First Look Friday: KenTheMan is Houston's New Problem

For this month’s First Look Friday, we had an expansive conversation with KenTheMan, who talked about being an independent rapper, the state of female hip-hop, and her debut mixtape, 4 Da 304s.

KenTheMan has been rapping for eight years independently. She enjoys the freedom that comes with being unsigned. Over the years, the Houston rapper has garnered buzz and a small but loyal fanbase by dropping boastful, braggadocious loosies alongside unique visuals. But in 2020 she saw a shift — more attention. That shift began in August when she dropped her mixtape 4 Da 304s, a bass-heavy release that offered an exciting release for rap fans going crazy under quarantine. 

For Ken, being under quarantine forced her to concentrate on her music. She recorded her mixtape from May through July. And while some were bothered by sitting still at home, Ken says she didn’t mind. “I’m a true homebody,” she says over a Zoom call from her home in late December. She is smoking a hookah alone — bubbling with energy.

4 Da 304s — pronounced For the Hoes is mostly “pussy rap,” a sub-genre of hip-hop that is currently thriving thanks to the success of female MCs like Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, and City Girls. KenTheMan tracks like “Try Me,” “Like A Hoe,” “He Be Like,” and “IDGAF” enter the territory that Trina and Lil’ Kim built the crux of their careers on. Miller isn’t oblivious to these roots, in fact she’s proud to be continuing the lineage created by these two rap titans who represent two distinct regions. 

But sex rap isn't her only influence. She remembers being a child listening to male R&B acts like Lyfe Jennings and Jaheim. As she got older, she transitioned to legends like Nicki Minaj and Lil’ Wayne. “Wayne is the original to me,” she said. “When I started rapping, it was nothing but freestyles. His pen it’s crazy. It’s just out of this world. He really set the grounds for the metaphorical me.”

In the beginning, she admits punchline rapping was her style; she wanted to come across as an MC similar to her charismatic rapper idols. But, when she realized that era was over, she pivoted and dug into rapping about sex and relationships. Ken also was aware that her growing fanbase liked when she rapped about “freaky shit. She kept giving them what they wanted: singles detailing sexual encounters and botched, unruly situationships. 

But while "pussy rap" has grown more popular, there has been a counter-movement of male hip-hop fans who dislike female rappers expressing themselves explicitly. “I think that they don't like the confidence that we bring," KenTheMan said. "I think that they don't like the fact that we [are] talking about shitting on them. At the end of the day, if you really cared you would see that I'm not all pussy talk, you can go back and hear where I had things that weren't about pussy at all.”

In 2020, KenTheMan saw her music reach a new audience. Moving forward, she hopes that her trajectory and her fanbase both continue to rise exponentially. 

For the latest First Look Friday, we spoke to KenTheMan, who talked about her roots in Houston, why she admires Lil’ Wayne and what she thinks about the female rap reign happening in the industry right now. 

How was 2020 for you? 

[Last year was] oddly... very great for me. It's been a lot of people that are losing their jobs and my dad was one of them. And then it's the people on the other hand that were maybe kind of too occupied day-to-day to where they couldn't focus on things and [were finally] able to start new business ventures. I was [one of them since I was] able to complete my project.

I'm just so all over the place all the time so I feel I didn't really ever sit down. It was always something. Then when I'm not working, I want to have fun. Since I couldn't have [any] fun I was able to lock in the studio. I got a lot of more people that found out about me. I feel I accomplished a lot.

Where were you quarantining?

Houston, in my home. I have been doing shows [too]. I kind of took three months off, but then money started running low and then people started opening clubs and I was so hesitant. I turned down the first couple of shows, but I was like, "OK, well, who's going to bring money in."

How many shows did you have?

Probably one every weekend. I was off maybe two weekends the whole time.

Do you feel 2020 was a breakout year for you?

Yeah, I've been seeing my name. I felt the project is really what woke people up that were outside of my core supporters.

I'm crazy, I search my name and my untagged name. I'll search by name to see what people are saying that don't really know me, but listen to my music, because people that know me, they're tagging me. I see them talking about me and stuff. And I [feel like] I'm in the conversation a whole lot more. It's crazy, it's almost unreal because I've been rapping for seven, eight years.

I hate that this was the year that people started [paying attention] because I couldn't maximize it. I could only do a couple of virtual things. I dropped this tape on some bullshit. I didn't think it was going to actually put me a part of the conversation. I wasn't able to go and do shows and hop on a tour. I wasn't able to do that. So I feel like that would probably be the only con in the area of me kind of getting more recognition.

How would you describe Houston especially when it comes to the music scene there?

They always asked me, "where do you think you will move?" And I always say, "I think I'm going to get my house here and then travel because I just like that it's kind of low-key." It's not a low-key place like nightlife, but I'm saying living, it's real chill.

It's a vibe and it's like you got a nice music scene. I mean, the music scene, could be a little better because it's not that supportive down here, until you do stuff that they didn't help you do, then everybody supports you when you don't even need this shit no more.

