This article appears in VICE Magazine's 2019 Profiles Issue. This edition looks to the future by zeroing in on the underrecognized writers, scientists, musicians, critics, and more that will shape our world next year. They are "the Other 2020" to watch. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.
The 40/40 Club was silent on a Tuesday evening—a fraction of the buzz you’d expect when walking into the sports bar owned by Jay-Z. Instead, the glamour was tucked away upstairs in a back room, where about 30 of Kash Doll’s top Tidal listeners were waiting to hear her debut album Stacked. Kash’s most popular songs played at a roaring volume in the background with “So Good,” a collaboration with fellow Detroiter Big Sean, sending her fans into a frenzy. “’Cause this a big body Benz, please don’t crash,” they rapped along to the track praising Kash’s curves. The word “stacked,” which adorned napkins sprinkled across gilded tabletops, is more than a colloquialism to describe a woman’s body. It’s emblematic of the odds she’s been up against.
Kash Doll’s entrance to her own listening party, an hour and a half and a few false starts later, was analogous to her rise in rap. It was a slow simmer, but worth the wait. She sauntered into the same room as the slightly impatient crowd, in sky-high heels, to the standout song, which became popular on TikTok, from her 2018 mixtape The Vault: “I heard you bitches was looking for me / Bitch, here I go!” If there’s anything to be learned about the Detroit rapper, it’s that the moment you count her out, she’s prepared to prove you wrong.
In September, the rapper shared the album art for her debut on Instagram, with an October 4 release date that was quickly delayed to October 18. The two-week setback was insignificant compared with the nearly five years her fans, affectionately known as the Kash Bratz, have waited. In 2015, Kash Doll signed to a Detroit record company, and disagreements with that label kept a handful of her mixtapes off streaming services. In the years that followed, she opened for Drake’s Summer Sixteen concert in Detroit and released a viral single, “For Everybody,” proving to Republic Records, where she signed in 2017, that there was an unquenchable appetite for her. Over 17 songs, Stacked finds Kash Doll shedding the layers of her thorny upbringing. She’s contemplative on spots like “KD Diary” and “Feel Something,” but other times, she’s downright hubristic, as on “Cheap Shit,” where a pair of $450 boots don’t cost enough for her high-end taste.
On track after track, Kash is animated enough to be performing in a crowd larger than the one standing before her at the 40/40 Club as she crawled atop a repurposed pool table. Without missing a beat, she recited her own verse and the rapid-fire delivery of the legendary New Orleans rapper featured on “Kitten.”
“What does it mean to have Lil’ Wayne on your album?” a voice asked from the crowd.
“It means I’m a fucking GOAT,” she snapped back without hesitation. With that, she lifted her glass of champagne to the ceiling. “Cheers!” she said. After five long years, with half of that time spent embroiled in a complicated lawsuit, Kash Doll has an official album to celebrate. The long-awaited debut is the culmination of years of captivity. She’s rapping as if her life depended on it—and for a long time, it did.
On the eve of the album's release, Kash Doll met me on a windy afternoon in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She had traded in the painted-on latex pants and heels for jeans and sneakers paired with a Stacked sweatshirt and Detroit Tigers baseball cap. Her 4.1 million Instagram followers may recognize her best in formfitting, barely-there outfits, but this is who she is when she isn’t performing. There are different sides to Kash Doll, born Arkeisha Knight, that have always battled to be the most visible. This was the crux of her 2015 mixtape Keisha vs. Kash Doll.
“Keisha was still Kash Doll,” she told me, explaining the difference between who she’s always been and her stage name. “But Kash Doll is expensive. She cost too damn much. Keisha likes not having makeup on and [no] weave in her head. Kash Doll, she love that shit.” With Stacked, we’re introduced to new personas like Miss Knight, the seductress; but it’s KD, who Kash said has a tomboyish nature, who opens the album.
The first three minutes of the record are autobiographical, with “KD Diary,” painting a vivid picture of her journey. “Pops died on my birthday before I knew how to speak / I’m the oldest of six and they counting on me,” she raps, recalling the circumstances that turned her into a hustler. After graduating high school, she juggled jobs making petty cash at Detroit’s Better Made Potato Chip factory, Little Caesars, and Best Buy. Cash had always ruled her world, and it wasn’t long before she was eager to make more of it and fast.
She created the alias Kash Doll for Twitter almost a decade ago and adopted the moniker when she began exotic dancing a couple of years later. “I never really danced,” she admitted in a 2017 interview with Fader. “If you go look at the videos on YouTube, I used to walk across the stage rapping songs and they used to just throw me all the money.” Her ability to empty the pockets of the patrons at the club, however, didn’t come overnight. “I used to have at least four shots of liquor before I could even deal with the shit,” she said in an interview with The Breakfast Club. Eventually, she told Fader, she became a top earner in the club, including one legendary night that made her $26,000 richer than when she walked in.
Encouraged by her then boyfriend Dex Osama, Kash hit the studio, building her identity as a rapper and gaining traction around the city, collaborating with local Detroit artists like Chedda Ave. After transitioning from a dancer to a rapper, Kash had a year of experience under her belt, but her advancement in the industry wouldn’t exactly be easy. In 2015, Osama was killed outside a Detroit strip club, and Kash Doll signed her first deal with a local record company. Several months after signing, she said she found herself locked in a bad contract that stalled her music career for two years.
“You could fuck a beat up. You can attack a beat. You can make love to it. You can have sex with it. You can disrespect it. Or you could just have fun with a beat.”
