The Milwaukee native went from slam poetry to chasing her Quality Control Music dreams to, now, being one of the label's newest and brightest signees.
There are artists who patiently wait for that one stroke of luck to help launch their careers, and then there are those like Lakeyah who focus on an opportunity and relentlessly chase after it. We’ve watched as the industry has shifted over the years, and aspiring artists are finding that social media is a useful tool to not only build on their visibility but to help catch the attention of record labels. Like tens of thousands of other hopefuls, Lakeyah wanted her piece of the pie, however, she was sure that when she received a chance to sign with a record label, it would be Quality Control Music. Eventually, she inked a deal with the Atlanta collective.
Rap stardom wasn’t always on Lakeyah’s mind, as she recently told us when we caught up with her via Zoom Video for the final episode of On the Come Up. As a child, she says was shy and reserved, but a tragedy would cause her to find alternative ways to express her emotions. As a young teen, Lakeyah began dabbling in slam poetry and soon, she realized she found a medium at which she excelled.
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Unlike her peers, Lakeyah wasn't an active member of her local Hip Hop scene, even stating that she felt "slept on"; her first taste of fame and visibility came courtesy of a social media challenge. Monica's classic hit "So Gone" received new life back in 2016 when rappers began dropping bars over the familiar R&B beat, and it was then that Lakeyah went viral for her offering. As applause roared from around the world, the rising rapper felt as if being a star was something she could actually achieve.
From the onset, Quality Control was where Lakeyah wanted to be. She admittedly watched as many interviews from their artists as she could, and she pestered them in DMs looking for a hint of an opportunity to perform for QC head honchos Kevin "Coach K" Lee and Pierre "P" Thomas. It's not a method that plays out well for everyone, but it worked for the 20-year-old star and even earned her a coveted spot in XXL's 2021 Freshman Class—the first artist from Milwaukee to be chosen.
We caught up with Lakeyah for our On the Come Up series and in speaking with her, it's obvious that she's ready for her turn. Back in September, she dropped her DJ Drama-hosted Gangsta Grillz mixtape My Time, and it was clear that she's up next— as she once DM'd to Quality Control singer Layton Greene. Her "313-414" collaboration with Detroit force Tee Grizzley made waves, as did Lakeyah's single "Check" that featured hard bars from Moneybagg Yo.
The mild-mannered rapper may not be as controversial as her peers, but she commands attention when that mic hits her hand. Check out our full interview with Lakeyah below and get to know the budding emcee a little bit better.
WATCH: Lakeyah's "On the Come Up" interview
HNHH: What was your upbringing like?
Lakeyah: My upbringing was pretty calm and pretty chill. I was a very reserved and shy kid. I liked superheroes and reading. I never knew I was going to be a rapper or anything like that... that is until I started doing poetry.
How did you go from being that kid, to writing poetry, to performing?
I joined a poetry slam team right around the time my stepfather had died. So, at the time I was writing about things like that and just trying to express myself. Then they [members of the poetry slam team] had told me you sound like a rapper. This happened around the time that the Monica “So Gone” Challenge was trending and that happened to be my first viral moment. I just kept going from there. I was a YouTube sensation, you know ‘the girl with the braces and glasses’, and then yeah. I just focused on my craft for a really long time, it was a hobby for a really long time, but it helped me express myself.
I read that you were sending DM’s to QC as much as possible, what was it about that label that attracted you?
I watched so many interviews of the artists that were signed there. I remember they signed City Girls and Layton Greene-- she used to do covers all the time on Instagram and she just kind of related to me in terms of going viral from Instagram and starting out with freestyles, and she had gotten signed to [QC Music] and I'm like, this is crazy. Cause I wanted to be signed to QC so bad. I remember DM’ing her and telling her, “I’m next. I'm gonna get signed to them."
"I watched so many interviews of the artists that were signed there. I remember they signed City Girls and Layton Greene-- she used to do covers all the time on Instagram and she just kind of related to me in terms of going viral from Instagram and starting out with freestyles, and she had gotten signed to [QC Music] and I'm like, this is crazy. Cause I wanted to be signed to QC so bad."