So that sucks in Houston. But I feel like the vibe and the nightlife is very bomb down here. I feel like with me beginning to rap, it was me and my friends in the car just freestyling, that's how I started. I could only say one or two words, but I say one or two words. I knew I was feeling the beat, but I couldn't put the words together.

Who did you grow up listening to? I know you’re a Lil Wayne-head. But who else?

Well, I’m definitely a Wayne-head, I just always liked him. When people get in the car with me and they hear my music taste, it's a lot of male R&B because my dad listened to [that]. I found my way into women R&B and he also listened to a lot of DMX, Jaheim, and Lyfe Jennings that's what my dad put me on to. I listened to pop, R&B, dance, [and reggae].

I'm really all over the place. So I just feel like I always just explored. I don't really listen to new music, honestly. I just can't keep up.

What is it about Lil Wayne that you love? 

I love his versatility. I love the fact that he was one of the first that was getting out any type of beat and [experimented with] rock. That's how I always felt. I always felt like, "Man, I just can't even put myself into a certain genre, I literally love all types of music." So what I admired about him was, he really got me freestyling too. Because I loved the way that I loved the original song and then Wayne will come and then now I don't even listen to the original no more, now I listen to Wayne. 

When I rap about metaphors and I try to outdo my next punchline, it's with [this] Wayne vibe, I feel like he's just so smart. And he just knows how to come and it's always him. I still listen to him, he’s heavy in my rotation. 

Are there any other rappers that you would say you're inspired by?

One person is Nicki, I mean, she's everybody's answer, really, because she's just so versatile too. She can get on anything and she brought personality [to the rap game] that I felt like it was lacking. 

When I first started rapping, some girl that was doing my hair, I only had three freestyles out. And she was like well, "What are you trying to do? What do you feel like your raps style is going to be?" And I was like, "I want to be a bunch of me’s." I want to be a Drake type, Wayne type, Eminem type, Nicki type, any possible rap style I always wanted to incorporate with myself, not people, but style. I like doing freestyles simply because I feel like it's fun to do this, [it’s] fun to rap. I'm trying to [put] the joy and fun in rap again.

How have you evolved as a rapper over the years?

I'm not saying that I've changed because I have a following now, but it's kind of [like] when you have a kid, you have to change it a little bit, you have to kind of mold into mommy. You know what I'm saying? I feel back then it was so much easier, it was so free flowing because I didn't have a person that I felt would get offended by this or that would think I'm talking about this person and that person, or it was more flexible. I felt like it was the best time. But it was kind of a weird space between me not understanding writer's block, because I was a new writer, and I didn't understand that sometimes you go dry.

I would rap for about two weeks and I would stop rapping. I thought I had something going on or whatever. I don't know. I took a whole year off a rap and just thought I was a one-trick pony. And I was just, "All right, well, I got to figure out how I'm going to go back to school." I just feel now it's more of like you have to sail. That's what everybody is doing.

As an independent artist do you really care about the feedback that you do get from your fans?

Yeah, I know my favorites. I know their @ names. I don't know if other rappers do this because they might not. I feel like I really do rap for [my fans] because it's like they really are feeding my family by their streams and their promotion. So yes, I definitely care about them.

Ken the Man "They don't like the fact that we [are] talking about shitting on them," KenTheMan said, talking about male hip-hop fans who dislike female rappers expressing themselves explicitly. Photo Credit: Charlton Reed

Do you think because you’re indie you’re able to create music that feels like the truest version of you? 

I feel it's much easier because you don't have pressure. You're your own pressure which I would feel could be maybe a con in some ways, but I feel it's way better than [having] somebody in your ear rushing you. And one thing about art, it cannot be rushed. Because sometimes I find myself wanting more for myself and more music.

I'm very sensitive when it comes to creating. I don't know about other people, but it's just because I work well under pressure, but my own pressure. Because I'm a rebel. I'm a fucking rebel. I cannot listen [to] people telling me what [to do]. I can't, that's why I literally never stayed a job longer than four months. 

I would choose being independent any day over the label, even though my process was much slower. I wouldn't trade it. My journey [has] been so beautiful to watch because I know everything about my journey. Nobody else did it for me, I did it myself.

How do you balance the idea of creating the type of music you enjoy versus what’s popular in the female rap space right now?

I feel like rap is fun still. I really don't care what people think [about me], but also I do want to sell music because now it's my living. I have that weird balance between, "Yeah, you can be stubborn and just rap about rap shit or you can kind of [be] a pussy talker. I'm really the filterless friend, so it's not [that] I'm going out of my comfort, but it's a lot more me now than back seven years ago, eight years ago.

