Bktherula’s face is framed by high-watt vanity lights as she stares into a square mirror mouthing the words to LVL5 a week before its release. A bulb in the upper-left corner of the mirror flickers, casting shadows and a sudden severity across her dewy skin.
“One in the head like its Russian roulette/ I keep me a bad bitch, I keep me a stack/ Really I try to stay away from the gats/ but I'll have to up it if you talking shit/ I’ll have to up it if you talking down/ I don't want your bitch, lil *igg* want the crown/ Tell all the *igg*s that hate I’m in town/ And I hold all the weight like a TV on mount,” she sings along.
In the mirror’s foreground, Bktherula bops and sways, smacking her lips between lip-gloss pulls and smearing rosy blush across cheekbones with her middle finger, head bouncing hard enough to shake gelled-down braids. At the mirror’s edge, photographers test lights, drawing dimensions across a white, cardboard backdrop.
Bktherula (the moniker for Brooklyn Candida Rodriguez) is in her own dimension. Positioned perpendicularly to power, she dances between realities, assuming alter egos only to obliterate them and move on to the next. Today’s release of LVL5 alludes to Levels 3 and 4 which preceded it, opened and closed doors in her musical and self-actualization.
Walking to the bathroom she passes a series of doors — shut and painted blue, the numbers 301, 302, 303 labeled plainly in white on their sides.
“Left, then straight, then on the right,” a voice echoes, directing her through the maze with a nod to her first hit single.
The pattern is laid out, if you look for it. But the Atlanta rapper’s path diverges from itself, turning left where the masses demand right, moving with the urgency of the Devil at her heels and intention that could stop a bullet in its tracks. Unlike Neo, who is referenced in LVL5’s skit interlude, Bk is sure of her own power. Instead, her fatal flaw lies in its reception. The further she advances, weaving between lines of code, activating glitches entered by previous players, the more Agents emerge from the masses cloaked as fans, collaborators or close friends.
Bktherula crept into the music game in 2019 with “LEFT RIGHT,” an eerie, slow-building single with conspicuously monotone intensity; the sound-bite-ready single “Tweakin Together” soon took over fashion TikTok, representing an alternative. But culture consumes what deviates from it, and, to maintain authenticity, Bk has had to transform.
In the empty studio, photographers move the backdrop around her; it takes the shape of a corner, a ceiling and then disappears from the frame. The room is fixed, but its boundaries are always shifting.
To Bk, LVL5 is a state of mind. An amalgam of quantum physics, Christianity and video game vernacular, Bk’s LVL5 worldview shifts in and out of focus, oscillating between light and dark, hero and NPC, God and the Devil — before collapsing in on itself. After level 3’s ignorance and level 4’s arrogance, LVL 5 finds Bktherula at the climax of her hero's quest.
Unlocking a new door, Bktherula talked LVL5 with PAPER. Read our interview to level up.
LVL5 has a kind of video game quality to it. Are there any games that feel like your life?
I used to play a lot of games but my favorite was Call of Duty, still is. But my life feels like this game called Super Liminal. It’s a one-player game, so you don’t interact with other people in the game, it's just strictly you. You have to figure out how to get out of each room and go into the next door. But if you think too hard about it, you’ll be stuck on that level for like, two hours. The whole point is not to think too hard about it, and then you’ll get to the next door and to the next door. I feel like that’s what my life represents right now.
Have you ever had a moment in life that felt like it unlocked something new for you?
Every single day. Adding more genuine people to your circle, that can take you to the next level. But you can also interact with a bad apple. Like I got invited to a fashion show, and I went because they said they had a seat, but when I went there they didn’t have a seat for me and everyone was just treating me horribly. I was receiving answers that at the end of the night gave me a key to unlock a new door. So that key unlocked the new room for me, because now I’m not in that room. I’m in a completely different space and I didn’t have to think too hard about it. All I had to do was get up and leave the event. That was the key. I left and I succeeded and now I’m onto the next level.
Who are some of the different characters you interact with in your life? People you receive messages from?
God. That’s like, my overarching character. But the Devil is also a character. You know those video games where it doesn’t really talk but words pop up on the bottom, and the screen freezes when you’re about to get to a new level? I feel like when I’m getting to my next thing, it’ll freeze and it’ll be God telling me what to do, and then the Devil will come and try to convince me otherwise. From there, I have to figure out who is talking to me, because there aren’t other people in the game. I can’t see God and I can’t see the Devil. But I can hear from both of them. I have to put the clues together to figure out which one is talking and which way to go — which door to choose.
What messages did you have to decipher to make LVL5?
The messages were like, No one will understand this. You shouldn’t drop this. You should try to be more like everybody else. Everyone else is going up around you and not you. You’re not good enough.