I went to Atlanta for my 18th birthday and went to the trap museum and saw them in the exhibit and I knew I wanted to be signed to them. I still have the video. Ever since then, I was DM’ing P and doing freestyles over the artist's music that were signed to them. They just seemed to be so family-oriented and so hands-on with their artists, so I knew I wanted to be signed to QC.
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What was your biggest adjustment moving from your hometown to Atlanta and making the decision to say, “This is what I want to do”?
The biggest adjustment was definitely trying to figure out adulthood, myself. Because I left high school and was like I wanna move, I wanna do this. And when I left my hometown, I was barely working jobs here, I was like I don't wanna work no jobs. I just wanna go to the mall, get my nails done, with my mom's money. It was definitely an adjustment, just having to pay my own bills, getting a job, and just figuring life out by myself, so, that was very, very hard.
What were your family and friends' support like? Were they 100 percent behind you?
Yeah. So I had moved to Atlanta with my significant other and we were like this [super close], so it was super easy having somebody to support you like that. Especially, with somebody like me who knows what they want. I always knew I didn’t want to work, I wanted to be a rapper. They definitely held it down for me and kept us above water. I remember it was getting to a point where we couldn’t even afford a Christmas Tree or celebrate holidays so that was hard. But my family and mom especially was 100% behind me. She knew I didn’t want to go to college and I wanted to be a rapper. Her seeing it happen to me was super lit.
You've grown exponentially as an artist in your first year, tell us about My Time and how that compares to your previous work?
I would definitely say it's one of my favorite projects, and bodies of work, because I hear so much growth. I remember recording the songs while I was congested and super sick, and I look back on it like, bro, you really pushed through this. Because I was having a discouraging moment [in my career]. You know, I’m on my third mixtape, not too many songs are sticking and it’s just crazy I have a team that tells me like, it's about consistency, and people aren't gonna forget about you cause you keep dropping stuff and you got talent. So, this project in particular was a really emotional experience for me. I was discouraged before dropping it, and looking back now I definitely hear the growth in all my projects.
When did you record this project?
I recorded it right after I finished my last tape. We never stopped working. So this project has some of the songs that didn’t make it on the second tape. I finished it in L.A. I remember because I was like, 'I need new inspiration,' and P was like, 'let's go out to LA.' [P] hooked me up with some producers out there. And yeah, the vibes, a house in the hills — that just put me in a vibe.
You recently made a post about the public's reaction to you covering up and not being more provocative. What reactions have you received about how you choose to present yourself as an artist?
I actually dropped a freestyle the other day and it made it to The Neighborhood Talk. They were like, "I love that she’s this good," and, "I love that she has bars, but her vibe is too masculine."
I’m just thinking to myself, whaattt?
I remember Nicki [Minaj] came out so hard and aggressive and we got people like Remy Ma, and even Lil Kim, even though she owned her sexuality, she was still tough and up there with the guys. People complain about [they] rather [you] rap about sex or rap about this, so it’s hard being a female artist either way. People tell me I wear too many jogging pants sometimes. This is something I told another female artist, “People are going to talk [bad about you] regardless, so you just have to be out here doing you.” People are just going to be on board with it or jump ship and that’s just how I feel.
Let’s talk about your connection with Tee Grizzley. You have consistently said he is one of your favorite rappers and you two recently released your “313-414” collaboration.
I even listed that he was in my Top 5 in my XXL interview and it was just crazy and surreal that I finally got a song with him. I been wanting a song with him since he got let out [of jail]. Since "First Day Out." His energy just matches mine, not just in him being from the Midwest, but also in how we speak. We both talk aggressively and we both, you know, talk that talk. He understands me. The chemistry between us was crazy in the studio. I was so nervous because he just does everything with no effort. But he gave me this crazy pep-talk, telling me how the industry is and not to change who I am. Then we went back into the studio and did two songs with ease. I’m not going to lie [we did them] in like an hour. It was crazy.
"[Tee Grizzley's] energy just matches mine, not just in him being from the Midwest, but also in how we speak. We both talk aggressively and we both, you know, talk that talk. He understands me."
