BMW Kenny and Soundz are one and the same. “I have more label interest than I’ve ever had,” Coby says.
He’s the grateful latest winner of the TikTok lottery, a relatively recent and mostly unpredictable process that continues to propel songs from obscurity into the inboxes of major-label executives. But Coby also took a circuitous route to a traditional pathway, following acts like Kanye West, Ne-Yo, and The-Dream who started as prominent writer-producers before becoming frontmen. More recently, the R&B singers Lucky Daye and Arin Ray both cut their teeth writing for others before getting a chance to record major-label albums of their own.
Coby broke into R&B writing in Atlanta: His first major-label placement was Usher’s “Love in This Club Part II.” When he moved from Atlanta to L.A., the credits got even better: Rae Sremmurd’s “Throw Sum Mo” and Trey Songz’s “Foreign” were both charting hits. Coby also worked on Jeremih’s “Woosah,” a sinuous, snapping highlight of the R&B singer’s platinum-certified Late Nights album. “I made my name behind the scenes,” Coby says.
But he also became more interested in releasing music of his own, a tough sell in a hyper-competitive, cold-hearted industry. “I was pushing people my solo music and getting a friendly ignore,” Coby explains. “They don’t want to harshly disrespect me, they’d just brush me off.”
Jeremih was one of the few acts who believed Coby had the talent to be a solo artist. When Coby went on tour with the R&B singer, he was going by Irap. “I was trying to fit in, trying to be some Trippie Redd-type artist,” Coby recalls. “I got lost.”
After the disappointing conclusion of the tour, Coby contemplated moving back to Atlanta and maybe even switching careers, trying real estate. “I removed myself from the industry,” he says. He was running out of money, and now he had a baby on the way.
Coby decided to do one more project under a different name — a Hail-Mary final attempt at a solo career — spurred on by a girlfriend who wondered why he’d abandoned his artistic aspirations. Quarantine was a boon for his productivity; free of distraction, he worked on six or seven songs a day. Co-producing “Woosah” had taught him the value of minimalism. “That song has just like five elements,” he says. “That let me know right there, simple is better.”
Coby also wanted to incorporate a lesson from his mentor, the writer-producer Tricky Stewart (Beyonce, Rihanna). “Tricky took me on vacation one time, and he said, ‘there’s no difference between me and you talent-wise,’” Coby explains. “‘The difference between me and you, why I can fly you out to Turks and Caicos, is I make songs that make people dance.’”
“Wipe It Down” distills these two impulses. The track itself isn’t much more than a shuddering bass and a cymbal pattern, while the instructional vocal encourages movement — “Swing your arms left and right/Like you trying to start up a fight.”
I don’t remember making this…? @chrisashley
Coby approached a friend with a following on TikTok and asked her to make a challenge to the track; he also incentivized app users to try it by offering $1,000 to the person behind the best video. But even the promise of cash didn’t turn “Wipe It Down” into an immediate hit — when Coby handed out the money, only around 400 people had attempted the challenge.
The contest was over, but the challenge was only just getting started. A few days later, Coby watched growth jump from a couple hundred attempts a day to well over a thousand. It eventually made its way to stars like Will Smith.
In the last 15 months, TikTok has become a volcano of hit singles just like this one. A slew of artists owe their major-label careers to the whims of the app’s user base. Going viral was once a rare thing, the exclusive province of “Harlem Shake.” Now “people go viral every day,” says one of Coby’s managers, Tommy Brannigan.
This is a gift and a curse. An aspiring artist can reach an unprecedented number of listeners around the world without even lifting a finger. But a viral song is no longer special; listeners might latch on to it for a week and then move on. Lil Nas X may be the only artist from the first 18 months of TikTok who, after achieving popularity on the app, managed to get a second bona fide hit.
I like this https://t.co/dBGHNxvlDk
— iamcardib (@iamcardib) May 19, 2020
“The song right now is bigger than me,” Coby acknowledges. “I know that.”
He is working with Brannigan and his co-manager, Jack Steindorf, to try to change that. They want to release a remix quickly to give “Wipe It Down” a jolt of new energy. They’re looking for opportunities to work with brands, since the “Wipe It Down” challenge seems like a corporate advertising wet-dream for cleaning brands during a pandemic.
And they’re taking Zoom meetings with labels, entertaining offers from people who overlooked Soundz but are excited by BMW Kenny. “I have no animosity to those who didn’t give me a chance,” Coby says. “It’s more of a joke — ‘Ha, I told you, bro, you slept on it! It’s all love. You know what you can do? Give me one of your artists for a feature at a discount.”