Top by Gucci. Bike by Linus. Attitude by Key. Credit: Parrish Lewis

Chicago rapper Queen Key wants to get across two main points with Eat My Pussy. The title of the June release—her debut studio EP—takes care of the first one, she admits with a laugh. “Besides the title, the message is basically ‘Queen Shit,'” she says. “It’s my attitude—how I feel about what I feel about.”

Queen Shit is also about what Queen Key does—which includes projecting a don’t-fuck-with-me charisma, a might-be-dangerous sense of mischief, and an unapologetic no-exceptions ownership of herself and her sexuality. It adds up to her own flavor of that hard-to-define X factor that separates the idols from the wannabes. Born Ke’Asha McClure, the 22-year-old commands a cool, in-the-pocket flow, whether she’s rapping about accidentally burning a pizza black, telling an irritating man to go suck his own dick, or proudly calling herself a “spoiled-ass bitch”—and she does all three on the early Eat My Pussy single “My Way.”

“I see her as a megastar,” says Key’s manager, Mikkey Halsted. “I see her as one of the top artists—not just female artists—in the game.” Halsted, who’s been working with Key for almost two years, became one of Chicago’s most celebrated rappers in the aughts, signing with infamous New Orleans label Cash Money during its heyday. But these days he works mostly behind the scenes, as cofounder of independent hip-hop label Machine Entertainment Group. Key has been on its roster since 2017, and the label is also home to Halsted’s most famous management client, drill star G Herbo. Last fall Herb’s Humble Beast debuted at number 21 on the Billboard 200, and at Lollapalooza last week he appeared higher on the bill than any other Chicago artist.

Key hasn’t yet put up crossover numbers like Herb, but Halsted thinks she’s got the same potential. The “My Way” video has racked up 6.5 million YouTube views since it went live in September 2017. In April, World Star premiered the video for Key’s remix of the recent FBG Duck hit “Slide,” and with some help from a Chance the Rapper cameo, it’s already topped a million views.

YouTube video

Locally, Key has started showing up on big bills, and her name seems to be on the right people’s lips. Last month she performed at the United Center with Big Sean and Trey Songz (among others) as part of WGCI’s annual Summer Jam. On Sunday, August 19, she’ll be the only woman onstage at Lyrical Lemonade‘s inaugural outdoor festival, the Summer Smash, whose 25-artist bill also includes throwback stylist Joey Badass, Soundcloud-rap phenom Trippie Redd, and shapeshifting Chicago star Vic Mensa. “She’s really becoming one of the hottest artists in the city,” says Andrew Barber, founder of influentual hip-hop blog Fake Shore Drive. “It’s always difficult to break out, for any artist. It’s more difficult to break as a female artist—she’s in a good place.”

Queen Key interviewed by
Kevin Coval and Tara Mahadevan

Part of a pop-up hosted by the Cornerstore podcast, which also includes vendors, a group art show, and sets by Squeak Pivot and Police State. Sun 8/12, 3 PM (event runs 2-7 PM), FDC Studios, 2341 N. Milwaukee, free, all-ages

Queen Key

Part of the Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash, which also features Joey Badass, Trippie Redd, Vic Mensa, Lil Skies, Ski Mask the Slump God, and many more. Sun 8/19, noon-9:45 PM, Douglas Park, 1401 S. Sacramento, $60, $120 for VIP, all-ages

Key grew up in the south suburbs, moving among Hazel Crest, Homewood, Markham, Dolton, Flossmoor, and others. “Pretty much every suburb,” Key says. “It really was my mama—I guess she liked the change of scenery.” Her musical career began when she was seven, with the help of an older brother: “We just used piano beats and we recorded with a radio tape,” she says. “The rest is history.”

Key kept making music, mostly with her siblings, in fits and starts throughout her childhood. “It kept reoccurring naturally—I never was really planning on it,” she says. “It was something that just wouldn’t go away.” In eighth grade, she started uploading freestyle videos to the Internet, but when I ask her what name she used back then so I can search for the clips, she pretends to hang up on me: “Bye,” she says, and laughs. “One day someone’s gonna find ’em. That’s all I can say.”

Key began her rap career in earnest her junior year of high school, after she transferred to Dwight D. Eisenhower in Blue Island. In 2013 she cut her first proper track with the help of Ric Wilson, at the time a budding rapper who engineered tracks for other MCs at his home studio. He wound up recording a lot of underground drill rappers, including FBG Duck and Lil Jay. Key arrived at Wilson’s door with a mutual friend who’d come for his own session.

“She was like, ‘I be rapping and shit too,'” Wilson remembers. At first he didn’t believe her—he’s met loads of people who say they can rap but never get around to proving it in front of witnesses. When he recorded Key, though, he could tell right away that she’d already put in some time. “It was decent,” Wilson says. “I was like, ‘Damn, if shorty takes it serious, she could be decent at rapping.’ Next thing you know, her name was everywhere.”

At the end of 2015, Key released “Baked as a Pie,” a skeletal single that would soon power her local breakout. She delivers her lines without a lot of heat, but they crackle with her rough-edged wit and headstrong personality: she lies about having bedbugs when she doesn’t want a man spending the night, and snaps back when her grandma sees her weed-reddened eyes by saying nobody’s gonna die. In early 2016 she included the track on her debut mixtape, Your Highness, cohosted by local DJ and rapper Ydot Gdot. He’d been interested in Key ever since DJing a party at a local grammar school (he doesn’t remember which one) where he got a surprising request. “This girl had came up to me like, ‘Hey, can you play some Queen Key?'” he says.