What words of wisdom and advice have you heard from others about navigating the industry?
My favorite one is definitely to stay consistent. I get that all the time from P. Shout out P. I actually just told him a while back, like, I think I'm dropping too much music, people not paying attention, you know, just having a moment of discouragement and stuff. He was telling me consistency is going to win. Now, I see so many times, people commenting like, she doesn't let up, she feeds us so much, she's so consistent. Like people are noticing me more and more every day.
What do you see within yourself as the biggest change within yourself and the music now that you have established yourself as an artist?
Being more confident with my music and who I am. I am definitely more confident than when I first got signed. ‘Cause when I first got signed I was like, “I’m on a label with Lil Baby and Migos." These household names, so like, I really wanted to stand my ground and show that I am able to stand ten toes down on songs with these types of people and on the label, period. I just became way more confident and you can hear in my music, it's like, I do this.
Can you talk a little bit about how XXL approached you, you learning you were going to be in the Freshman Class, and how the response has been?
They had approached me through a call. I had two interviews, I did one, where they had said we wanna interview for the XXL, and the second one, telling me that I was on Freshman. I was like, “for real?!” You got people like Wale, Megan Thee Stallion-- and now she's a superstar, and DaBaby, he's a rockstar, all these people... So it's crazy that I'm a part of that situation and that type of group. And I really came there to do what I did, and just show them, like, I'm just glad I was in the group I was in, and I'ma real rapper, and men ain't the only people that's doing this, girls can do this. That’s what I came in there to do and I really proved myself, I believe. I had people asking, “What did XXL do for her? She's still doing this." And I feel like, it put a lot of eyes on me, now people watching, like, what's she gunna do next? So it definitely did something for me.
Were you ever involved in the Milwaukee music scene or did it jump from going viral to the industry?
It’s super crazy because I didn’t get a lot of support from my city when I was a rapper here. Like I had told myself, you know, if they not gonna support me here, I'll just take it elsewhere. I used to go viral so much everywhere, and I had so many fans in freaking Africa, Detroit, Texas and stuff, everywhere, just from going viral on Facebook and Instagram. But I was, before I was solo artist, I was in a music group called BTM with another artist here, and we kinda drifted our separate ways, but we were definitely slept on while we were here. I remember I got signed and people were like, “Who is she? We never heard a peep from her!” It’s because I never wanted to aim at just being a local artist.
"It’s super crazy because I didn’t get a lot of support from my city when I was a rapper here. Like I had told myself, you know, if they not gonna support me here, I'll just take it elsewhere."
How was it for you earlier this year, attending your first award show, having it be the BET Hip Hop Awards, signed with your favorite label, around all of these artists you’ve admired?
It’s crazy, it’s so surreal. I came from a very very small city to a red carpet. Walking down the red carpet was just like, a moment for me. And I know there's more to come and I’m a part of the BET cypher so it’s just like, everything has been happening so very fast for me in just a little bit over a year.
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You recently toured with Toosii. For those who have yet to see you, what can fans expect from a live Lakeyah show in a festival environment?
In the past, I performed at my first Rolling Loud Festival and it was such a rush for me. I had eight dancers killing it behind me, I’m channeling my inner Nicki [Minaj], and giving people bars, really rapping you know? So I think [would] be a great show.
What other rappers do you have on your radar to collaborate with one day?
Besides all of the women in R&B, I am a huge huge Rick Ross fan. Fun Fact: my favorite song ever is "Aston Martin Music." I definitely want a song with Drake, too. They just make me feel so rich. I’d also like to work with Wale — like I’ve said before.
Now that you're a famous artist, sometimes connecting with people can be difficult because they see you as just another celebrity. What is something about Lakeyah that you would want people to know about you as a person, outside of being a rapper?
I’ll say two things: one, I’m allergic to nuts [laughs]. And two, I am a superhero fan. I binge watch every avengers movie, marvel, I like all the little supernatural sh*t, like vampires and sh*t like that. So, if my fans want to come to an Avengers movie or something like that, we can do it.
Who’s your favorite superhero?
My favorite superhero is Iron Man. I died when he died. I should be the female version of him [laughs].