Those are some of the thoughts I was getting. I just had to stop and be like, Whoa? What the fuck is going on? Because on the other hand I’m getting thoughts like, The Devil has never won a battle. You’ve been confident in this your whole life. You’ve never put your friends down. You feel good when you make these songs and this is who you are. I get those thoughts too. So I had to make the decision to stay confident in myself. Because if I didn’t, the album probably wouldn’t have taken the same shape. It probably would have started trying to be like everybody else. It wouldn’t be super authentic anymore, and I refuse to change myself. I refuse to tap into any of the doubts that these forces try to make me feel about myself or my art.
What were the previous levels?
Level three is just ignorance.
You start at three? You don’t start at one?
No one and two. The first and second dimension don’t exist here. We start with the third dimension. Like — have you ever met a third-dimensional ass *igg*? It’s like you just got here, you’re just living but you’re not losing your brain, you’re not using your heart, you’re just third-dimensional. All you care about is the clout and money, being vain. But what’s going to happen when it’s not there?
The fourth dimension is the astral realm. So it’s the dream realm. We dream about the craziest things. Things we don’t even see on Earth sometimes — things in space. That’s what level four is.
Level Five is ascending beyond that and understanding that we aren’t a human body. Yes, the world is fucked up, but we can’t stay in that mindset because it’s only going to fuck us up — being level three is letting it fuck you up. Level four is thinking that you’re smarter because you broke out of the matrix, but you have to also break out of the ego.
Level Five is understanding that and having compassion for the people who are in level three and not forcing them to be on level five. You can't force anyone to be on another level — you can't force anyone to be in a different headspace, but you can have compassion for them and you can influence them in the right ways, if you be yourself. If you have the light, people will follow.
And what comes after Level Five? Is there a sixth?
If anything, it’ll go to level 10.
Like a time jump?
Yeah — that’s why I was saying there’s no one and three, like you can’t go to six. I took this class in quantum physics at the University of Tokyo. It's not humanly possible.
What does Level Five mean to you?
Level Five is fighting through the spiritual warfare of life and learning from it, and growing from it, lessening our humanly learned life, things that we’ve been taught to learn a new way.
What did making the album teach you?
It definitely brought me a lot of humility, I would say. It humbled me a lot, taught me how to move. I was just moving off the fact of me wanting to do whatever I want. But doing this album and working with my team, it definitely just taught me how to be humble and also like, how to move better — how to be more organized. I wasn't very organized at all. And working on LVL5 definitely made me more organized. Not even just obviously when making music, but I would say my entire life. You know what I mean? I used to not care. And I used to have a fuck-the-world mindset, but it's not about fuck the world. What are you doing in the world? What makes you love it?
So if you break down the album, what are the different mindsets?
It was actually made over the span of three years of songs that go way, way, way back. I would say each of the songs are the different people that brought me to who I am today. It's not in order. It's actually all over the place as far as sequence, but it's organized at the end of the day. They're all different people with different names, different states of mind. I would say: same game, different level. That's what made me get to level five.
What does Level Five look like IRL?
I say level five anything. Level five dinner, level five shoes. We had Taco Bell the other day. Level fucking five dinner, bro. Two days in a row we’re just like, “Hey, you want to go to Taco Bell?” Absolutely. Shit, we’re eating at the Taco Bell, even though they said we can’t eat there because it’s closed. That’s level five shit. It’s just the genuine fucking times.
Level five shoes, level five head — level five hair, level five bitch.
Level Five head?
I mean like... like Level Five hair.
How do you protect your energy from people?
Praying, Jesus Christ. That’s it. Don’t even go too deep. I’ll be honest, I thought I was aware at a point, but that’s when I was on that ego shit. But that’s not going to make people change, it’s going to steer them away.
I've always been tapped in with God. But more so these past two years because of the hard times. It's crazy. I have things that are around me that fucked me up so bad, but that’s why I steer closer up. Everyday I'm trying to steer more into the light. I feel like that makes me more level five than anything else in this world. And of course, my mom, my mom is an angel. My dad is an angel, but my mom’s an angel. She teaches me so much. She was born level five. She's a star. She's an angel. And I definitely get it from her. She had three miscarriages and she had me. So it's like, I gotta be a star. I gotta be the star. I'm doing this for them. I'm also doing this for the people who love me and also doing it for people who hate. Ultimately I'm doing it for Jesus Christ.
Is there anything else you want to say?
Fuck her right in the pussy. Thank you.
Photography: Mona Layne
Styling: Giselle Glyssiah-Carmele Merelus
Clothing and accessories: musée de (RE)main and Oneofone vintage
Production: Ketia Jeune