The first thing K.Flay did after returning from South By Southwest was go to the Oakland farmer's market with her mom. When she talks about her shopping trip, K.Flay — the rapping alter ego of 27-year-old Kristine Flaherty — casually refers to Oakland as "home." But "home" has been a nebulous concept for Flaherty for a while now: She grew up in suburban Wilmette, Ill., attended Stanford University (where she double-majored in sociology and psychology), spent three years in San Francisco, and resided in Oakland for a year. Now she's signed a major label deal with RCA, which has her in Brooklyn for the moment.
Between moving cities and touring, Flaherty says that she feels like she's "living in this weird suspended reality," both physically and in her head. But she credits this state of flux with keeping her music eclectic and her writing perky — traits RCA hopes to push to the fore this summer when it releases her debut album proper.
Before inking her record deal, Flaherty had been releasing music on the Internet. Her MASHed Potatoes mixtape from 2009 had her rapping over songs by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Gossip, and Ludacris, featured guest verses from West Coast indie rappers Eligh (of Living Legends) and Zumbi (of Zion I), and included a ditty confessing an addiction to Vanilla Coke. (A 2007 interview with her college paper, the Stanford Daily, has her picking Fischerspooner, Lily Allen, and Fiona Apple as her iPod staples.) The style of building her raps on top of songs from the indie-rock and dance worlds has pitched Flaherty away from the traditional hip-hop scene, and into an alternative zone. The fusion of styles continues on her latest EP, Eyes Shut, which leans heavily in an electronic direction and even features production by Liam Howlett of fiery British post-rave unit The Prodigy.
Their connection happened naturally. "Essentially, a friend of mine played Liam some of my music and he was excited about what I was doing and wanted to link up," Flaherty says. We got on well, and our styles of production and ways of working are similar: I like to be in a little room by myself working on things, and he does too." The fruits of those sessions, which went down at Sarm Studios in Notting Hill, London, are the lead EP single "We Hate Everybody" and the track "Stop, Focus." Over Howlett's abrasive beats, Flaherty showcases her playful voice and packs her lyrics with personal asides and brainy culture references: A fondness for Cheerios in soy milk mingles with a mention of Jennifer Egan's novel A Visit From The Goon Squad.
Flaherty's online persona reinforces this image of her as a smart aleck who happens to rap. Her website includes a series of book reviews, with such titles as Jonathan Franzen's Freedom and Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. Delivered via video, she interjects her literary commentary with images and bursts of music that flash quickly on the screen — a topless photo of the soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo lounging like a lothario, juxtaposed with a house-wife declaring, "Marriage is a stifling hetero-normative institution." This knowingness also seeps into her (unofficial) remix of Kreayshawn's "Gucci Gucci," which riffs on the song's line about working at Arby's by setting the music to footage of Flaherty wolfing down a burger at In-N-Out.
This ability to make rap songs that come off as both clever and kooky is a specialty of Flaherty's — and something her record label is keen to market. "I think there's probably a natural desire for any major label to make you a little bit more pop and more accessible and less weird," she says. "For the most part, I think people [at RCA] were excited about the little pop elements that I already had, but what I'm trying to do is be a little weird and eclectic in certain other ways."
Flaherty is far from alone in having a record label seek to emphasize her pop appeal. Nicki Minaj, the most successful female rapper at the moment, releases songs that are performance stunts as much as straightforward rap tracks. Following in her wake, the crossover appeal of Kreayshawn's "Gucci Gucci" and the Oakland rapper's hipster look helped persuade Columbia to offer up a six-figure deal for her services. And Harlem's Azealia Banks appears to be the next hot property, after the success of her bouncy, uptempo "212."
Musing on her own appeal, Flaherty insists that her marketability is natural, not forced. Her music is a reflection of her day-to-day life, so her upcoming album will attempt to sum up the thoughts and experiences of a twentysomething college graduate living in a metropolitan environment — including trips to the farmer's market and filling an iPod with eclectic music. As she puts it, "At the end of the day I just use hip-hop and rapping as a medium to kinda put out my weird message."
Thu., April 5, 10 p.m., 2012