Chicago’s Kidd Kenn came up remixing drill music from artists in the city. Now he’s performing at Pride events across the country.
Chicago native Dontrell Smith always knew he wanted to be a star. Before becoming the rapper known as Kidd Kenn — the name partly inspired by his fandom of Nicki Minaj and being a self-proclaimed Barb — he saw himself as a dancer or actor. But after falling in love with creating a smooth 16, rap became his dream, transforming into a fiery and witty rapper out of the Southside of Chicago in the process.
“In eighth grade, I noticed I wanted to take [rapping] seriously. I missed my high school graduation. I missed a lot of stuff just to [focus on] my career…shooting videos, making the songs, and talking my shit — all of it plays a part in some way.”
Kenn hit the scene remixing drill music like FBG Duck’s “Slide” and G Herbo’s “Never Cared” and “Who Run It,” applying his own distinct spin on the tracks’ themes while showcasing the punchy delivery that helped him gain recognition in Chicago and a loyal social media following on Twitter and Instagram.
Since then, Kenn has released a handful of mixtapes and EPs, as well as worked with artists like Rico Nasty and Saucy Santana. The growth of his artistry can be heard throughout his discography with improved production quality, tighter flow, and sharper pen game in tracks like Cupcakke-featuring “Shake Sum,” “Dream,” “B4,” and the Rico Nasty-featuring “Moves.” That work ethic and dedication to his craft have led to many milestones early on in his career.
In 2021, Kenn saw a roller coaster of success, beginning with him being the first out rapper to participate in the BET Hip-Hop awards cypher. From there, three of the rapper’s songs received notable placements with big-name brands: the feel-good anthem “Good Day” (my personal favorite in his discography) for a Pride campaign commercial for Target; “Moves” for an Apple Watch ad; and the upbeat “Get Lit” for the official Madden 22 soundtrack.
“It was so exciting. I always wanted to be in a commercial or a game…every time I get on Twitter and I see my fans typing me, ‘I just heard Kenn on Madden‘ or ‘I just heard Kenn on Target,’ it warms my heart because it just shows the growth,” the rapper said. “It was once upon a time when that never existed but now it’s happening.”
This year, Kenn is focused on maintaining his ascent. He has released “BODY,” a body-positive track about loving yourself and enjoying life. As the lead single from his upcoming EP dropping later this summer, the track offers a taste of how the rapper is expanding on his artistry. The Windy City rapper also recently performed live in Arlington, Texas at the So What Festival, and in Los Angeles as a part of the West Hollywood Pride event, effortlessly serving glam and stage presence. (He’ll be performing in Seattle at Seachella later this month)
“Pride means showing your true colors, being yourself, giving people the raw, uncut you,” Kenn said when asked what Pride means to him. And loving it — loving you for you and not for what anybody else thinks.”
Okayplayer recently spoke with Kidd Kenn about his music and creative process, fashion inspiration and more.
How did you come up with your stage name?
Kidd Kenn: Well, if you don’t know — I’m a Barb, a big one. With every other name I had, I had “Kidd” some type of way. So once I came up with Kidd Ken I was like, “It’s perfect because I’m a Barb, I look like a Ken [doll], I could sell it.” And it’s just me to be honest.
How did growing up in Chicago influence your sound and your approach to creating music?
It gave me that rough, that real tough, bad bitch feeling. Me being from Chicago, I don’t take shit from nobody. So I feel like you could hear that through my music.
What’s your favorite part about the creative process when making music? Is it the writing? Is it hearing the beat? Is it going to the studio?
Making the song, coming up with the chorus — the catchy, fun part is always it for me. Once I come up with a good chorus and I love it, I be like, “Yeah, this is the one. They’re going to love it.”
Your pen game is strong and filled with punchy lyricism. How do you perfect your writing and flow?
By just really taking my time and waking up every day rapping, writing, and doing everything I can to perfect my craft by just practicing. And even just by looking at my faves and taking notes from them and seeing how they do things.
How did you practice getting down the flow you have?
