Portland-raised MC KayelaJ’s debut album (due out July 13) conveys the long-term process of a young person gaining the confidence to be her full self, stand up to bullies, and remove toxicity from her life. KayelaJ’s story, and her way of telling it, is vulnerable, relatable, and rare. At the top of the record, there’s a voice distorted to slow-mo that taunts the rapper, calling her the titular “dyke” slur she’s since reclaimed. KayelaJ’s D.Y.K.E., by the way, stands for Don’t Yield, Keep Enduring.
After the “For You” intro, where KayelaJ lets us know who exactly this album is for (Black people, LGBTQ+, women), the content of “Depression” gets lost in all the extra noise. However, the rapper’s extremely animated delivery and conversational flow provide the contrast necessary for songs like the similarly heavy “Depression Was Trash,” in which KayelaJ illustrates the severity of her depression while she was in the closet and grappling with traditional gender roles. She makes lyrical testimony about being sexually abused by her cousin (who wasn’t really her cousin), and being affected by the stigma around mental health in the Black community: “What could I do?/My people didn’t believe in that stuff/What did I do to feel better?/I turned to drugs.” Appropriately, right when the beat changes up, KayelaJ begins to fiercely embrace her identity, and ends with an announcement of the album’s title: “All I know is that I’ve felt like that for most my life/Muthafuckas talkin’ to me like they know my life/Saying dumb shit to me like ‘It’s gon’ be alright’ “For the first time I think it might be alright/Decided that from now on I’ll do what I like/For the rest of my life/I’m a dyke.”
After all that sadness and anger, “Black Sheep” ends up feeling a bit redundant; the rage-fueled “I’ve Been Nice” stands out as a catchy highlight; and then “I’m Doing This,” produced by I’m Broke, brings sweet relief from the darkness. She’s feeling good, hyping herself up for the next track, “Kayela to the MF J,” plus the closely staggered other excellent singles: “Check X3,” “IG Girls,” and “Heat Gentlemens Club.” After an AutoTune-assisted “Blocked,” the Blangblanglang-produced “I Could Love You” feels like a natural, needed step in a different direction. After being mostly driven by KayelaJ’s romantic rap lyrics and a sweetly sung chorus, things get lit at the three-minute mark, and it is sublime.
To keep it a buck: KayelaJ’s message probably could have been 10 songs rather than 18, but the album is a thorough look into the mind of a Black queer girl who hasn’t had too many positive relationships with men in her upbringing, including those in her own community. Sometimes D.Y.K.E. gets a little monotonous—both lyrically and sonically. There’s already a lot to digest here. In addition to dealing with depression and talking her shit, the rapper calls out misogynoir (“Bitch Ass Nigga”), considers vengeance (“Revenge is a Mother”), pursues a potential partner (“Love” and “I Could Love You”), and claps back at various forms of everyday patriarchal bullshit throughout. And I’m totally here for it. Now that she’s sufficiently (and repeatedly) squashed everything standing in her way, it’ll be interesting to see what else she’s got to say. One thing's for sure: Her album release party on Friday, July 12 at Kelly's Olympian is sure to be a lively, and solidly entertaining evening of genuine storytelling through hip-hop.