I'm sitting outside a café in LA with Oakland rapper Kreayshawn—real name Natassia Gail Zolot—drinking tap water and hoping to avoid being noticed by the waiters. It's her birthday tomorrow and she made my instructions pretty clear in advance, tweeting: "I got a interview with VICE today. If the interviewer doesn't bring me a birthday gift I'm leaving (I know your reading this too)." I bring her a princess balloon and a bobblehead for her car dashboard, and she looks pretty damn happy.
Anyone with a slight interest in the rap trends of the early 2010s will remember Kreayshawn. The 5ft 5ins San Fran rapper arrived in a literal blaze of gold jewelry and winged eyeliner when she dropped the video for her first single "Gucci Gucci" in 2011. A catchy and colorful hit, it screamed of 90s girlhood combined with the insolent energy that Odd Future had dragged back into the genre a few months earlier, and divided more people than Barb from Stranger Things. It also green-lit Kreayshawn as an overnight sensation, as the video racked up 3 million views in its first fortnight. A few months later it was certified gold, then it was remixed by Lil Wayne on Sorry 4 The Wait and, before she knew it, Kreayshawn had a million-dollar deal with Columbia Records.
As viral hits go, "Gucci Gucci" was an aggressive smash. But people struggled to 'get' her. Conspiracy theories began to spawn, with one suggesting that Zolot was a performing arts student at a liberal arts college who created Kreayshawn as a statement on blog-rap and authenticity in hip-hop.
By the time her debut album, Somethin' Bout Kreay, came out, the hype had fizzled out like a bonfire in a snow storm. "Gucci Gucci" quickly became the common case study for how viral hits don't always breed longevity, and the album set the record for lowest first-week sales by an artist on a major label, selling just 3,900 copies. It didn't help that you could only buy a physical copy from Hot Topic, or that critics were more often cruel than kind about an album that perhaps wasn't necessarily aimed at them.
"Making music for your fans on a lowkey thing, that's tight," she tells me, "But when things blow up out of proportion and your music's thrown into the ears of people who wouldn't usually listen to it, it's like, this isn't where I wanted it to go. You know? It all started off as friends having fun in Oakland, but then on a global scale it was different. The whole meaning of everything changed. A lot of people had these misconceptions about me. Even though I have a big personality and I'm talkative, I don't really like being in the spotlight."
After the failure of her album, the surrounding tour, and the subsequent breakup of her crew (the knowingly-named 'White Girl Mob'), Kreayshawn put her foot on the brakes. When she became pregnant at the age of 23, she took it as an opportunity to retreat from the music industry. "That album was fun to make, but I was just going through so much at that time and I was just like – 'I want to finish this'," she says, exasperated. "Then not even that long after the album I got pregnant, and I was like, 'Shit, this is the perfect way to get out of all this drama and just focus on me.' I had never been pregnant before so I was like, 'Fuck it! I'll have a baby! Sounds easy'."
In the four years since the release of her debut, she's certainly continued to hustle. Earlier this year she collaborated with the electronic duo NERVO for their single "Hey Ricky", but aside from the odd release here and there (including an unlikely collaboration with Grimes), her output has been spread relatively thin. Instead, her story has notes of a familiar tale of how major labels pluck young artists out of reality and then spit them back into it, to quite brutal affect, with no care for the consequences. "Whether it's music or modelling, [women] always have a time limit," she explains. "One in a million women are timeless in the industry. Usually you're just recycled. It sucks. Guy musicians can be whatever age."
But since focusing less on music, she's become a working mother and a businesswoman, turning her hand to a jewellery line (of which she's a creative director), starting a radio show, vlogging, DJing, getting into graffiti and starting plans for a zine filled with her "banger tweets, my really funny ones". She's also started a female-only DJ Collective with friends Chippy Nonstop and Brittney Scott, among others, and has even started tattooing, offering to ink my untouched skin, telling me: "I only tattoo virgins." I respectfully decline, but it's the thought that counts.
