The Hundreds, a skate shop off Fairfax, is a shoe box of a store, and like a figurine in a dollhouse, Kreayshawn seems swallowed up by it. She's wearing black jeans and swimming in an oversized hoodie. The only traces of the cartoonlike doll of a creation that took the blogosphere by storm less than a month ago are the thick, precise black wings of eyeliner that she has painted on since the sixth grade, but even those are almost hidden behind her thick glasses.
Sitting in the teensy dressing room, Natassia Zolot, the 21-year-old East Oakland rapper known as Kreayshawn, tugs mindlessly on a mussed curl of her ironic '80s coif. The video for her single “Gucci Gucci,” a Pop Rocks candy-like rap song that sinks its hook into your head, premiered on May 18. It's five days later, and 500 views have grown to more than 600,000.
Gone, though, are the girly silliness and saucy flippancy of the online Kreayshawn, who bops endearingly on rooftops in a Fred Flintstone sweatshirt or down Fairfax Avenue with a puffy Minnie Mouse bow perched on her head. She seems both much older and much younger, polite, subdued, maybe a little wary. Having been in meetings with record labels and on the phone with journalists all day, she's drained, but after she leaves the store, she's going to record with Snoop Dogg.
“My manager told me there are 140 booking offers in his email right now,” she says, with the expressionless tone of someone who's not sure if this is a lucid dream or real life. “Are you coming to the show in San Francisco Friday night? It's only my fifth show ever. That SXSW show I did? Only about 10 people were there.”
This is about as close as it gets to overnight celebrity.
Yet Internet fame comes with critics emboldened by anonymity. Kreayshawn's YouTube videos have racked up plenty of “dislikes,” and ruling female rapper Nicki Minaj's Pink Barbie army has descended on her after a presumed diss of their leader. “I don't want to diss Nicki Minaj,” she says earnestly. “I spelled her name with two k's, and someone was, like, 'I guess you didn't go to high school.' What?”
She did drop out of high school, though. Although she talks about it in a calm, even tone, her childhood sounds erratic. She never knew her father; her mother, who was in a punk band called the Trashwomen, had Kreayshawn when she was only 17. She calls herself a “strange little kid” who would make drawings of cats killing each other.
“As a teenager, I was like hell inside of a woman-child. Coming home drunk, 15 years old, like, 'Fuck everything!' My mom kinda went her way, 'cause she couldn't do it anymore, and my grandpa moved to L.A., and I was just basically stuck. When I think about it now, it sounds like a metaphor that they just both got in separate cars and left while I was standing on my front step. I was just staying at friends' houses. I needed to get everything together.”
Leaving high school, she went to Job Corps, a free education and training program, to get her GED. “Living in the area I was living in Oakland, and being a white girl on top of that? You're fighting every day, or some guy's trying to pimp you, literally, because you're a snow bunny. I just thank God that I didn't fall into that.”
Though she says she was on scholarship to Berkeley Digital Film Institute, she dropped last year, just shy of graduating from the 16-month program, because it wasn't inspiring her. “I feel old,” she suddenly volunteers. “I've just seen everything. I had my own apartment and a job at Ikea when I was 16.”
It's a really good story. Maybe she is the music industry's latest brainchild. After all, the timing makes sense — especially her sudden move to Los Angeles three months ago.
Her lone mixtape, Kittys and Choppas, is full of the kind of rambling freestyles fellow Bay Area rapper Lil B, for whom she's directed videos, is known for. But “Bumpin' Bumpin',” the video that first garnered her attention last August, isn't the scratchy, basement work of kids with a lot of time and talent on their hands. Both it and “Gucci Gucci” shimmer with the kind of production big money affords. Her on-screen image glitters with music-industry polish. With only Minaj's crackpot caricatures and Lady Gaga's bizarre stunts to soak up the limelight, the time was right for a young female rapper with connections to Lil B and Odd Future.
When you consider the dying industry's desperate grab for anything resembling the next Odd Future, it seems probable that they've had a hand in shaping her shtick, or at least hyping it. And whereas in the past her uncensored personality (especially a casual reference she made on Twitter to a rap lyric that included the word “n*gga”) would have been a label's PR nightmare, these days online controversy is good and contributes to the sort of grimy, untrained, just-discovered image that's desirable. Record labels are good at creating a story, especially if the dark hole of the Internet is the first page.
That is, if the fickle blogosphere doesn't get bored and move on to another target. For now, though, Kreayshawn is a hot topic. Detractors have already leapt at the chance to criticize her use of the N-word. They jumped to categorize her as a lesbian (she calls herself “asexual”). They've also hit at her for pretending to be “hood,” for tossing around the words “bitches” and “hos,” and for being a bad rapper.
“I really wanna empower girls. There's no one empowering women at all. Beyoncé does a good job. Everyone else is, like, 'Go party!' Lady Gaga is just on some crazy 'not even be yourself, but be EXTREMELY INSANE' [thing]. I just think there's room for a voice like mine. I don't own a dress. I have wide feet, I can't even wear heels,” she says.
But the music industry, especially rap, is a man's world. Nicki Minaj is tough, but her image has been transformed from hard-core street to wide-eyed blowup sex robot. Even with her maturity and surprising eloquence, Kreayshawn in a year could be a living doll.
Despite the promised “full creative control” labels are using as a lure, she soon may be expected to obey her elders now more than she ever did as a child. Rumors began swirling right after Memorial Day that Kreayshawn had signed with Sony. “Did you sign?” She nods without expression.
Stretch, Kreayshawn's manager, can't find the warehouse for the photo shoot. They finally arrive in a modest white car. She's still tired. “No time for being tired, not anymore,” Stretch says philosophically. “Can't be tired of what you asked for.”
It must be nice to know someone else will be thinking about her career. She looks up and steadies her gaze: “I've never thought more about my life and every person in my circle. It's overwhelming. It's like the weirdest, hardest, awkwardest time.”
If Gaga is the coolly elegant Madonna from “Vogue,” Kreayshawn is the gritty downtown Madonna with a girl posse from “Borderline.” She's in newsprint jeggings papered with the word “Patience” and the phrase “Fix my eyes on it.” A beat-up leather jacket covers a sleeveless T-shirt that reads, in all caps, “TOO MUCH TOO YOUNG.” The outfit must be a winking acknowledgment of the debate that will surely surface the minute word of her deal is official.
If so, she doesn't let on. “I kind of chose this on purpose, but I didn't have any clean clothes, and this was all I could put together,” she says, crouching on a stool. “I got these Jordans at Goodwill.”
She looks tiny but also as if she might pounce — her eyes are hard, like glass.
Like a cat exploring a room, she ventures over and begins to swing on a punching bag. The photographer is busy discussing the next shot with the art director; Stretch has stepped out. For the first time, no one's watching Kreayshawn.
She's on her own again. “I couldn't even imagine if I put 'Gucci Gucci' out by myself. I don't want to do this all alone.
“I don't want to be superlonely.”