LEFT OF THE DIAL First things first: No matter what her lyrics might imply, Kristine Flaherty — the 28-year-old, Illinois-born, Stanford-educated rapper better known as k.flay — is not sniffing glue.
"Nor have I ever, actually," she says thoughtfully, having folded herself into a chair in the corner of her West Oakland rehearsal space. "I'd just like to state that for the record. People think I'm on drugs because in some of my lyrics I'm in a really dark place...but no. And sniffing glue in particular seems like something you do when you're 15 and can't get drugs."
Her desire to correct that misconception aside, Flaherty's not exactly known for giving a shit what people think of her. It's an admirable quality, something that radiates from the musician as part of a natural, understated air of confidence, but one has to imagine it's been built up over the years for functional purposes: When you're a young, white, middle-class, private school-bred female rapper whose image mainly involves jeans and sneakers, who went from making beats and rhymes in the dorm as a joke to collaborations with Zion I, Danny Brown, and Grieves, opening spots for Snoop Dogg, and a record deal with RCA, you're going to hear some unsolicited opinions. About authenticity, about your skills. Your background, your appearance. Your drug preferences.
But it's been 10 years since k.flay self-released Suburban Rap Queen as a college junior, and if she didn't have thick skin then, she sure does now. That mixtape sent buzz-waves through the Bay Area hip-hop scene thanks to its energetic amateur's sense of fun, lyrics about feminism, frat parties, haters, and the joys of eating red meat (she's said she was listening to a lot of Dizzee Rascal at the time), coupled with a flow and production value that promised big things to come. And come they did, though perhaps not in the order she might have expected.
Life As a Dog, out June 24 (but streamable until then over here), is a debut of a whole other kind. After a decade of EPs, near-constant touring, and prolific appearances as a guest vocalist — a time in which she stole the Bay Area indie hip-hop scene's heart before up and moving to Brooklyn three years ago — it's the rapper's first full-length record, and the most thematically and sonically cohesive work she's produced. It also showcases growth, a musician fully embracing her love of melody and structure, of pop music and indie-electronic sounds. Gone is the I-don't-give-a-fuck-what-this-sounds-like shit-talk/talk-singing, and in its place is just plain singing.
Turns out, she's good at it. The vulnerability in her voice contrasts satisfyingly with the sharp-edged corners of her rapping, which has slowed from its previous freneticism into a more comfortable swagger that gives the whole record a personal, conversational feel. She's still funny, goofy, approachable, gross — "Suckin' on a bottle of Jim Beam, wishin' it was you" goes one of the most sing-songy choruses — but there's a grownup self-assuredness, and its flip-side, an all-too-familiar grownup's cynicism. Regardless, her bummed-out hungover days spent walking around the city now sound like they're actually in step with yours.