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Kamaiyah Keeps It Funky

The Oakland rapper’s latest project, ‘Before I Wake,’ released Wednesday, has all the confidence and bounce of her debut tape, ‘A Good Night in the Ghetto’

Kaimayah Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If we take “vacation” to mean a reprieve from normal circumstances and not necessarily something involving booking agents, what’s the cheapest vacation you can imagine? Is it a weekend drive to the next town over? Maybe a stay at the hotel just up the street because it has a heated indoor pool and food you don’t have to cook yourself? On Bay Area rapper Kamaiyah’s 2016 debut A Good Night in the Ghetto, vacation is a bottle of Hennessy, a bag of chips, and friends to split them with. That’s what was featured on the project’s cover, along with a few other notable things: acrylic nails, Bantu knots, vintage round frames that look like they may be Versace, but who knows? That tableau clarifies the feel of the mixtape — an MTV top video countdown from when Ginuwine was rocking the finger-waves and Aaliyah was still alive. With the first half-hour of BET: Uncut thrown in.

You don’t need to be told about “How Does It Feel” because you’ve probably already heard it. You’ve at least heard talk of the video, which depicts what Kamiyah would do if she could afford to buy any version of life she wanted: drink Moet and play N64 on a really nice couch. It was the now 25-year-old’s 2015 breakthrough hit, and it typifies her unique dedication to simple pleasures and a retro-futurist aesthetic. The synths, the bounce, the 808s begging to be two-stepped or electric slided on. “I like synth-driven beats that remind me of the SOS Band and shit,” she said in a recent interview with GQ.

It’s not that she’s wearing your uncle’s rugby polo and talking into a Motorola 8000X, it’s that she sounds like she’s wearing your uncle’s rugby polo and talking into a Motorola 8000X. She’s had an eventful year and a half since her first tape dropped: She gave YG a B-side of hers, which turned into the club smash known as “Why You Always Hatin?” and, perhaps more importantly, she rode around in a drop-top Lamborghini with Drake. (She also provided the voice overlay in YG’s verse on “Gucci On My,” talking about how YG was getting paid, had a maid, and crucially, clear skin.) A Good Night showed what she could be capable of when given more to do and found its way onto quite a few year-end round-ups. She also landed on the most recent XXL Freshmen cover. (We can and will say that Kamaiyah is poles apart from the other rappers in her freshman class. Each had a certain regionlessness to their sing-rapping; there’s a level of interchangeability with A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie and PnB Rock.)

The honest-to-goodness debut album was meant to be next. Don’t Ever Get It Twisted had both a cover (Kamaiyah, on a throne, wearing tiger print and rings on every finger) and a single (“Build You Up,” which owes as much to Mac Dre as it does to Tony! Toni! Toné!). But summer came and went without the album’s release, the holdup due to sample clearance issues. Kamaiyah’s newest full-length project, Before I Wake, which came as a surprise on Wednesday, is a 10-track acknowledgment of exactly where she is in a career that began when she was 11 and seems just on the cusp of realization. This is the bridge of “Slide (Bet),” which is the second song on the tape, and easily the best:

Yea, I fucked up this summer
I didn’t put out one damn song, but y’all hoes still ain’t did nothing
I smell my revenge coming

That second bar isn’t entirely true; Kamaiyah did release that aforementioned single, along with another one-off, “Successful,” an admission of having once been broke, and a vow to never be broke again. Kamaiyah’s ruminations on her success come six weeks after Cardi B knocked Taylor Swift down a peg, and “Bodak Yellow” became the longest-running no. 1 on the Hot 100 by a solo female rapper. You might have heard that rap is all anyone wants to listen to now, though Swift’s ouster (from the top spot) is evidence enough of hip-hop’s recent dominance of the mainstream.

It isn’t possible to confuse Kamaiyah’s posture with that of any of her ostensible contemporaries, and not just because she was the only woman on that XXL cover. However, it is interesting to think of where Kamaiyah fits among that new guard of female rappers — she’s hardly grabbing you by the scruff of the neck like a Cardi or a Nicki Minaj might. Her half-sung sound isn’t as dark and paranoid as a Young M.A, and it’s not as leafy and humid as a Noname. It’s also not as pensive, and a good deal more carefree. The Oakland native’s new-age, mob-G-Funk hybrid exists in some happier, overexposed space in between.

A possible answer to that very first question, about ideas for cheap vacations, if you’ve yet to think of one: catching a few consecutive green lights down Telegraph Avenue, headed toward downtown Oakland, blaring “Playa In Me,” the fourth song on Before I Wake. “My K-Swiss cost more than your weave,” Kamaiyah says on the tape opener “Dope Bitch” — a variation on the execution and name of N.W.A’s “Dopeman” — on which she also claims to have a “lavender Glock.”

From start to finish, Before I Wake’s singular focus is inducing the easy feeling of a Saturday night that never threatens to turn into Sunday morning, informed by the project’s executive producer, Link Up, who produced most of A Good Night. “Me Against Myself” is distinctively Chaka Khan; “The Wave” is, well, wavy. Pacing issues have no business around a project that comes in at under 30 minutes, but it seems important to note here that there aren’t any on Before I Wake. One might even say that it’s “wall-to-wall bops.”