Kristine Flaherty could have been excused for not getting it right on her debut full-length, the hypersmart, musically ambitious, and completely great Life as a Dog.
From the outset, everything was against her. For a start, more than one know-it-all at RCA Records was convinced that no one would be interested in what she had to say, the Oakland-based rapper having spent a good chunk of the past few years in the increasingly clueless major-label system. The problem? Slapping a catchall descriptor on the artist formally known as K.Flay is pretty much impossible; while hip-hop is the main reference point, the songs on Life as a Dog draw on such diverse styles as scratchy indie rock, lush electronica, and lo-fi pop.
Then there’s the reality that, as a rapper, Flaherty doesn’t exactly have the kind of credentials enjoyed by those who have come straight outta Compton. Her formative years in suburban Chicago had her fixated on the likes of Cat Power, Garbage, and Liz Phair; it was only after moving to California to attend Stanford University that she became fascinated with hip-hop. Reached in Los Angeles, where she’s rehearsing for her upcoming headlining tour, Flaherty—who holds degrees in psychology and sociology—reports that picking up the mike and jumping into the rap game was easy.
“When I started, I kind of went in with the best of intentions, and a real willingness to learn and to humiliate myself,” she reveals. “I’m okay with that, and I think that I still am. Having an almost existential level of humour about everything certainly helps.”
It definitely does, especially since, more than any other genre of music, hip-hop places a premium on the right pedigree. No one tends to call bullshit on kids who decide to pursue a music career in heavy metal, punk, electronica, or country. Try your hand at the rap game, however, and you run the very real risk of looking stupider than Kevin Federline. For some reason, it’s the one genre where faking it is impossible; if you come across as even remotely unconvinced of your own greatness, you’re doomed.
“The one thing that I’ve always kind of had, ever since I was a kid, was that I lack a certain degree of self-consciousness, which is alternately good and bad,” Flaherty reveals. “I think that when I started doing music, I kind of even didn’t get it—it was more like, ‘Okay, I’m going to do this.’ When I look back I wonder, ‘What the fuck was I thinking?’ It’s like there’s this boldness that I have where I’m driven by something that I can’t name.”
That drive has helped K.Flay tough out some rough patches. Flaherty isn’t new to hip-hop, having released numerous mix tapes over the past decade, collaborating with artists ranging from Felix Cartal to Danny Brown, and attracting the attention of publications like Interview and Rolling Stone. That led to her being courted by the suits at RCA, who, upon signing her to a deal, promptly gave every indication they had no idea what they were dealing with.
“When I first signed to RCA, I was sort of excited and shocked that it was happening,” Flaherty remembers. “But over the next couple of years, it really started to feel like that game you play when you’re a little kid—the one where you put your nose on a bat and then spin around and try to walk. From a creative standpoint, there were a lot of different ideas about the direction of the project. Initially, my—for lack of a better term—selling point was the fact that I was between all these different genres; I was seen as a little bit of this, a little bit of that. That became a real problem among the infrastructure of a commercially driven bureaucracy.
“At a certain point, we just reached a sort of impasse,” she continues. “Everyone became sort of vaguely annoyed and lost interest, on both sides. It was like the slow dissolution of a marriage. There were no kids in this metaphor—because I hadn’t been able to put out a full-length—so that made getting off the label much easier.”
The crowdfunded and self-released Life as a Dog makes a concrete case that everyone at RCA had their heads firmly wedged up their asses. (The album debuted at No. 14 on the Billboard rap charts, as well as hitting No. 2 in the Heatseekers category.) K.Flay is indeed all over the place on the record, that being a major part of her appeal. There’s a classic alt-pop undertow to “Everyone I Know”, flashes of pomade-slicked doo-wop on the jazzy “Wishing It Was You”, and a spliffed-out Jamaican-roots scent to “Turn It Around”.
Flaherty’s great trick is that she doesn’t come across as bitter. Cue up “Wishing It Was You”, in which she starts out pining for a guy she can’t have with “All I do is miss you, and you’re not even mine/Met your fucking girlfriend/She was looking perfect,” and then goes on to moan, “It’s not fun for me, sucking on a bottle of Jim Beam wishing it was you.” She’s even philosophical when it comes to the RCA shitshow, seemingly believing in the adage that revenge is a dish best served cold. Consider the lines “Wanna be the best/Wanna prove you wrong—that my story isn’t written” on “Get It Right”. Even when she’s engaging in a little payback, however, Flaherty doesn’t come across as jaded or disillusioned.
After noting that she’s never completely got rappers like Eminem because they seem too angry, Flaherty says, with a laugh: “Basically, I like sad girls saying stuff. That’s, generally speaking, my favourite kinds of things. The record has a certain degree of cynicism, but I hope what also comes through is the idea of redemption and things getting better.”
And also the idea that, despite everything working against her leading up to Life as a Dog, that Flaherty got things right.
K.Flay plays the 303 Columbia on Monday (September 29).