Rapping every Nicki verse and feature there was, literally helped me. No lie. With my breath control and everything — when Nicki came out with a real fast verse and the cadence and everything was just on point, I literally rapped it over and over and over again until I said it just like her.
The trajectory of your career has been enjoyable to watch. How are things different from when you first started? What’s something you’ve learned about yourself as an artist?
I learned that I could actually be really creative. When I first started I had it, but I’m starting to show it way more. I’m beginning to see that I could really be different and do things totally different from another artist, as far as just me getting my whole look together and coming up with how I look and sound.
You made history at last year’s BET Hip-Hop Awards, appearing as the first out rapper in the cypher. Tell me a bit about that experience.
That experience was breathtaking. Being a boy from Chicago and watching my favorites do the cypher and stuff, I always wanted to be a part of a cypher. The question of me ever being in it always stuck in the back of my mind. I never knew for sure; I just knew it was something I always wanted to do. So for my first cypher to be BET, it was exciting, unbelievable, and breathtaking.
Your latest single, “Body,” dropped recently. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind that track?
“Body” is my jam. I wanted to make a song where the girls could just get ready, feel themselves, and just love their body — any shape, any color, any size. When you listen to “Body,” you want to just stare in the mirror, shake your body, and feel yourself to the fullest.
How was it working on “Body” with production duo ClickNPress?
It was so easy. I pulled up to their home studio in LA, and they told me I couldn’t smoke in their studio. So I was like, “OK, send me the beat,” and they sent me the beat and I went by their pool. That’s when I came up with the first line, “I ride through the Hills, feeling the rich breeze,” because I was just feeling the breeze in their backyard. I went back in, I laid down the first verse with the chorus, and they loved it. They were like, “You got to do another verse.” I’m like, “OK, I’m going to go back out there and write another one.” I went in the backyard and I wrote another verse, came back, and they loved it.
Can you tell us about your upcoming project? Is it an EP or an album?
It’s an EP. Album is coming real soon but this is an EP. It’s just a step up from all the last ones. It’s like, “OK, we here. It’s time for y’all to literally sit down and watch and listen.” But I can’t wait to put it out. It’s a lot of fun summer bops, and you are going to hear the growth even more.
Let’s get into the glam in fashion. I love the various hair colors and monochromatic fashions. Where do you draw your style inspiration from?
Nicki Minaj, Michael Jackson, and Lady Gaga. They are my three biggest fashion icons. I get a lot of inspiration from drag too, but those three the most. For my BET red carpet look, I got that inspiration from Michael Jackson. I wanted to do a glittery suit because I know he always wore glittery, print-looking suits. Nicki, that’s where I get the hairs from — the prints, the styles, the colors. I love it. I feel like girls have so many different hairstyles they could do and boys really don’t. Well, boys like me with cut hair really don’t. So, I look at my different hair colors and prints and stuff as different hairstyles.
What’s your go-to style or look for your hair?
My go-to hair color when I’m just chilling, I do a brown and black; a two-tone brown and black with black in the front and brown in the back. When I’m going outside, I love to do either pink or blue hair. I love pink and blue hair.
Let’s get into the makeup. Your 2021 Fenty Beauty Eaze Drop routine is my go-to everyday makeup look. What’s your go-to everyday makeup or skincare routine?
I really ran out of skincare products and I need to re-up on them. That’s something I need to do. But I really just get a face rag, wet it, heat it up a little bit, and when it’s steaming hot I just wash my face real good. And then I moisturize it with this face oil I just got from my friend.
My go-to makeup, I always like the same beat. The beat that you see me with it’s always the same. So the face you see is always my go-to face. I never do anything different.
Daric L. Cottingham (he/him) is a Black Southern queer multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. He is from Ruston, Louisiana, and grew up in Dallas, surrounded by streetwear, sneaker, and hip-hop culture. This environment fueled his interests, which lead to his passion for pop culture news. Daric loves analyzing the intersection of society and culture in a nuanced digestible way.