“We knew right away that she was one of the most charismatic, ambitious, contagiously special people,” said a rep from the label. “The CEO himself told me the day he flew me in from L.A. to meet Kash Doll that she was the single best entertainer that he had ever met.” The label claims Kash and the CEO had been working on an “honor system,” and after a few months of working together decided to sign her to the roster. According to the label, Kash was given a contract that the CEO hadn’t personally written or read.
“The lawyers went back and forth because the CEO admittedly didn’t even really know what was in the contract,” the rep said.
Kash remembers the first time she realized her deal might not be legitimate. “Debra Antney, who was my manager at the time, called me yelling at the top of her lungs. ‘What the fuck did you sign? They’re fucking you over,’” Kash said, mimicking Antney’s tone.
The label still claims there was nothing in Kash Doll’s contract that explicitly prohibited her from releasing new music. But, according to the rep, the business relationship grew more complicated after the rapper sued the company in 2016.
“I believe that it was aspects of the litigation that might have stipulated some reservations about her releasing music until there was a resolution,” the rep said. According to the company, cease-and-desist letters were sent to the rapper until the lawsuit was settled, in early 2018. “To be honest, even when the litigation happened, the label would have 100 percent left all the music up. Think about it: It would have benefited the label to leave the music up,” she said.
Kash Doll couldn’t get her music on major streaming services, but she wasn’t making it in vain. In 2017, she released “For Everybody,” with a video inspired by the conversation between two women dating the same man in the 1998 film Belly. The song, heavy with storytelling and hip-hop nostalgia, hit a million views in two weeks (today it has over 30 million views), and unintentionally financed Kash’s freedom.
“At first, [they] were coming straight to me,” she said. “They’d strike my account and it would come down. But now they had to argue with somebody through litigations.” The success of “For Everybody” prompted Kash Doll to tour aggressively for nine months, with the hope of securing enough money to get out of her deal. Her team declined to get into specifics, but on “KD Diary” she says the experience cost her “a half a ticket,” or half a million dollars—and required the help of Howard Hertz, Eminem’s attorney—to break free of her contract. The song caught the ear of Ken Jarvis, an A&R coordinator at Republic Records, where Kash signed that spring.
The year she broke free of her deal is the same year Kash got properly introduced to the masses. She ended 2017 with a placement on “So Good,” which appeared on Big Sean and Metro Boomin’s joint project Double or Nothing. Nearly a year later, Kash released “Ice Me Out,” her major-label debut and Stacked’s lead single, a track as frigid as the Detroit air she’d grown up in. Bass-heavy and brash, it underscored the rapper’s love for diamonds and a lifestyle of luxury, which wouldn’t surprise anyone who studied her mixtapes. But Stacked couldn’t exist without the foundation laid by mixtapes like K.R.E.A.M, Keisha vs. Kash Doll, Trapped in the Dollhouse, The Vault, and Bratz Mail. Some of Kash’s earlier work can be found on YouTube, with projects like Trapped in the Dollhouse and The Vault existing solely on old-fashioned mixtape services. Bratz Mail, which was released after she signed to Republic, was her first project to hit the streaming service giants.
“I’d say [my previous mixtapes] were all miscarriages,” she said. “I was never able to put them out and they stayed out. They were never able to live.”
But, as she anticipates her debut, Stacked is the only one she considers her child. “This is my first baby,” she said. “I went in [the studio] saying, ‘I want every song to be a hit.’”
If nothing else, Stacked is 47 minutes of confirmation that Kash’s ear is trained for hits. Her time spent working in strip clubs, where dancers often dictate which songs become popular, and the five years she spent creating the hard to find music, has given birth to the robust rap permeating the album. Just three months after Jermaine Dupri’s criticism that women “are all rapping about the same thing,” Kash Doll’s healthy track list is more than a pastiche of the best parts of hip-hop.
The album underscores two things that set Kash apart from her contemporaries: her commitment to new rhyme patterns and an exceptional knack for beat selection. She channels the combative energy of her predecessors on “Mobb’n,” exercising the dichotomy of her glam and grit by interpolating Crime Mob’s “Knuck If You Buck,” led by Princess and Diamond, over a TRU “Hoody Hoo” sample. “Paid Bitches” is chaotic, purposefully sporting a mélange of flows.
“When I hear a beat I be like, ‘I’m about to fuck this beat up,’” she said, balling her hands into fists like she’s ready to fight. “You could fuck a beat up. You can attack a beat. You can make love to it. You can have sex with it. You can disrespect it. Or you could just have fun with a beat. When I heard [“Paid Bitches”], I said, ‘I’m about to fuck this beat up.’”
One Kash Bratz–approved track from the listening session isn’t exactly a new song. “Cheap Shit,” a track from Keisha vs. Kash Doll, received an update four years in the making. “I hate coupons / I hate futons / And niggas with that little bread, I hate croutons,” she raps in a near growl. She’s temperamental on the record, bouncing between Kelis-level screams and infant-like whines. “I wouldn’t buy you cheap shit, so why you wanna do it to me?” she asks on the bridge. The recycled song can be interpreted as more than its consumerist message; it allows Black women to scream, both literally and figuratively, for reciprocity without the fear of being labeled as “angry.”
Kash’s official entry to rap marks the end of one era and the beginning of another. Still, as impressive as Stacked is, the album’s thesis can be boiled down into one line found in multiple spots on the album: “I don’t look like what I’ve been through.”
“There have been people who I adored and thought were all that, but you can tell in their face…” she told me. “You can tell life took a toll. I don’t look nothing like what the fuck I been through. I don’t look like I had a hard life.”