“This past year has been extremely hard for me,” Kamaiyah wrote in an Instagram caption on the day that she released her new Before I Wake mixtape. In an unpunctuated rush, she continued: “I lost my brother to cancer and went through a extreme depression and creatively I felt trapped with my project being held up due to samples I lost my way.” Kamiayah’s major-label debut Don’t Ever Get It Twisted was supposed to come out in April, and in the months since then, Kamaiyah’s only put out the odd song here and there. To hear her tell it, then, Before I Wake took serious resolve. She had to pull herself through loss and hardship and depression, finally cranking out her first full-length since A Good Night In The Ghetto, the 2016 mixtape that landed her on the map. But the great thing about Before I Wake is that it doesn’t sound like that product of the kind of personal hell she describes. In fact, it’s been a long minute since I’ve heard a rap record this breezy and effortless.
Kamaiyah makes fun music, and that hasn’t stopped with Before I Wake. Like A Good Night In The Ghetto, the new tape sees Kamaiyah streamlining her ’90s influences, updating them and weaponizing them. On the new tape, she raps over lush and bubbly samples of ’90s R&B stars like Keith Sweat and TLC; the lonely horn blurp from the latter’s “Creep” resurfaces gloriously on “Leave Em.” Kamaiyah’s producers build on the melodic richness of old-school G-funk and Bay Area mobb music, but they keep it trimmed-down and minimal, too. It’s perfectly shimmery springtime music, so it’s a bit weird to drive around listening to it as the year’s first real cold snap hits the East Coast. But music this sweet and fluttery and alive will always work, no matter what mood you’re in.
And even if Kamaiyah’s going through heavy shit personally, she still sounds absolutely triumphant through much of “Before I Wake.” Kamaiyah’s a charisma-first rapper. She’s not a technician or a formal innovator. Instead, she makes everything she says sound like a hook. She raps in an offhand singsong, and she finds all these little melodies in the pocket of the beat. On the great opening track “Dope Bitch,” she hijacks Tha Dogg Pound’s “Some Bomb Azz (Pussy),” recasting Daz Dillinger’s incredible old beat and turning it into a monument to the glory of her: “Bitch please, bitch please / My K-Swiss cold more than your weave, with ease.” “Playa In Me” is a declaration of supremacy so casual and plainspoken that she sounds like she feels it in her bones: “I know you see the playa in me / You can see it in my eyes / You can tell by the fur I wear / That I’m the coldest bitch alive.” She sounds so cool, and she makes cool sound easy.
But Before I Wake gets into heavier matters, too. “You ain’t felt pain like I have felt pain,” she says on “Me Against Myself,” a song about not being able to be sure about anyone around you. And she ends the tape with “Therapy,” a genuinely moving song about deep depression and overcoming terrible circumstances. She raps about losing her brother, and she also raps about getting used to disappointment when she was a kid: “Was a baller, but I stopped hooping / Moms never came to the games, I felt stupid / I used to dance, was in love with the music / That was my real dream, told myself I had to do it.” But even on a song like that, Kamaiyah sounds remarkably relaxed, her voice sticking in the pocket of the deeply funky track.
Before I Wake is a relatively low-stakes tape, with just 10 songs and no guest appearances. It’s one of two tapes that she’s apparently going to put out before her album finally lands. (If sample-clearance issues are messing with the album’s release, I have no idea how she’s able to legitimately release this mixtape, on all the big streaming services, so full of samples, but I’m not complaining.) But sometimes, a low-stakes rap mixtape is exactly what you need in your life. Before I Wake, like A Good Night In The Ghetto before it, comes utterly packed with hooks and attitude and warmth and laid-back, sunny West Coast atmosphere. And even though it gets into some seriously heavy feelings, I feel lighter than air whenever it’s on.
The self-released Before I Wake is out now. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Morrissey’s grandly spiky return Low In High School.
• Charlotte Gainsbourg’s lush, introspective, SebastiAn-produced dance-popper Rest.
• OCS’s way-out psychedelic folker Memory Of A Cut Off Head.
• Baths’ prismatic bedroom-popper Romaplasm.
• Mavis Staples’ Jeff-Tweedy produced soul album If All I Was Was Black.
• Godflesh’s churning, squalid industrial metal wallow Post Self.
• Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s Susanna tribute album Wolf Of The Cosmos.
• Tove Lo’s slick dance-pop companion piece Blue Lips.
• The Body and Full Of Hell’s noise-metal collaboration Ascending A Mountain Of Heavy Light.
• Fits’ jittery power-popper All Belief Is Paradise.
• Counterfeit Madison’s genre-scrambled solo LP Opposable Thumbs.
• Gingerlys’ jangling, upbeat self-titled album.
• Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings’ posthumous release Soul Of A Woman.
• Walt Wagner’s solo-piano esoteric-covers album Reworks.
• Sia’s holiday record Everyday Is Christmas.
• Green Day’s greatest hits collection Greatest Hits: God’s Favorite Band.
• GFOTY’s “greatest hits” collection GFOTYBUCKS.
• Bloodshot’s seasonal compilation 13 Days Of Xmas.