[Back then], I just dropped when I felt like it or when I felt like it was necessary. I time myself to where it's like, "Damn, I ain't dropped something in a month, I'm going to drop something next week. I don't ever try to let it go too far in between. I just pretty much go with the flow on what I feel when it's time, because you can feel when it's time, you see your DM, you see your comments saying, "We want this, we want that,” and I kind of go by what they want, because I feel, how are you going to sell something to people and then you're not even giving them what they want?

I feel like it’s really a really big conversation right now amongst some male hip-hop fans. They’re voicing their thoughts online and in real life about Black women rappers rapping about sex. How do you feel about that? 

I don't care what a nigga got to say. Literally, for years, we accepted them talking about our pussy. That's all [they] talk about, our pussy, our head, drugs, Pateks, jewelry, and how many bitches that they can flip in one week. And then when we talk about our own pussy we can’t. Y’all can only talk about our pussy.

How are you feeling about women in hip-hop right now? 

I've never seen as many female rappers that are getting in the same conversation as the males. So it's very exciting. it's easier if you're actually good. And you’re actually putting out good content. I'm very proud of the women coming hard because it's like we got to spit [harder]. We got to spit, talk shit and sell sex I have never heard no mumble rapping female because we can't because, of course, they're going to call us trash. But they can do it though.

That's a really good point. Can you talk about what that looks like for you to incorporate sex in your music? 

It's very easy rap, I'll tell you that. It's the easiest form of rap. My next project [I’m] staying completely away from just ratchet rap because I really want to show my versatility because I story tell, I rap about love, I sing, I can do melodies, and all of this. I can do so many things. I got so wrapped up in trying to make that relatable project to women because it's necessary. 

What was it like working on 4 Da 304s?

I thought of the title when I was seven songs in because I was like, "Damn I still ain't thought of a title, what is it going to be called?" Usually, I feel a song would trigger a title. Honestly, my process used to be I thought of a title, before I even thought of the songs because I thought of this dope concept, but I had felt dry.

Me and my engineer, we [were] like seven songs in, swapping some stuff. And then I was like, "Man, I don't know what I'm going to call it, so I said, "Shit, this shit for the hoes." I was like, "I made some shit for the hoes." And I was like, "I can call it for the hoes... I can call it 4 Da 304s, so it won't have a cuss word in it."

I knew that my introduction had to be like, “Let me just give their ass something that they already used to,” which is very my turnt freaky stuff. So I [thought], "I'm going to just do a project full [of that].” Because when I start rapping my real shit, they’re already wrapped in because it's like I can blend the real [wordplay] with the ratchet shit.

Did you record the majority of it during quarantine?

Yeah, I did “IDGAF,” [in] December of 2019. That was the only song that was before quarantine that I put on the tape. The rest of them [were] literally in two months. It was from May to July. That's when I completed the whole project. I just stayed in the studio, tired as fuck. I've never worked myself [like] that in my life. I was in that bitch, all the way 'til the sun came up. I would see the sun so many days and I would just be like, "wow." 

Did you deliberately choose to have no features on 4 Da 304s?

No, I didn't even think into it. I didn't think, "Oh, you don't have no features." It's just [that] when I go into the studio, I go in to complete the song. I don't ever leave the studio with an incomplete song and then come back to it. I was all over the tracklist because I completed every song. I'm great at getting on other people's features, but when it comes to me making up something and being like, "Damn, I can hear such and such on there." It's such a struggle for me.

How do you feel about your fans fucking with “He Be Like?”

That's amazing, it was my first song I put out after I had one of the most biggest disappointments of my fucking entire life. That's just is crazy because I sat in with a famous rapper that was talking to me about having a little meeting and he was vibing with “He Be Like”, but he didn't say, "Oh, that's a fucking hit."

So when I got home, I was just like, "I'm finna put my song out.” And it's just like the fact that I didn't think it was a hit. I played it for multiple people and nobody ever said it was [a] hit. So it was kind of like, "I'm still going to put that out because I think it's a nice song.” I didn't think it was going to buzz me the fuck up this much. I didn't think that my hometown radio station was going to pick it up. I didn't think that I was going to be able to do radio rounds and have all this pub off of it.

Do you think that your fans will care if you switch up the content on your next project? 

Yes. But I also feel that I know how to tie in seriousness with playfulness. It's going to still be good and [my fans will be] able to ride to it or dance to it, but I do want to show a little bit more skill. Because that's something that I feel they appreciate. You should appreciate somebody with versatility and the type of skill that I feel they haven't been able to witness because I have so much [else] that I never let the world see. So it's like I can't wait to do more.

Who do you want to work with in 2021?

I wouldn't mind Mulatto, Pooh Shiesty, Summer Walker, [and] Jhené Aiko. I really, really want to do Jhené bad because I feel like we'd have some real crazy shit. Of course, like who wouldn't die for a Drake feature, or a Nicki feature or a Wayne feature? My homegirl, her name is Cali. I wanted to do like a little tape or something with her, she's underground too. I don't mind mainstreaming it, but I really do want to do underground vibes with rappers that are coming up too, more of that I feel.