Photos by Matt Vega
By now, you’ve heard this story: Artist puts out local hit, gets regional cosign, creates full body of work, ends up on a song with Drake, becomes famous. That’s how it works. End scene. They’re that person, with the hit song. Kamaiyah, the 24-year-old rapper from Oakland, definitely gets it—in fact, she’s seen this exact sequence of events unfold in her own life over the past year. Yet in Kamaiyah’s case, the familiar story is awfully reductive, and it’s one she’s eager to avoid.
“I feel like so many artists get that internet sensation factor, and then it's like, fuck, what's next, this sucks,” Kamaiyah mused to me recently on a warm spring afternoon in Brooklyn. “No, I don't want that.” It was still a couple weeks before Kamaiyah’s highest visibility moment, a guest spot alongside Drake on Compton rapper YG’s song “Why You Always Hatin’,” but Kamaiyah was already well attuned to how rapidly her star was rising. Sage, composed, and politely reserved until she got onto a topic she was eager to discuss, she spoke with the purpose of someone who has laid out a long-term plan.
Last fall, Kamaiyah released the song “How Does It Feel,” a bouncy but meditative sing-along that declares “I’ve been broke all my life” before asking “how does it feel to be rich?” The song found instant critical acclaim and the ears of a few West Coast notables, including YG, and her debut album, A Good Night in the Ghetto, was greeted with anticipation when it was released this past March. Many artists riding a wave of attention get famous before they’ve properly developed a sound, Kamaiyah observed to me; A Good Night in the Ghetto, in contrast, has one of the most clearly defined aesthetics of any rap debut in recent memory. Drawing on the warm tonal palette of 90s G-Funk and punctuated with the poppy party bounce of more contemporary Bay Area music, it, as the title suggests, swells with the upbeat languor of summer nights. The bass is thicker than molasses.
“I just wanted to make a soundtrack for the average 18 to 25-year-old that made sense,” she explained to me. “So I made a soundtrack that was like what a good night in the ghetto would sound like.”
Kamaiyah is an avowed student of the 90s, and her music above all captures the mood that we tend to associate with our favorite throwback jams, where luxury is often the simple joy of having plenty of booze and a few friends to share it with. “You so stressed and so pressed / got no hoes / get no sex / not me baby / I’m swagged up with Moet / I’m bossed up shawty / flossed up shawty / you gon’ need Jesus if you cross up shawty,” she sings on the insanely funky “One Love,” switching up rhythms enthusiastically on the “not me” and invoking the spirits of Nelly and Warren G alike. Her music, like her persona, is matter-of-fact: In a pointed aside on “How Does It Feel,” she tosses out the warning, “If fame is the goal, we can’t get along.”
Fame might not be the goal, but it’s likely on the way. Next month, Kamaiyah will join G-Eazy’s Endless Summer tour for a string of West Coast dates, alongside Logic, YG, and Yo Gotti. And right now she’s got the buzz of “Why You Always Hatin’”—a B-side of hers she gave to YG because she didn’t want to release it, mind you—propelling things along, which is just how the plan is supposed to be unfolding.
“It was a record I was going to never put out, and it ended up becoming a big single for someone else,” she said about the song over the phone shortly after it came out. “So that’s the magnitude and power I have in my music. I don’t care what you think. At the end of the day, I’m doing something that’s going to be historical five or ten years from now.”
Noisey: Who are the people on the cover of A Good Night in the Ghetto?
Kamaiyah: All my best friends. It's literally shot at my best friend’s house. His name's James. It's like my brother, it's like my best friend. He's actually on the cover, he's the one that's like, pointing. That's his house.
Is he your friend who has cancer?
That's a really tough thing to go through when you're so young.
Yes. It's just unexpected. And it's just teaching me to value life and to be healthy and take care of yourself. 'Cause, you know, for him to be 24 years old, dying from cancer, it's really crazy. [Ed. note: Shortly after this interview was conducted, James passed away.]