"Right now I'm trying to start a store," she says, when talk turns to other plans for her future. "I want to sell stuff I make and stuff my friends make and just cool things. Like this!" she gestures to one of the gifts I brought her, "little bobbleheads."
But even amidst her unshakeable drive and optimism, there are still some scars left from her brief dealings with mega fame. She famously posted a screengrab of her Paypal account after the release of her album, showing less than a penny in earnings, and when I mention that it costs money to start up a store, she doesn't mince her words. "Oh yeah, I'm in debt. Like, $350,000 in debt. I'm bankrupt. I'm going to have to finesse somebody to get a business licence for me." Last year her bank account was emptied by the IRS. In a since deleted tweet, she said "Can't believe the day came. The IRS wiped my whole bank account clean. 4 days before X-mas. I'm completely devastated," before going on to accuse her accountant of failing to pay her taxes.
With the flames of "Gucci Gucci" and Somethin' Bout Kreay burning on mostly in cult memory, her continued openness on Twitter and in semi-regular vlogs about her experiences has kept her story out there, and her sometimes brutal honesty has helped her maintain a loyal fanbase of over half a million. "I can't even count the amount of times I've personally DM'd fans who are like, 'I'm suicidal right now and I'm gonna kill myself.' I build a friendship with certain fans or just people who contact me and I always check in on them or they check in with me. That's why I go on those rants about shit that isn't comfortable or you wouldn't even tell your best friend. You say it on Twitter because you know someone out there is gonna need it."
Unfortunately, this sometimes goes both ways, and her candidness can put her in nasty situations. When she first told the world about her IRS troubles she was struck by the blunt edge of the general public's apathy towards stars who fall from grace, eventually deleting the tweets because it was: "painful [to] see people laugh at my misfortune and devastation."
During the course of our conversation she's quiet, but likes to talk. She's funny, too. Noticing my British accent, talk quickly turns to her slight anglophile tendencies. She loves the word "mate" and recognizes the British idiom "tickled my fancy." Ask her about British memes, and she'll bring up the iconic "I'm in me mum's car" Vine. When she comes to London, she likes to spend her time down Brick Lane – bagel bakeries, curry-houses, and a smattering of vintage clothing stores—and eats "hella Nandos." She also adores her son, Desmond, who turned three a few days earlier. "He's so funny and easy. He has his moments, but it's cool—me and his dad are friends. We raised him together and we split the week in half." She's proud of him, too: "He's hella musical, he makes up little songs. He's got like three songs that he's about to drop."
I ask her if she's likely to properly return to making music at all? "I don't know," she says. "People always ask me to make music again and it's like… I look back at my old tweets and when I was 24 I said, 'I wanna work on an album this year!' Then at 25 I said, 'I wanna work on an album this year!' Time keeps going and the further away I get from the age I started, the more I feel like, I'm too old to bother."
As we sit outside in the sweltering Californian heat, our conversation is interrupted by a 'photographer.'He tells us that he wants to photograph "offbeat, weird looking girls." We tell him that we aren't models, but he gives us his card anyway. She tells me that LA photographers are creeps, and guys will do anything to talk to women. So we decide to make a move. In an attempt to leave, we lose the princess balloon. In fact, such is her attachment to it, I have to stop her from running into the street to save her new polychloroprene friend.
As our conversation draws to a close, it's pretty clear that she doesn't consider herself to be famous anymore. In fact, she doesn't seem to associate herself with 'Kreayshawn' at all; telling me that she gets mad when her friends call her by it. For someone who could potentially have had a promising career if things had spun the right way, she doesn't seem to miss music. She wants a new chapter. If Kreayshawn spiraled into obscurity in the early half of this decade, Natassia Gail Zolot has climbed out, with a jewelry business, motherhood, tattooing ambitions, and steely optimism. She wants to own her future.
As we say our goodbyes she leaves me with one final bit of wisdom: "I try not to get too caught up in caring too much about anything. Life is too short… and hard. I'd rather just be eating burritos in bed."
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All photos supplied by the author.