In recent years, it has seemed that musical content in hip-hop and R&B has been firmly divided by genre – and gender. Hip-hop gets to be the sole domain of men with toxic narratives driven by rappers like Drake and Future. They play aloof and apathetic toward the women in their lives, gaslighting them for being hoes while loudly proclaiming they’ll never settle down themselves. Meanwhile, it’s the women in R&B, like Grammy winner Jazmine Sullivan and Summer Walker, who have to play the fed-up victims of men’s mind games. Seemingly every song sounds wounded — or barring that, encouraging women to recover from the wounds inflicted on them by destructive relationships.
Kali, the 21-year-old Atlanta rapper who won viral fame thanks to beloved clips of her songs on TikTok, is dead set on upending this particular convention in Black music. In March, she unleashed her major-label debut EP, Toxic Chocolate, pointedly reversing the dynamic and staking a claim on space for women in the toxicity conversation in hip-hop. “If somebody think they going to play games with me,” she explains of the EP’s contrarian philosophy, “I’m going to show you, look, I’m competitive, and you’re going to lose this game, sir, ma’am, anybody. It’s just, like, put your foot down. The girls need to get their power back.”
That’s what she does on the EP with songs like “UonU,” a role reversal anthem that would make Michael Scott proud – oh, how the turntables… etc. There’s also “Standards,” which finds the young rapper drawing her line in the sand and demanding consistency from the men she deals with. And on the EP’s title track, she offers the following flippant missive: “I’m really in love, I ain’t really toxic / Just playin’, I’m lying / Fuck on the side, oh he throwing up crying.” Kali’s debut is what would happen if Megan Thee Stallion got stuck in the Brundle teleporter with Future while Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women” played in the background.
Of course, she doesn’t see it that way. For her, it’s just about flipping those sad songs into veritable bangers, slathered with a greasy layer of Southern crunk. “I always hear girls, even myself… We’d be like, ‘Oh, I would never, I wouldn’t do him like that.’ But, we got enough music telling us that, enough sad music to cry about. It’s time to just be like, ‘You know what? He did it to you, why you can’t do it to him?’ Summer Walker’s stuff had just came out. Everybody sliding down walls, and crying. It was just like, ‘No, that’s not the vibes anymore.’ Do that man how he did you. Let’s see who can really take it.”
If this seems like a prescient outlook for someone who just reached drinking age, well, it is. But Kali has always been precocious, starting her rap career at the age of just 12 years old after writing down her pre-teen feelings in a journal and earning the right to her own bedroom by meeting her father’s challenge of writing a full album’s worth of rap songs to the beats he made at home. Through high school, she pursued soccer to avoid her parents’ scrutiny over her subject matter, but upon graduation returned to her first love: rapping. After a brush with early stardom thanks to an audition on Netflix’s Rhythm + Flow, Kali overcame a few more early career setbacks to achieve viral fame when she uploaded her song “Do A Bitch” to TikTok in late 2020.
That song, which she later remixed with Rico Nasty, laid the groundwork for her next viral single, “MMM MMM,” to truly take off. “My first reaction [to the song going viral] was, ‘I did it again,’” she recalls. “‘I’m doing it again, y’all.’ I can say, ‘I got the plan, I just need the platform.’” The platform came just a few weeks later when fellow Atlanta rapper Latto reached out to her to jump on the remix. There likely couldn’t be a better candidate; aside from sharing a hometown, the two rappers both started their rap careers young, both garnered a bit of initial attention thanks to a reality TV rap competition, and both were given the co-sign of an older, more established artist – the very epitome of paying it forward.
Latto continued to pay it forward, recruiting Kali to her first-ever headlining tour. At the stop in Los Angeles, I got to see the impact of Kali’s music firsthand as the sold-out crowd at the Novo recited back her lyrics bar-for-impressively-witty-bar. “A lot of people have been telling me, ‘Kali, your tape is no-skips, straight through,’” she humblebrags. “‘I’ve listened to this every day straight through.’ Even being on tour, people knowing the words already – and it hasn’t even been that long, and I’ve only had like five shows – is super crazy to me, it makes me so happy. Every show, I see that one person that knows every song, word for word, and even a crowd singing along by the second hook, I’m like, ‘Oh, well y’all really is tuned in.’”
Kali admits that there’s been an adjustment to the newfound fame, but she’s already ready for more. “I want to do my own tour,” she muses. “I would love to do that. That’s why I’m putting in so much work on this one… I leave the show with a goal every day: Hopefully, someone left the show like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know Kali, but I’m going to look up more of her music.’ I just want to be super big. So whatever I got to do to be big, that’s what I’m going to do.” When I ask whether or not she accepts the claims that she’s rap’s women’s answer to Future, she demures.
“No, no, this is a toxic phase,” she laughs. “I’m just letting you all know, I don’t play games. This is not that. So, if you ever trying to shoot your shot, just make sure you listen to the tape first. Before you show me your A-S-S, I got you. But as soon as you do that, Toxic Chocolate will appear. And I would throw a toxic tantrum.”
Kali is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.