Welcome: Kamaiyah

Meet Kamaiyah. She's a west coast rapper who is bringing the California sound back to hip-hop. I first heard about Kamaiyah on XXL's last Freshman list. I was so shocked to see a female rapper on the list that I hadn't heard of yet that I went to listen to her music as soon as the cover came out. Right away, anybody with some hip-hop knowledge could tell you that this girl is from The Bay Area. Kamaiyah comes off as a fun loving, energetic rapper who writes a lot of narrative driven songs.

Her breakout song was "How Does It Feel," an anthem about growing up poor with dreams of living a lavish life off her highly acclaimed debut mixtape A Good Night In The Ghetto which dropped in 2016. Since then she has collaborated with fellow California rapper YG on hits like "Why You Always Hatin" featuring Drake. It seems California has welcomed her with open arms as well as the rest of the hip-hop community.

A self-described child of the ’90s, Kamaiyah is looking to bring back elements of that era. In her view, black popular culture reached something of a zenith in the decade when its reach was vast, but its total co-optation not yet complete. It is tempting to write this off as a case of rose-colored nostalgia (she was born in 1995), but, looking back, her
perspective is not entirely inaccurate. It’s impossible to deny that something is now fundamentally different about the relationship between popular hip-hop and blackness. Back then, Lauryn Hill was flowing black genius bars over “Ready or Not” in fatigues and combat boots. Now, a Disney star sings the same song in white Ray-Bans and Coachella bangles. It can seem like hip-hop has become simultaneously more bland and more intense—less an expression of black culture and more a hasty and dispassionate repackaging of its perceived central aesthetic tenants.

At the same time, Kamaiyah is adamant that her version of a ’90s redux doesn’t just mean a return to rip-raw battle verses and wordplay. Her conviction is that we live in a world driven by melody, and that lyrical verses, while dope, are largely lost on the masses. The irony is that she, more than most, actually has the skills of a true lyricist. Her SoundCloud features the neo-soul finger snapper "Do Dat," & a lo-fi freestyle over the “Mo Money Mo Problems” beat—that showcase a confident battle flow with slick punchlines. But, to her point, these tracks have allotted relatively few plays compared to her more melodic bottle poppers.

She is most compelling, however, when she combines her conscious-rapper heart with her more commercial and melodic instincts, as on the deceptively advanced funk track “How Does It Feel.” The song’s video features a homeless Kamaiyah facing the early morning cold of the Oakland hills while dreaming about what it would be like to have money. True to form, she offers a crispy melodic structure that you could imagine a much bigger (but much weaker) artist stealing & passing off as their own. Her interplay with the 808 bells, handclaps, & Roland synths is irresistible as she keenly turns the “get money” trope on its head. When she raps “I wonder how does it feel to be rich,” we aren’t shown shiny Aston Martins in front of sprawling McMansions. Kamaiyah’s fantasies are more humble and idiosyncratic: a dining room table, a staircase, a bottle of champagne, a Nintendo 64. She desires the richness of having a roof over one’s head and a carpet to sit on. It is the inverse of typical critiques of hip-hop materialism. Rather than asking from the top—why do we have to be rich?—Kamaiyah’s ask is from the bottom: What is it like to not to be broke?

As a female artist trying to match lyrical honesty with the commercial demands of an industry largely lacking in imagination, the bottom is where Kamaiyah has to start, and she's fine with that. Kamaiyah is talented, hungry and driven. She's definitely doin' it.