Ydot had heard of Key, but he had no idea she’d already built such a strong grassroots following. He made a point of arranging a meeting with her. “What set her apart was her look—she got that Barbie-doll look,” Ydot says. She also showed a real determination to make her career work.

“I kinda knew it was what I had to do,” Key says. “Literally everything else wasn’t working out for me.” She got fired from a job at the American Girl store in Water Tower Place (“for laughing at a bitch,” she explains) before even finishing orientation, then lost a job at a Buffalo Wild Wings less than a month later. She enrolled at Prairie State College in Chicago Heights, but left after a couple weeks. “Regular stuff was really not working out,” she says.

Ydot, who’s since hosted mixtapes by the likes of King Yella and FBG Duck, looks back at Your Highness fondly. “It’s definitely one of my biggest mixtapes,” he says. Ydot came up with the idea to drop Your Highness on April 20, and he and Key teamed up again less than two months later for Beauty in a Beast, which she released on her 20th birthday: June 7, 2016.

“Stuff pretty much escalated quickly,” Key says. “I just followed my own strategy and pattern. I was testing myself and testing the people—drop a freestyle, drop a video, and keep building myself.” Her ability to engage with potential fans through YouTube freestyles, tweets, and Instagram posts—not just through studio hits—also has helped her exponential growth.

“She has really good content, she’s always keeping her fans fed, and that’s what’s setting her apart,” Barber says. “It’s almost hard to keep up with.”

Queen Key is sending pretty mixed messages about the weather.
Queen Key is sending pretty mixed messages about the weather.Credit: Parrish Lewis

Key linked up with Halsted near the end of 2016. She sent him a direct message on Twitter at the suggestion of one of her hairstylists, Chaquilla Chicago, and the two of them met at Halsted’s Hyde Park restaurant, Mikkey’s Retro Grill. “It was kind of crazy, the connections we had—it was so many one-degree connections between us. We just clicked,” Halsted says. “When she smiles and those dimples get to shining, you can’t tell her no.”

Halsted says his decision to manage Key was a no-brainer, and in early 2017 he took the extra step of signing her to Machine Entertainment Group. He admires her energy, star quality, and ability to connect with young women. “She really turns the tables and sticks up for women, and she empowers them—for real,” he says. “When she walks down the street, you see how these little girls break down crying. I knew immediately this was something special, because she touched a certain part of them that artists rarely touch.”

In his managerial role, Halsted provides guidance and feedback, but he largely stays out of Key’s music-making process. She still operates more or less as she always has: she combs through beats that producers send her, picks what she likes, and works out the songs, all in the comfort of her home. “It’s really not much—just me, some water, some weed, and the beat,” she says. “I got a light in my room, I change the colors and shit—I put on a blue light, put on a red light.”

Key started working on Eat My Pussy late last year. She picked the title in March, after tweeting “‘Eat My Pussy’ the mixtape dropping 2018.” It was initially a joke, but Halsted loved the idea and they rolled with it. The EP’s artwork, designed to mimic the cover of pop-culture magazine Paper, features Key flanked by shirtless men anonymized by pixelated faces. “We start from where we want to be—she’s gonna be on the cover of that magazine and many magazines like that,” Halsted says. She seems to be on track so far: in June, Chicago-bred culture critic Meaghan Garvey profiled Key for the Fader‘s long-running series on emerging artists, Gen F.

“My Way,” with its brooding bass line and the nonchalant punch of Key’s rapping, is the high point of Eat My Pussy. But it has competition from Key’s collaborations with established Chicago artists: King Louie, Tink, and Dreezy all appear on the EP.

YouTube video

Tink and Dreezy have shown they can go as hard as drill rappers, flirt with R&B, or make crossover pop tracks (demolishing the narrative, still advanced by parachute journalists, that Chicago rap is divided into camps loyal to Keef and Chance). They also share a common cause with Key: carving out a bigger role for women in the city’s current hip-hop scene. As her manager says, Key understands that she has a part to play in this evolution. “From Shawna to Da Brat, we’ve had a lot of female rappers in Chicago,” Halsted explains. “We’ve had so many that have reached the mainstream and could have been megastars. And she accepts the history of her position.”

As much momentum and support as Key’s career has behind it, she’s still new enough that lots of hip-hop fans don’t know her yet—and when they find out, she just might knock them for a loop.

Lyrical Lemonade editor Elliot Montanez expects that to happen during Key’s set at the Summer Smash. He and LL founder Cole Bennett began planning the one-day festival in the spring, pooling their Rolodexes to book talent. Montanez had known about Key for years—he manages local rapper Femdot, who befriended Key in high school and last year collaborated with her on a remix of Cam’Ron’s “Hey Ma.” Though the crowd at the Summer Smash will be primed to see Soundcloud stars, backpack rappers, and Lil B, Montanez doesn’t think Key will be an outlier. “I think she fits in,” he says. “Honestly, I think Queen Key could out-rap some of those artists on the lineup. I think once we put her in front of the Lyrical Lemonade audience, a lot of our fans will gravitate toward her.”

Halsted wants to expose Key to new listeners by putting her on a tour with G Herbo, the biggest name on his roster. Herb recently released Swervo, an album-length collaboration with producer Southside, and Key is working on a sequel to Eat My Pussy. Halsted wants to translate Key’s viral success into radio plays and Billboard hits—and he talks about those things as if she’s already achieved them. “As an artist, she’s one of the pillars of our culture right now,” he says. “I’m so glad that she DMed me—I think it changed both our lives.”  v