Most people have things buried deep inside themselves they're not ready to confront. Whether those things are secrets, identity issues or raw emotions, at some point, what's hidden within is going to have to come out.
In KayelaJ's case, 23 years' worth of skeletons were knocking on her closet door trying to escape. Throughout those years, the Portland rapper, born Makayela Johnson, explored releasing them, from jotting down lines here and there, to formulating full-blown rhymes rife with earnest yet furtive honesty. That openheartedness is partially why, only a few singles and a mixtape into her career, Johnson earned a spot near the top of WW's Best New Band poll earlier this summer.
But now, what were once thoughts and feelings shared with only a pen and pad are now her first full-blown album, D.Y.K.E.
An acronym for "Don't yield, keep enduring," D.Y.K.E. reveals much of what Johnson strove through. Over masterly crafted beats from local producers like Sir Nai and Blangblanglang, Johnson goes hard on bars about realizing her sexual orientation and, subsequently, getting played by straight girls and Instagram models, how black men don't support black women, and abuse and depression. She pleads how her confessions are for black people and for queer people on the acoustic, slow-bop opener "For You," making it clear the songs that follow are ones both groups can relate to.
The record is broken up into three sections—depression, rage and love—each of which are introduced by brief interludes. On the intro to the lo-fi and somewhat trip-hoppy first section, Johnson repeats how her depression keeps her from getting out of bed and going to work, before leading into "Depression Was Trash." One of the first tracks she released from the album, it's heavy. She speaks on body dysmorphia, sexual harassment, and molestation at the hands of someone close to her ("You know what you did/Another man I'll never trust"), and suicide ideation.
The ease with which Johnson is so open so quickly on D.Y.K.E.—and so early on in her discography—is something to be respected and recognized. Most artists can't be that honest even with themselves, let alone with current and prospective fans. Johnson's ability to be blunt while also, strangely, making you want to turn up in the club is noteworthy. "I've Been Nice (I've Been Sad)" is a bop. Though the lyrics speak of feelings of worthlessness, being walked all over and taken advantage of, the slick, almost traplike beat beckons you to move.
D.Y.K.E.'s central point, the rage phase, is the most encompassing and fleshed out. It's got eight songs under its belt—depression has three and love has two—and each is its own mini party. Produced by I'm Broke, "I'm Doing This" is Kayela's pledge to come out and say everything she's been thinking over the years, set over a '90s-style sound. The section also includes previously released cuts "Kayela to the MF J" and "Heat Gentlemens Club," but "IG Girls" and "Bitch Ass Nigga (Coon)" call for particular attention. The former calls out heterosexual women and Instagram baddies for leading on gay and queer women for attention, which is problematic for obvious reasons.
Where Kayela really gets bold, though, is on the latter track. "Bitch Ass Nigga (Coon)" addresses the struggle black women have had gaining support from their male counterparts, an issue plaguing black culture for years. Specifically, it dives deep into thinking that lighter- and whiter-skinned women are more beautiful than dark-skinned women, and how that plays out in media and society. It may not be as obvious in Portland's tight-knit black music community, but its effects ripple on a much larger scale outside our local black magic.
Ending on a slightly more positive note, the love phase of the record is where Johnson explores an entirely new chapter in her actual reality. Here, her tenderness shows—an expression of near-anxious, slightly confusing but overall exciting forays into budding romance. "I Could Love You" sounds as if it could be played alongside some of those old-school love songs with a bomb bass that really make your booty want to jump.
D.Y.K.E. is full of the bangers we've known KayelaJ for so far. Still, this new record introduces an entirely different side of her. She's spoken before on how she's perceived during performances. That aggressive front people feel she has is just that, and delving deep into what she's speaking about makes it obvious why she is the way she is—which is absolutely fucking amazing.
SEE IT: KayelaJ plays Kelly's Olympian, 426 SW Washington St., kellysolympian.com, with Covi, Quinn and DJ Myrie, on Friday, July 12. 9 pm. $10. 21+.