Dontrell Smith, better known as Kidd Kenn, has known he was talented since grade school. His very first recording, as a feature on an older neighbor’s freestyle over Desiigner’s 2016 anthem “Panda,” was the spark.
“I hopped on her little freestyle, did my little part and that song got more views than any of her songs ever did,” he recalls during a recent Zoom interview. “I knew it was [because of] me.”
With each passing day, the audience for the track grew by the tens of thousands. While Kenn’s collaborator was shocked, telling him that her music didn’t usually garner this type of attention, it didn’t surprise him.
“‘That’s the Kenn effect,’” he told her, and “from that day, it was up.”
Since then, the now 18-year-old Chicago native has garnered a massive audience of his own. Having signed to Island Records in 2019, Kenn released his second full-length project, “Child’s Play,” last year (pre-pandemic). His latest release was the EP, Problem Child, which dropped June 2021, "With this EP, it was me having fun, being myself, and showing my growth as an artist.", Kenn states. "I feel like in Problem Child, you can really hear the growth in my music from the first two projects. Fans can get a glimpse of where I'll be going in the future." And Kenn’s sights are set on global domination.
Much of the narrative around Kenn has focused on him being a gay rapper in the hypermasculine and historically homophobic hip-hop industry. To many, his beat face, neon-colored fades and lyrical flow—inspired by Chicago’s gritty Drill rap scene—just don’t go together. But Kenn has solidified his place as a heavy hitter-in-the-making turning viral freestyles over hometown bangers by G Herbo, FBG Duck, and King Von into an original catalog of his own that’s received nods of approval from the likes of Kehlani, Saweetie and the City Girls. His latest track, “Moves,” which dropped days before our interview, features Rico Nasty.
We caught up with Kidd Kenn to discuss his journey to self-confidence, advice for younger LGBTQ+ fans and what to expect as his star rises.
Did you always know that you wanted to rap?
Before I was doing music, I was dancing. I loved it, but there was something missing. And I remember before I was dancing, I was walking down the street with my mother and I just told her, ‘I think I want to do music.’ I was probably 10 or something. ‘I want to be a rapper.’ I remember the day like it was yesterday. I started writing when I was in fifth grade.
Your confidence is something folks love about you. How did you come to be so secure in who you are?
My grandmother used to help me with my confidence a lot. But really, one day I literally woke up on the right side of the bed and I was just literally over it. I just knew who I was from that day on. I knew what I wanted in life. I knew nobody else could tell me who I was. That's where I get it from.
You’re all about good vibes and the song you just dropped with Rico is a perfect example of that. Could you talk a little bit about how that collab came together?
I [originally] made the song “Moves” for a commercial and they ended up going [with] another song. I still loved it and wanted to use it for some of my own work. I just reached out to Rico because Rico was someone that I loved who inspired me in so many different ways growing up, just seeing how she was in the game and how she moved and her creativity. She was in love and wanted to do it. She literally slayed the verse.
It’s literally a fun song about having a move, having a groove, having a look. You can have the moves in any type of way. It's not even just dancing. You can have moves in whatever you do and be the best at it. It’s the perfect summer song.
Fans really enjoy your lyricism and word play. How did you go about fine tuning that skill and, more so, learning what worked for your voice in terms of your delivery?
I learned from the best, period. I always give credit to Nicki Minaj. She literally taught me everything. I’m a barb. I know every Nicki song, so I basically rapped her lyrics. I learned her cadence and her tone, and how she did it helped me find who I was, how I wanted to come and be. I kept working on my craft and found my tone a good year ago.
Every day I'm working and people are waking up. The world is waking up slowly, but surely.
In addition to Rico, you’ve got so many mainstream hip-hop artists who’ve shared your raps and endorsed your talent. How does it feel to get that recognition?
It feels good just to know that people on a higher level support me and like what I do. Because it was a dream that was always in my head from before to now. I feel like I'm doing something. I'm not just standing in one spot. Every day I'm working and people are waking up. The world is waking up slowly, but surely.
You’ve been in the game for a few years now. I'd love to know what you think has changed for you the most since that first rap you wrote and those viral social media posts.
My setting, that’s probably one of the biggest changes. I still can't believe this transition from Chicago to Los Angeles. Also, my delivery is better. I'm just so happy and proud of myself. I feel like my delivery is in a whole different space. It's on a whole different level.
What about navigating the industry? So many of the interviews you did earlier on in your career talk about the struggles for openly gay rappers and artists. Does it feel like there's more room now for you to have the type of success that you want?
Of course, mainly because I have other fellows from our community that are doing wonderful. Shout out to Santana, Lil Nas X, my girl Drebae, Delli. People in my community [are] building stuff in this game and it shows from what everybody is doing that [success] is going to happen. We're making room. We’re here. So I just know the plan that I have is most definitely working, and I'm doing it right.
What does Pride mean to you?
Pride means just basically you doing you, you living life in your true colors, confident, not being worried about what the next person is going to say. It’s about living life to the fullest.
I'm sure you have a lot of LGBTQ+ fans who reach out asking for advice. What do you tell them?
I say always be yourself in whatever you're doing. Because before I was living my truth 100%, I was this kid that everybody looked at as a bad kid because of my actions. I really wasn't doing what I wanted to do. I wasn't being who I wanted to be. As soon as that changed and I was being who I wanted to be, so many opportunities and doors opened up and came to me. Many more people liked the new me, the true me than me trying to be this other person.
What’s on the horizon for Kidd Kenn? What should fans keep an eye out for?
I'm working on new music, getting ready to literally wake the world up. I’ve got different styles of music I'm ready to introduce to the world and to my supporters that I can't wait for them to hear. I plan on being in films. I plan on opening up brands and businesses. You’re going to literally see Kidd Kenn everywhere. That's the plan.