The Trials of Kid Sister


Translating online notoriety into honest-to-God record sales is extraordinarily difficult. Just ask the Internet-famous Kid Sister, who has spent the past two years just trying to finish her honest-to-God debut record.

In October 2007, the then-27-year-old Chicago rapper (real name: Melissa Young) released the single “Pro Nails,” peaking at 21 on the Billboard Hot 100, a small taste of a larger success that, back then, seemed imminent. New York City’s Downtown Records slated her debut album, to be titled Dream Date, for the following year. At the time, Downtown was still riding high from the success of Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere, and was praised as one of the few labels figuring out how to stay afloat when so many others were floundering amid the 0’s and 1’s of the digital age. “Pro Nails” itself, equal parts bass-heavy Chicago Juke and clubby, minimal electro, showcased Sister’s fun, refreshing rhymes (“Whenever I hit block I see/Tricks try to rehearse me, hearse me/From manicure sets to silky weaves/They be so grimy, nasty, bogus/Germy, dirtyyyy“) and paired them with those of Kanye West, lending the track hip-hop (and mainstream) credibility. A new era in electro/rap fusion seemed imminent, too. 

It was quietly announced in the summer of 2008 that Dream Date was delayed. A season passed, and then another. In February 2009, it was announced that Kid Sister had petitioned Downtown to let her take back the record and rework it—the hold-up was her decision, not theirs. Newly minted fans initially enraptured by “Pro Nails” were otherwise offered no solid explanation for the calamity, or a timeline for when that calamity would end, aside from her vague mention in a February interview that “it will be soon.”

It would not be soon. In fact, Dream Date, in its original form, will apparently never see the light of day. That project was scrapped, and the proper Kid Sister debut, Ultraviolet, which contains all new songs, will be released this week. Finally. Whether this painstaking metamorphosis (an increasingly common one, even among far more established names) is evidence of a sinister meddling record label or an artist with an image crisis and too many cooks in her kitchen—well, that naturally depends on whom you ask.

“Originally,” explains DJ and Dream Date/Ultraviolet producer A-Trak, “we were only going to change a few little bits.” But those minor tweaks, he explains, eventually widened into a search for a more pronounced electro sound more to Kid Sister’s liking. But J2K, the Flosstradamus DJ who also happens to be Kid Sister’s little brother, cites another factor: Her label insisted there was “no single on the record,” he recalls.

Downtown owner Josh Deutsch remembers it differently. “It wasn’t so much about me having some pre-fab notion of what a Kid Sister single should sound like,” Deutsch explains. The delay “was more about: We wanted to help her make a more complete statement and also take it off the clock.”

The particulars that led to this circular firing squad aside, the outcome left Kid Sister scrambling to reconstruct her sound. Those involved with assisting her (including A-Trak, Deutsch, XXXchange, and J2K) felt that moving from a more well-rounded and diverse hip-hop sound to a distinct exploration of electronic-fused hip-hop was the way to go. This may not seem like a year-and-a-half process, but Kid Sister and A-Trak struggled in their search for producers who could actually vibe off their new direction.

On Dream Date, “We had songs that were up-tempo, mid-tempo, and just all over the map,” Kid Sister says. She and A-Trak scrapped the mid-tempo songs and, with some assistance from Baltimore producer XXXchange, went through the process of finding the high-paced tracks that, they hoped, would pull the ears of a wider audience. But this, like every other step in the process, was easier said than done. “Some producers sort of assumed that she just wants some electro beats, so they’d send some hard, distorted, electro shit,” A-Trak says. “Then we tried going to straight pop producers, and they’d try to make electronic stuff, but they’re kinda out of their element.”

The new template for success, apparently, is Rihanna—who occupies a commercial peak Kid Sister’s backers insist she’s still capable of reaching. “She has the ambition to be a pop star,” says A-Trak. “She knows what she wants.” But is Ultraviolet really what she wanted? In its final form, the record is definitely more up-tempo: It feels liberated, open, fun, and accessible without getting uncomfortably cheesy. Lead single “Right Hand Hi” is the simple exclamation of a young woman on the cusp of actually making it in the music industry: She “ain’t out the gutter, but she’s about to snap,” Kid Sister rhymes, before a full trance breakdown segues into the blended second track, “Live on TV” and its fusillade of Major Lazer–esque air horns. Later, she notes that while the music biz is difficult, “it’s better than Bath & Body Works.”

The closest thing to a hit single here is “Daydreaming.” Produced by Brian Kennedy (primarily known for Rihanna’s “Disturbia”), you might even call it a potential Song of Summer that bloomed too late: It has exactly the epic, pop-hit quality that, as Deutsch puts it, is simply “something that you gotta play again because you gotta get that feeling again.” The repetitive and reflective hook “Like I’m daydreaming again . . .” masterfully evokes that ellipsis, while repeated phrase, “Be about it/Don’t act new,” anchors the song in reality. The result is essentially an updated version of Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy,” but still manages to retain the electro gloss and vibrancy that drew everyone to “Pro Nails” in the first place.

Ultraviolet will be introduced to the world (well, the part of the world that hasn’t already found it on the Internet) not as an infinitely delayed record, but as a proper debut that came dangerously close to never happening at all. And with “Right Hand Hi” receiving at least some of the radio exposure they’d hoped for, it’s possible that her assembled posse knew what they were doing. Kid Sister herself will tell you it was a fun process and, again, way better than working retail. “What is really challenging,” she concludes, “is knowing when to say when.”

An earlier version of this piece stated that Kid Sister’s age in 2007 was 17. In fact, she was 27, as the piece has been updated to reflect.

Kid Sister plays Webster Hall November 27