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K.flay: Rap’s Latest Lady Wields Beats, Guitar, and a Dual Degree from Stanford

Arts & Culture | March 25, 2013

K.flay—real name Kristine Flaherty—redefines what it means to be a hip-hop artist. A double major in psychology and sociology while at Stanford, last year K.flay signed with RCA Records and moved to Brooklyn to focus on producing. Although she’s originally from Illinois, she identifies the Bay Area as her home. Her music finds a balance of genre-bending sounds and intellectually stimulating lyrics. In K.flay’s words, “My music is a version of indie hip-hop, mixed with electronics, mixed with me head banging.” This eclectic mix of sound has added to her increased popularity and has helped her become more prolific over the past few years.

K.flay readily acknowledges her musical style as unique. “One of the things that’s important to me is to represent someone who’s doing something that’s a little bit different,” she explained in an interview with Spinner magazine. “When you ask people if they can think of a female producer, people have a hard time doing that because there aren’t a lot of super prominent well-known female producers.” What makes K.flay an impressive artist isn’t just that she’s a female rapper, she also produces her own beats, plays guitar during live sets, and sings. Her live sets feature everything from heavily distorted guitars to slow indie melodies and fresh rap beats. Few rappers control so many aspects of their songs in such versatile ways and even fewer of those rappers are female Stanford graduates.

The content of her music is a refreshing break from the mainstream rap scene. When it comes to content, K.flay sticks to what she knows: the angst of college life, partying and hook-up culture, the death of her father, and psychological disorders. “I’m 24, so my music, I hope, encapsulates this stage of life for me and I think for a lot of people in their early-to-mid 20s just gone to that time of reckoning, not being a kid anymore, not an adult,” K.flay explains. The tension between youthful angst and mature, biting cynicism are characteristic of her music.

The lyrics in the song “Fleas Navidad” on her new album West Ghost, looped over an energetic dubstep-esque beat, are a telling example of K.flay’s style: “Same scene, nothing new, America make a buck or two/Common people like prostitutes/They fucked their style cause they wanted to/So all my neighbors buying diapers at the Save-On/Can’t help but wish life was just a little like a Drake song.” Making fun of the largely fictitious representation of life that’s often portrayed in mainstream rap, K.flay’s tongue-in-cheek humor gives her work a level of satirical maturity that is too often missing in mainstream hip-hop.

K.flay was raised in suburban Wilmette, Illinois outside of Chicago. She admits she was a childhood tomboy, wearing “ridiculously baggy attire” and “avoiding all things girly.” Her parents divorced when she was seven years old, and her father died when she was 14—a hardship many of her songs address. For example, the song “Danger Starts” is a tribute to her father, with the lyrics reflecting her feelings of uncertainty towards him: “Did you care about family, did you wish you’d abandoned me? /Now you can’t see what I became, too weak to try to change.” This ambivalence towards her father, and towards life in general, colors the tone of many of K.flay’s songs.

It was while at Stanford that K.flay came to love the Bay Area and opened up to making music. “I was in a room by myself being like ‘I really wanna say a bunch of stuff, I like rapping, and I can talk really fast, so this is happening!'” she said. “I started thinking about how I could write to a certain formula, using my own background, being, demographically, who I am. Have my own authentic voice.” In creating an authentic voice, K.flay has succeeded. She’s one of the only rappers who makes her beats live on stage, looping different sounds over each other, playing guitar, and singing. She keeps a rap style that is uniquely youthful, angst-ridden, mature, and decidedly female.