What kind of kid were you in high school?
I was like the smart-ass—the popular, funny smart-ass. I would be the kid that's not listening to shit, but if you ask me the answer to the question on the board, I know. So teachers fucking hated me. I kind of dictated the class because it's like, “OK, I can't kick her out, 'cause she knows the work, but she's fucking giving me a hard time, 'cause I can't get them to focus.” That was me.
What about with rapping? What was your background of getting into making your own music?
I just kinda watched Bow Wow when he was a kid, and I wanted to write, because he was a kid too. I figured out I could rhyme, so I was like, fuck it, I'm just gonna keep going, and I never stopped. I kept writing raps. When I was 11, this guy met me, he figured out I could rap because I was at a talent show for boys and girls club. And he was like, “Well, I have this studio”—and his son rapped too, he was talking to my grandma—like, “I really think she has something, maybe we should put her in there.” And he was like, “you have to write your own raps, and you can't cuss.” It was like a bunch of rules that he had for me in order for me to perform in the studio.
It was a long rule book. Like, you can't do this, you can't do that. That's why, if you listen to my album, certain songs I won't cuss on, like “Mo Money Mo Problems,” or “Swing My Way.” Sometimes it's unintentional because I'm trained like that. I was literally trained not to curse, at all. 'Cause he was like, “I feel like you're a kid and you shouldn't do this” type of thing. Even though you flat dab in the middle of the fucking ghetto, he's like, “don't do this.” And I feel like it gave me a little professionalism because when I go to the studio now, I'm prepared. When I go in there I can record a song in ten or 15 minutes because he trained me young to memorize your raps and don't cuss.
Those are great skills. To get your songs on the radio, to be able to perform on TV, all that kind of stuff. And it forces you to be more creative.
You gotta think of other things to say, think fast. Damn, what's a synonym for damn?! [Laughs]
So you were going to this guy's studio and recording stuff from the age of 11.
Mmhmm, and I stopped going when I was like 14. Because it got to the point where the hyphy movement hit hard in Oakland, and I wanted to make a certain type of music. He was like, “no, you can't do that. You can't record that here.” So, I said well, I'm just gonna stop coming here. And I started going to a place called Youth UpRising where they have studios for inner city youth. I kind of started doing my own thing over there.
What was that like when the hyphy movement hit?
It was thrilling. It was just exhilarating. Like something you can't even put into words. It was like a culture shock. It was a way of life, a rite of passage in Oakland, in the Bay Area in general. So it was one of those things where it was like, OK, you don't want me to indulge in this, but this is what everyone's doing. It's a lifestyle. So I was like, I'm not finna listen to you, I don't want to do this. We're still cool though. I talk to him every now and then.
Was everybody suddenly wanting to make music like that?
Mmhmm. And then it was like another movement that you guys probably don't know about, it was like a punk rock movement. So that's where you got the bands like people like the Pack from. Then you got another group called Go Dav, which Bobby Brackins was in. So it was like those two waves, and then right after that it became straight mob music, when we were just like, “ahh, bang em up, shoot shoot, kill kill.” Then HBK made a resurgence.
Was there a certain place where you fit into that or wanted to be?
I'm more of a groovy, 90s type of person, you know? 'Cause from the Bay, you get a different type of music—it doesn't make sense nationally, internationally, or globally. I had to figure out a way for it to transcend there. I felt like my music never fit in, but I feel like, now, it makes sense because production-wise, it has the essence of the Bay Area.
I always tell myself, like, I never wanted to be the artist that is like, I only am known in the Bay. Like oh, the girl that had the duh-duh-duh song? You know what I'm saying? Please don't let me that. I have to find a way to where it transcends, figure out my niche to make it transcend.
You've worked for a really long time with the same producer, CT. Tell me about him.
