When 15-year-old Dontrell showed up at the Reader‘s offices for an interview, he was fresh off a delayed return flight after his first trip to New York. He’s better known as Kidd Kenn, Chicago’s most popular openly gay male rapper, and he was exhausted—his whirlwind trip east had included a meeting with Def Jam and a music-video shoot.
“We were there for one day,” said his manager and family friend, Sharron Beverly of Family First Music Group. (She asked that we not use Kidd’s real last name.) “We had the meeting with Def Jam, and then we had to shoot a video for Kidd’s new song.”
Kidd seemed reserved at first, despite the boisterous image suggested by his brash delivery and frequently explicit bars. In a viral freestyle over the instrumental to FBG Duck’s “Slide,” he cannonballs into the track by tweaking the original’s opening line about a “real nigga party”: “It’s a faggot party baby, you cannot get in.”
Kidd didn’t do much talking until we hit on the topic of his tumultuous relationship with the educational system. I asked about his experience in elementary school. His response: “Which one?”
He went on to list four schools—one of which he attended two separate times—and explained in generous detail exactly why he left, or was kicked out of, each one.
“It’s not ‘fuck school,’ but I didn’t really enjoy it,” he said. “I didn’t like teachers, and people my age irritated me.”
By the time he reached sixth grade—that is, about three years ago—Kidd had discovered his passion for rapping. He started by posting videos of himself on Facebook and Instagram, performing freestyles of popular songs. Beverly chimed in: “He was tagging me in his IG videos and begging me to take him to the studio,” she recalled. “I said ‘no’ at first because he was too young.” But as Kidd’s social-media following grew, she had to admit that his skills justified a session, regardless of his age.
I hadn’t learned Kidd’s age till I contacted Beverly about interviewing him. I was surprised, but not because he looks especially old—he’s about five foot six, with just a bit of fuzz on his upper lip. He doesn’t sound 15, though: his lyrics are often precociously explicit, and when he started out his mother wasn’t a fan. “She didn’t like it at first, of course,” he said. “Now, though, she likes my music. It’s funny to her sometimes.”
On his latest single, “Eriod” (featuring Queen Key), he raps, “P stands for pussy, so my bitches say ‘eriod’ / He say he like girls but to me he seem curious.” His lyrics aren’t just explicit but also demonstrate maturity and self-awareness. He’s unapologetic in his identity. With a little coaxing, he admitted that he understands the significance of what he’s doing. “I try to be humble most of the time,” he said. “But honestly, when I’m by myself I be like ‘Damn, I’m cold as hell.'”
Kidd mentioned many artists who’ve taught him different aspects of how to be himself. He began with his favorite rapper, Nicki Minaj, who also inspired his name. “Nicki taught me not to give a fuck,” he said. “Nicki is Barbie, and because I’m a boy, I decided I would be Ken.”
He also shouted out fellow east-side rapper G Herbo: “Herb taught me how to be gangsta.” But Kidd said he’s not a drill rapper himself. “People think just because of the sound and being from Chicago that it’s automatically drill,” he said. “But I don’t rap about gangbanging or killing anybody.”
Kidd’s most important relationships are with his close friends. “They make sure I’m being myself all the time,” he said. “It’s important to me that I never act different towards them. If I could share the space in my mind with anybody, it would be my friend Yodi, ’cause he would have me dying all day.”
He especially likes hanging out with his friends in the studio—when the subject came up in our interview, it was the first time he really lit up. “I have more fun in the studio than anywhere else,” he says. “When my friends are there, I get to be goofy and crack jokes with them.” That goofy personality, Kidd said, fuels his best bars. “I like to write things that are most relatable to myself. I like to joke and have fun, so I sometimes write lyrics that make me laugh. This new song ‘Eriod’ is probably my favorite one I’ve written so far, ’cause it’s the funniest.”
Kidd takes his music much more seriously than he takes himself. “Being in the studio is fun, but it’s fun because I get to make music,” he stressed. “Collaborating with different producers and artists is dope, because we’re in there creating something that’s genuine.”
Unlike “Eriod,” most of Kidd’s recordings are freestyles over instrumentals he likes. Those freestyles have been the spark for his success, but he’s more than ready to drop his first EP of entirely original material, Childish (he hasn’t set a release date yet). “This is the first thing I’m putting out that’s going to be me on all-original production,” he said. “I’m excited for this because we been working on it for a while.”
Things have been happening fast for Kidd, but according to his manager he’s stayed impressively levelheaded. “The fact that he’s only 15, accomplishing what he has—the way he handles himself is amazing to me,” Beverly said. “It’s like dealing with somebody who’s been in the business for a while.”
With any luck, Kidd will be in the business for a while longer. “I knew I was good, but I didn’t know I was gonna be this good,” he said. “I’m just trying to be myself on the track, and be comfortable.”