You’d figure Kamaiyah would be used to hearing her own voice in public by now. For the past few months, it’s been blasting from passing cars in her hometown of Oakland via 106 KMEL, where her breakout hit “How Does It Feel” has become a staple in rotation. But the 24-year-old rapper hasn’t been getting out much – she’s been holed up in the studio putting the finishing touches on her debut, A Good Night in the Ghetto, released earlier this week. Last week, she finally heard her own song in the wild, bumping from the car behind hers in the McDonald’s drive-thru at 2:30 a.m. “I thought I was tripping,” she says in measured disbelief. “They played two songs in a row of mine and I just started laughing.” When you’ve won the hearts of the late-night McGriddle contingent, you know you’re doing something right.
One spin of “How Does It Feel” and you know why this song has birthed her career. The beat, via producer CT Beats, is an uncorked champagne spray of nostalgic Miami bass rattle rounded out by ecstatic California G-funk; it sounds more alive than anything else on the radio. The video for the track establishes Kamaiyah’s reference points within a nostalgic now. Decked out in box braids and color-block blouses that could’ve been jacked from the set of Family Matters circa ’92, sipping Moët and clutching a brick cell phone (fully functional, she notes: “That’s the phone I’m on 90% of the time”), she fantasizes about the life that comes after being broke: “How does it feel to be rich? … How does it feel to just live?” Kamaiyah says she’s not quite there herself, but she’s optimistic. She wrote the song in 15 minutes, sitting outside of an Oakland studio after her brother canceled his plans to record a different song. “You overanalyze the hard shit,” she says. “The shit that comes out easily is what people want to hear.”
Young, ’90s-obsessed rappers are usually of the empirical-lyrical-miracle variety, hell-bent on restoring a feeling they never felt firsthand. That’s not Kamaiyah’s game, though she’s not particularly interested in making fill-in-the-blanks party music, either. “I wondered how I could still keep a message that people are receptive to, and that was to make it more melodic,” she explains. “People want a good hook and a beat.” More than boom-bap nostalgia, Kamaiyah idolizes the fearless individuality of ’90s feminist futurists like Missy, Aaliyah, and TLC, who made her feel cool being a tomboy and confident playing by her own rules. It’s part fashion, part force of habit: “I had all brothers and I grew up in foster homes, so I would just take big-ass t-shirts and throw them on. That’s what I’m used to.”
A Good Night in the Ghetto is the sound of Oakland’s most promising new rapper beginning to carve out her own lane, unburdened by the weight of expectations of what a female rapper should be in 2016. Feel-good but never preachy, Kamaiyah strives to live up to her potential and keep her soul intact in a cookie-cutter industry, soaking in the surreal-ness of her newfound success. The album’s 16 tracks split the difference between understated house party slaps — see the YG-featuring come-up anthem “Fuck It Up” and “N***as,” the “Freaky Tales” update that 2016 didn’t know it needed — and melody-packed G-funk odes to making it through hard times and coming out a better person (check the triumphant opener “I’m On”). It feels like the cover looks: Kamaiyah rolling up to a party, Henny in one hand and chips in the other, ready to celebrate her hard work.
But despite the Too $hort nod in “N***as,” Kamaiyah’s hometown hero is one you wouldn’t expect. “Honestly, even more than Mac Dre and Too $hort and shit, I feel like nobody gives credit to MC Hammer,” she confesses. “That’s the biggest fucking icon Oakland ever had! He was so creative and innovative, the culture shock of what he did is still around. He was the first rap nigga to go pop — he was essentially like the Lady Gaga of hip-hop. And nobody liked him because of that. I was digging deep and found his VH1 Behind the Music shit, and it was showing how Ice Cube and all these dudes thought he was a sellout. They hated that shit because they couldn’t get to where he was at!”
She speaks with a quiet confidence that belies her relatively short time in the spotlight. “People are scared to be different, but I don’t give a shit,” Kamaiyah says. “People been talking about me my whole life. I grew up dirty in foster care. It doesn’t offend me. I’m used to that.” And though she’s one of very few visible female rappers in Oakland, the pressure just reminds her that she’s on the right track. “We’ve never really had a big female rapper out here,” she explains. “We need this. It’s history. And I don’t feel like women should ever feel intimidated by men. Lyrically, I’m better than a lot of these niggas. You just have the ego and the accolades and the credit. I’m still earning it. But I want to keep this positivity for women going — to make sure it’s OK for women to feel comfortable in their own skin, and to have confidence to create their own lane. That’s what I’m here for, period — women. We can do whatever.”