Tackling the beat from "Bodak Yellow" is a bold move. So is rewriting the verses of Lauryn Hill's "Doo-Wop," M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" and Missy Elliott's "Work It." Rapping over all of those, plus 21 other songs by legendary rappers on a debut release, is basically insane.
But KayelaJ isn't easily daunted. Each of the 25 songs on Homage—the 22-year-old Portland MC's debut mixtape—samples an iconic track from an influential woman rapper, from the retro wobble of MC Lyte's "Ruffneck," the starry synths on DeJ Loaf's "Try Me" and the gritty guitar riff of Janelle Monáe's "Q.U.E.E.N." Homage is both ambitious and bare-bones. The sampled beats are unaugmented and unadorned.
There are frequent discussions of the lack of women rappers and the feuds between the female MCs we do have, but those discussions often feel like dead ends—no one ever seems to go any further than pointing out that the issue exists. But Homage exists both outside that conversation and as a retort to it. On the mixtape's opener, "Thank You Roxanne Shante," KayelaJ, born Makayela Johnson, summarizes how each MC Homage samples inspired her with breakneck delivery. Shante taught her to stand strong, Cardi B taught her to keep it real. "Ain't no need to be beefin'/We should all be collabin," Johnson raps.
But Homage is not a think piece, nor a history lesson. First and foremost, it's Johnson's story. Even on the mixtape's more ideological tracks, like "Thank You Roxanne Shante," Johnson's unflinching charisma is apparent. Her free association about Shante's influence includes a verse that fires at dudes who hit on Johnson even after she tells them she is gay: "You think because you gave me dick/That's gon' make me choose?/Wouldn't choose you if I was blind/And didn't know who's who."
In its most potent moments, Homage is basically a discursive autobiography. On "Thank You Queen Latifah," Johnson uses Latifah's line "Love a black women from/Infinity to infinity" as a springboard to talk about her experiences with abusive men. Over the sunny, slow instrumentals of T.L.C.'s "Waterfall," she delivers tightly packed bars about her mom overcoming addiction and her own struggle with depression.
Homage is more a display of Johnson's skill than her sound. The throwback beats that dominate Homage are far from the focused club bangers that Johnson began releasing earlier this year. Still, with its vast scope of styles and most songs clocking in at under two minutes, Homage verges on hectic.
But that seems like part of Johnson's point—Homage is more concerned with honoring the scope of Johnson's idols than with establishing the confines of her own sound. The only through line is Johnson's delivery, and it's a testament to her skill that that's enough for the mixtape to feel cohesive. At the very least, Homage establishes KayelaJ as an artist who practices what she preaches, and who puts ideology and lyricism above everything else.
SEE IT: KayelaJ performs at Afru Gallery, 534 SE Oak St., afrugallery.com, on Friday, Oct. 5. 9 pm. Free.