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While in some respects this is one of hip-hop’s more liberal eras, it’s hard to deny that the rap industry is still embarrassingly male-dominated. And after my first question to the Chicago-born artist Dreezy, she brings the subject to the table.

“I think I was the only female rapper to drop an album this year,” the 22-year-old tells me during our phone call at the tail end of 2016. It sounds like an exaggeration, but while there were outstanding independent releases from female rappers last year, support from major labels was shockingly scarce.

Dreezy relocated to LA two years ago, and last year she released her debut retail album No Hard Feelings, which included high profile collaborations with the likes of Gucci Mane, Jeremih and T-Pain, via Interscope. Dreezy’s sense of determination brings to mind a quote from poet and activist Maya Angelou, who said that: “Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.” No Hard Feelings followed a string of well-received mixtapes and co-signs from Chicago heroes Common, Chief Keef and Sasha Go Hard. “The success of the singles is what I’m most proud of,” Dreezy reveals. “Being able to go home and I turn on the radio, and there’s four different songs that they’re playing.”

While Dreezy’s singing voice leans towards RnB with pop sensibilities, she’s also a particularly tough rapper. Last year she released an EP produced entirely by in-demand Atlanta-based trap producers Metro Boomin and Southside, and her breakthrough moment came in 2014 when she ruthlessly reclaimed Nicki Minaj’s Chi-Raq in a no-holds-barred freestyle. “All of my ex-niggas stalking me/ I’m flexing like I got The Hulk in me,” she spat, with enough aggression to have her filed next to Chicago’s infamous drill scene of the time.

No Hard Feelings bridged the gap between bars and melody, and the theme of self-belief triumphed against carefully placed moments of vulnerability. Dreezy has made the decision to boss up, not only to manifest her own destiny, but also for the young girls who look up to her. “I grew up in Southside Chicago with my momma, and she was a single parent,” she reflects. “Everything she was going through in life was rubbing off on me. If she didn’t appreciate herself or she was feeling insecure, I started looking at myself in the mirror.” Dreezy explains that she’d watch her mother yearn for the affection of men who had a poisonous affect on her life, and for a while she followed the same pattern in her own relationships. “We started getting into it when I began to realise how she was allowing different men to treat her. I saw it from the outside, but she didn’t see it. I was mad she wasn’t sticking up for herself, so I ended up moving out and living with my daddy, who put me back together.”

"I’ve learned to be more in tune with my feminine side, because that’s key to being a female icon"

Observing her father’s interactions with her step-mother taught Dreezy what a healthy relationship should look like, and she learned to love herself again. On Dreezy’s song Worth It, the hook – “I’m not perfect, I have flaws, but I’m worth it” – feels as much a mantra to herself as a statement to an unappreciative other half. She admits that she only made this realisation after having her own bad relationships stuck on repeat. “Sometimes you don’t notice that the habit is not good for you. And you keep doing the same thing. I’ve been in relationships with boys that treated me wrong over and over again. How long am I gonna be stupid before I start focusing on myself? That’s just what I’m doing right now. I’ve changed my whole lifestyle around that. It’s more about me now.

The change of outlook, Dreezy says, has required distancing herself from old friends who no longer relate now that gossiping about men is out of the picture. “They just stuck in they ways and they still doing that. I’m glad that I learned at a young age. My momma is still dealing with the same nigga from years ago. I’m learning early. I’m teaching my little sister early. And I’m teaching people through my music. I can go back and teach my momma, because she see me like ‘You’re so confident, you can just go on stage and you’re nothing like me.’ And I tell her ‘You gotta be the same way.’”

In a fickle industry that’s even more unforgiving to women, Dreezy doesn’t plan on falling victim to the hype machine. With No Hard Feelings she wanted to prove that she could make timeless songs. The album didn’t make a huge impact commercially, but the songs will still be relatable to her fans years down the line. She studies the women that have had lasting careers, watching interviews with Rihanna and hearing words of encouragement from her idols like Kelly Rowland – who recently told her she was on the right track, and to stay focussed. “I’ve learned to be more in tune with my feminine side, because that is definitely key to being a female icon,” she observes. “Women have a way about themselves, they have a charm that’s naturally given to us by God. I’m pretty. I have nice features. I used to get called names while I was growing up cause my lips were so big, and now it’s one of the sexiest things to boys. Even my legs; my family used to call me ‘thunder thighs’, they all thought I was fat. Now niggas think I’m thick.”

“I’ve learned to embrace everything,” Dreezy concludes. “Be yourself. That is what I take from other female artists; the way they carry themselves. They handle business, and still do music. They go just as hard as the guys, and they set trends.”

No Hard Feelings is out now via Interscope