It was 9 p.m. on a recent Friday night in a recording studio in San Francisco's SOMA district. Kamaiyah cracked open a bottle of Jameson and a plastic, lemon-shaped container of lemon juice and poured herself a stiff cocktail. A buoyant, bare-bones beat with an old-school, West Coast funk filled the room — the last incomplete track off her highly anticipated debut mixtape, A Good Night in the Ghetto, which the rising Oakland rapper will self-release on March 14, the day after her 24th birthday.
Francois Wiley, Kamaiyah's manager, sat behind the studio's sprawling mixing console and played the beat on repeat to get Kamaiyah in the headspace to lay down her last verse. Meanwhile, Kamaiyah's brother and eight or so friends piled onto the studio's couches. I later recognized some of them the following Monday when she posted the cover art for A Good Night, which features a shot of Kamaiyah greeting her beaming posse with a bottle of Hennessy in hand. The giddy squad chatted, rolled blunts, and checked Snapchat as they waited for Kamaiyah to finish working.
"I'm just working on one song, and then it's kind of a free-for-all. That's why I have all the homies in here," she explained as she ushered me upstairs to do our interview.
Sporting gray sweats; square-tipped, zombie-green acrylic nails; and golden-brown box braids trimmed into an angular bob, Kamaiyah exuded a tomboyish cool that's palpable in her music.
Her breakout hit, "How Does It Feel," is an infectiously catchy, feel-good anthem that makes a case for making the most of life when you're young and poor. I been broke all my life/Now I wonder/How does it feel to be rich, she sings over a bouncy bass line with a g-funk flavor, with bursts of jubilant, horn-like synths cheering her on. "How Does It Feel" is a boast rap for the 99 percent — a soundtrack for those whose definition of riding foreign is driving a busted Honda.
With endorsements from high-profile local artists such as Nef the Pharaoh and Kehlani, "How Does It Feel" has skyrocketed to regional popularity in recent months, and has caught the attention of tastemakers such as MTV's Meaghan Garvey and The FADER's Naomi Zeichner, who have touted it on Twitter. It's a solid earworm that strikes a balance between catchiness and carefully crafted lyricism — a debut strong enough to inspire widespread faith in Kamaiyah's hit-making potential, even though, at the time of the single's release, she didn't have enough published material to tell for certain whether or not the hit was a fluke. (For the record, I listened to A Good Night in the Ghetto during the interview, and can attest that nearly every track is a banger.) Tellingly, her first major piece of national press was a high profile interview in Pitchfork, which came out several months before A Good Night even had a release date or publicly known title. Before even booking a local release show, she's already preparing to head to Austin to perform at South by Southwest next week.
Now on rotation on 106 KMEL, "How Does It Feel" is slowly cresting to regional ubiquity, and all signs point to the fact that Kamaiyah's debut mixtape will likely rise to national acclaim. Though she's relatively new to the music business (her Instagram features photos of her excitedly rubbing shoulders with heavyweights like 50 Cent and YG), Kamaiyah spoke about her sudden success with the levelheadedness of an industry vet. "When I recorded ['How Does It Feel'], I knew there was something different about the record, and I had faith that it would be one of my biggest," she said coolly. "But you don't know the magnitude of how big it's gonna reach."
Kamaiyah has a strong sense of self and is keenly aware of how she fits into the scene on a local and national scale. In addition to networking with Nef and IAMSU — the foremost young, local rappers at the moment — she watches the moves of the top female rappers in the industry, such as Nicki Minaj and Dej Loaf. And though the West Coast doesn't have any female hip-hop superstars — like Missy Elliot or MC Lyte, who helped pave the way on the East Coast — the prospect of becoming California's first rap queen is a major motivator for her.
"I might be one of the staple artists in the game in the next five or ten years, who's considered one of the best — or even the greatest," she enthused, tapping her fingernails emphatically on her iPhone screen. Releasing her mixtape while "How Does It Feel" is still hot was a calculated move, she continued, to back up its success with a solid body of work that proves that she's not a one-hit wonder.
Kamaiyah knows the rap industry favors female artists with hyper-sexualized images, and that there are plenty of fans who are eager to see more diverse representations of womanhood in music in general. She views her androgynous look and nostalgic hairstyle — which she said is based on one she rocked in elementary school — as a testament to her commitment to individuality.
"I'm 23 years old with a fuckin' braid bob in 2016," she laughed, "That lets you know how much I care about perception."
Kamaiyah's pride in her quirky image underscores the relatable way she portrays herself in her lyrics — one of the main reasons she believes "How Does It Feel" took off so quickly. She grew up in East Oakland on High Street, and while the track doesn't dwell on her life's struggles, it has no pretenses about living the glamorous lifestyle that so many rappers portray.
"Everybody's not rich," she said. "Nobody has a foreign car. Especially when you're between 18 and 25 — you're still trying to figure out life."
She continued, "You have all these artists that are broke themselves, but because they have this machine behind them, they're perceived as this rich individual. I don't want you to look at me like that. That way I can still do normal shit — like ride the BART."