By Jena Ardell
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Earlier this month, Lakisha Robinson—better known by her stage name, Kilo Kish—commanded the bar at Top of the Standard while sporting a silver sequined jacket over an American-flag-patterned blouse and similarly decorated shorts. The occasion was a book party; the 21-year-old MC was part of the night's entertainment, and she performed five songs off her self-released debut EP, Homeschool. Reports the next morning noted that Mos Def, Theophilus London, Lena Dunham, and Sean Avery were among the guests.
A glam location and a slew of boldfaced names—not too shabby for a gig that was, for all intents and purposes, Kish's first real show.
"For a while, I couldn't even really listen to my music and be in the same room as other people," says Kish, whose pseudonym stems from a Twitter handle inspired by Atlanta rapper Kilo Ali. "I would kind of just run to the bathroom or something because you have your own diary, and no one is going to read it, but to have other people hear this is still a little bit strange for me."
Despite high praise for Homeschool from the likes of Childish Gambino (with whom she's collaborating) and fellow New York hip-hop upstart A$AP Rocky, it's difficult to get Kish to admit she is in fact a real rapper or a gifted lyricist or little more than an average senior at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who lives in Fort Greene and stresses out about graduation. Music for her started as a joke; she'd rhyme whatever popped into her head while drinking beers in the small home studio her roommate, the rapper Smash Simmons, had set up in their old apartment. The result is a brand of hip-hop that is intimate, conversational, and actually pretty strange.
"I don't have punchlines and all the things you would say rappers have to have, and I'm not really trying to do that, either," Kish says. "It's just me talking softly and being sweet over a beat."
Her voice is unwaveringly mellow; though her delivery has a rhythm to it, it tilts closer to spoken word than rap, the lyrics more abstractly poetic than a standard hip-hop verse. Other female MCs—Lil' Kim, Eve, and, more recently, Nicki Minaj and Azealia Banks—try to make up for being in such a male-dominated genre by relentlessly boasting about their wealth and sexual superiority. But Kish, whether on purpose or by accident, has taken the opposite approach: Her humility comes through on the record. Even in a song like "Julienne," where she casts herself as a scorned lover drunk off Jack Daniel's and attempting to murder her ex, she still comes off as cute, almost campy.
"Usually when I have a beat, I just write it on the spot, or it evokes some type of feeling, and I just write," Kish says. "But if I can't, then I pull from little notes about people on the train or stuff like that."
Kish is at her best and most relatable on tracks like "BusBoy," where she allows the listener a peek inside her everyday life. "On the bus, wanna know what's up?/I'm drifting in and out sipping my Styrofoam cup/I finally decided I should make the first cut/Starting with you, you only bring me bad luck," the lyrics go. The words skip out of her mouth in a quietly declarative way. It's easy to picture her riding the bus to school with a notebook in hand while dwelling on a bad relationship.
Produced largely by the Internet (Matt Martians and Syd tha Kid) and the Super 3 (Martians and Hal Williams) of the headline-grabbing Los Angeles hip-hop collective Odd Future, Homeschool's laid-back, jazz-inspired beats suit Kish's placid voice nicely. She met Martians, a friend of Simmons's from growing up in Atlanta, at a party after the first Odd Future show in New York and played him the songs she had been messing around with back at her apartment. To both their surprise, Martians liked what he heard.
"Her voice is just so girly—you can't not like that voice. It's just so loveable," he notes. "I said: 'Let's do something together, and I can be kind of your primary producer, so you don't have to worry about finding your sound. We can find your sound together.'"
After featuring her on two Odd Future tracks (The Jet Age of Tomorrow's "Want You Still" and the Internet's "Ode to a Dream"), Martians and Syd began creating music with Kish specifically in mind, sending her folders of beats via e-mail before eventually flying her out to Los Angeles to record.
"Her voice over our beats made a lot of sense because I make a lot of mellow-ass beats that aren't hard to get into," Martians says. "She needs her own sound to really stand out, and that's what I wanted to give her."
Kish is working on material for her and Simmons's group KKK (Kool Kats Klub) and hopes to make a full-length solo record in the near future. Plans for a long-form music video, which she hopes will incorporate the entirety of Homeschool in a "Michael Jackson Moonwalker kind of way," are also in the works.
Although she's enjoying her accidental foray into music, her aspirations don't yet include sold-out world tours or Grammy nominations. Rap is more of a way for her to have fun, express herself without slaving over a canvas, and perhaps avoid entering the real world after graduating later this month.
"It's just my little art project," she says simply. "Just me making songs, being myself."
Kilo Kish plays Shortcuts at Santos Party House with Rustie and Mess Kid on May 15.