Well, I met him at Youth UpRising when I was like 16, and we just kinda started vibing out, 'cause there's this other guy that, he kinda became roommates with, and they made an in-home studio. We just stayed up all night. I’ve got a lot of projects I recorded that will never see the fucking light of day, with him. So he has history with me, so he understands me, my work ethic and how I move.
Are there certain sonic goals that you have, as far as what kind of feel you want the music to have?
For a project, you literally go off the title, and you create and build around that. So I feel like I can't give you a solidified answer to that. 'Cause it's like, what if I named my project some off the wall shit, so now it has to fit that sound? A Good Night in the Ghetto sounds like a good night in the ghetto, but the next one might sound like whatever the fuck that name may be.
If you were gonna have a good night in the ghetto, what would that be?
Just like a fun party, no drama, nobody get shot, nobody fighting. That's a good night in the ghetto. You know what I'm saying. Just riding around, chillin' with your friends, and making it home with no problems 'cause the cops didn't jack you, you got high, ate Jack N the Box—that's all that open 'cause it's 12 o’clock. You know, just random shit. That's a good night in the ghetto.
Are there any songs on there that kinda stand out to you personally, as like, this was a particularly emotional song to make?
"For My Dawg" is the hardest song I've ever made. But ironically, it was like, the hardest part of that song was the production. 'Cause I feel like, while the beat was getting made I cried so much that by the time I recorded I was hella drunk, so it came out easy, no tears. But when I listen to it it still makes me cry, because it's like, I know what I'm talking about.
I'm talking about my brother who's sick, that we was just talking about. And then I'm talking about another close friend of ours who passed away in July. He died on the 4th of July, so it's a touchy subject. It was a really hard thing for me to do. But I felt like it had to be done, so I had to make it happen. 'Cause that was literally like, the last song from the project, so I was like, damn, I gotta get a song for him. I called a friend, like, yo, call CT and tell him pull up so we can make this song.
What's it like making this transition now from this music that you've made in the process of hanging out with your friends to where you're on everybody's radar?
Just treat people like they people. And remain humble and modest. That's how I feel like I'm doing. I think that's the best way to be successful. Just remain humble. 'Cause a lot of people let the small stuff like this—like, you know, the notoriety that I'm getting so early on, it gets to a lot of people's heads, and I feel like it doesn't really affect me like that, 'cause I feel like I've always been meant to be there. I just perceive it as accolades for my worth. 'Cause I look at this shit like it's a job. You go to work on time, you get perfect attendance. Same shit. Just treat the art like it's your job, versus it's just some shit you're doing for fun, or a thing for attention.
Anybody who's just in it to get famous doesn't last too long.
And you can tell those acts, 'cause it's like, mmmmmm, it's not there. And I feel like personality is a lot too. Because the impressions you make on people, they remember forever. Like if I would have came here and been like a total fucking bitch diva, you probably would be like, yeah, we're not gonna write a good thing about her, and she's never welcome back. And a lot of people don't think about that. You treat people how you want to be treated. They teach you that shit in elementary. You don't just go around being a dickhead.
So you've been making music for a while now. What are some things that you've realized about yourself where you're like, this is sort of what makes my music work?
I feel like every artist should go through elements of developing your sound. No one should be able to tell you how to do you. And I feel like, for the most part, a lot of people come in, and they have a record, but not a sound. So then they fizzle out, ‘cause they're trying to create the sound, because they never developed themself head on. Me being in the game so long before I actually hit hard, I went through all the mistakes you make. Like, OK, I don't like how I sound when I do this, maybe I should switch. I feel like that's the biggest thing with an artist. You should have your own formula and your own comfortable way, and chemistry with people that you work. And a lot of people don't have that.
It’s no formula behind it. You had that one song, and now—that's another reason why I wanted to put out a project, so you can know, no, it's just not "How Does It Feel." I have a body of work I create that sounds just as fucking good. It’s like, OK, she's not fucking playing. She's here to stay. She's trying to really do something. And now it's a major situation in the game.
Matt Vega shoots photos at VICE. Follow him on Instagram.
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.