When you hear the name KenTheMan, your mind might conjure up an image of a hypermasculine guy with an ego the size of Texas. But in fact, the stage name is meant to push back on the myth that rap is a man's sport: It’s the moniker of Kentavia Miller, whose bass-heavy, twerk-ready debut project, 4 Da 304s, is the perfect introduction to the 26-year-old, who has been rapping in Houston's underground scene for nearly seven years. Her pugnacious flow, accentuated with her thick Southern drawl, creeps over slurred beats like her Houston predecessors. But when Ken phones in over a Google Hangout, she reveals that her music library is nothing like the music she makes herself, citing artists like Paramore and Kesha as favorites.
"I'll never get on the aux because I'll put on some pop music, and people will be like, What the fuck is this?" she tells me. Like many young women with rap aspirations, Ken grew up watching Nicki Minaj successfully straddle the world of pop and hip-hop as she pleased. There are swear words and raunchy innuendoes in Ken's music, but it’s "crossover" she feels is a dirty word. But she doesn't want to sacrifice one part of herself for the other. "I don't think I'd ever cross over fully, but I do want to bring pop into hip-hop. No matter what I get on, I'm gon' always be grimy. I'm gon' always be ratchet."
Ken's defiant spirit is the result of a hustle that spans nearly a decade. In high school, car freestyles were her entry point into rap, and although she admits she wasn't very skilled, hopping on instrumentals became a way to pass the time in her North Houston neighborhood. As Ken tells it, she released a fiery Chiraq freestyle in 2014 to cope with a broken heart. "I was so taken back by how he did me," she says. "He made me into a rapper." After a year of writer's block, she released her first mixtape, Kenny's Back, which gained traction around Houston's rap scene. When juggling a rap career, college, and raising her young son became overwhelming, she set her sights on music, striking a deal with her father: She would pursue her career relentlessly for two years, and if nothing materialized, she'd go back to school. In 2019, while delivering food for Door Dash, she wrote "He Be Like," a full-circle moment from the high car freestyles she wrote as a teen.
Ken is still writing new music in her car, but she's finally in a place where music is paying the bills. The Houston rapper sat down with VICE to talk about 4 Da 304s (which translates to "hoes" on a calculator) and the misconceptions of "hoe" music.
VICE: In an interview with Houston's The Box you said, for a while, it seemed impossible for new women to break into the industry. As a mother and an indie artist, your journey is a little unconventional. How difficult has your journey been?
KenTheMan: If you don't have a strong label around you or a strong buzz, people will not repost you. I don't have writers. I only have people who contribute to my beats. Why do I sign to a label for a small percentage of material I'm thinking of? It's my brain power; it's my writer's block.
Eventually, I want my own label so I can help people get correct deals. Yes, you owe the label something for them putting all this money behind you, but to only get 10 percent of your music, 10 percent of your merch… Why is it fair for y'all to bust down the other 90 percent with everybody else and I'm the one having to be in the blogs, sweating on tours, or not be able to be with my child, for 10 percent?
I'm not opposed to a good deal. I never give up because I see my potential—even if my Instagram doesn't match up. I'm getting streams, like I don't have to work anymore.
I think when it comes to debuts, locking in with a producer captures the true essence of who that artist is. What is it about Bigg Cuzz's production that complements your style of rapping?
We wanted to work toward a project way sooner, but I'm a bullshit bitch, honestly. I told myself in May, I'm finna lock in and finish this project because I can't keep pushing it off. I was so insecure about it, but when you've played the songs a million times you're tired of them but nobody else heard them so they're not.
Working with Cuzz was kinda funny because just like me, Cuzz is kinda bullshit too. [Laughs] Cuzz is not a producer that does beat packs or to ask you for your email. He's the type that he wants to cook beats with you. I never thought I would vibe so well with him because I never wanted to build a beat. At first, it felt like, I don't know what to tell him or I'm scared and I don't want to hurt nobody feelings. But after three years we got to know each other. So if something's not good, I can say, Hell nah Cuzz, what's that?
This project does a really good job of choosing samples, and you do that on two songs in particular. "IDGAF" is a mixed bag of samples from our favorite songs over generations with elements from everybody from Trina to Travis Porter. "Dime," which samples "Bad," is also a dose of nostalgia. Why'd you approach sampling in this way?
If you listen to DJ Chose, you'll notice that there's a lot going on in his beats. I don't like a lot going on in my beats, but when he sent me that beat I was in the car on the way to a show in the car with my friends and I said, Oh yeah, I'm finna tear this bitch up. Cuzz is also my engineer, so when I wrote it in the studio with him, I was like Damn, I'm running this hoe. I was surprised at myself because I really like less beats and instruments.
I thought of the hook for "Dime" when I was in the car. We literally wrote that song in two hours. I felt like a fun song so I didn't want to think too hard on my verses. I wanted to make something you could listen to getting dressed for the club, or even at the club. I wanted [4 Da 304s] to be fun because I want my next project to show more of my lyricism.
You once said your supporters wanted you to be a little more sexed up versus how you were rapping before. Do you feel like you had to compromise your approach to breakthrough?
It wasn't much of a compromise because I enjoy sexual music. It wasn't foreign to me, but I didn't start out rapping about sex because I can really rap. Sex talk is so easy. I always talked about getting head, even on my first mixtape in 2014, but I would mask it with metaphors. I was also younger so I wasn't comfortable saying things like creaming on his face.
It was also easy for me to cross over into the freaky shit because freaky shit is paying the bills, baby. Them metaphors was not paying the bills. I was dead broke trying to rap with all those technicalities and shit.
At the end of the day, I literally made the project for the hoes, like for the bitches. That's why I named it that because I catered it to what I know they like. As an artist, you have to know your fan base because how are you going to sell something they don't like? Once I give them my other way of rapping, they gon love it.
We always hear how a man defines a hoe, but For Da 304's subverts those tropes. If you listen carefully, you're actually urging women to be extremely selective with who they give their body to. Why did you decide to do that?
I'm not influencing hoe shit, I'm influencing getting what you want. But that's what people would consider hoe shit: dressing how you want, doing what you want, moving how you want. When I dress and wear my booty shorts, a person will look at me and think I'm a hoe. I like showing titties and ass, but even girls that don't, they be on their hoe shit too.
People will listen to me and think, Oh, Ken is getting down. I never said I'm getting down with a bunch of niggas, I'm saying the niggas that is in my collection gon gimme what I want. Hoe is a way of life.
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.