Show & Prove: KenTheMan
Words: Kathy Iandoli
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

For years, KenTheMan paid no mind to tour riders. “I felt awkward asking for things,” the 27-year-old rapper says matter-of-factly over Zoom this past October. “I’m a do-it-myself type of bitch.” Case in point: she would bring her own snacks and drinks backstage at her shows. With her first headlining tour beginning early this year—based off the strength of projects like 4 da 304’s and What’s My Name, plus her 2019 breakout single, “He Be Like,” which made waves in 2021, when it reached the top 15 of the Billboard Top Triller U.S. chart that summer—it’s a different story. “I know this time that I want some Don Julio, some Gushers and some Fruit Roll-Ups.”

KenTheMan’s ascent has been a slow burn, though a steady one. A song gaining viral fire two years after its release is proof of her magnetism; it’s the kind that just keeps growing.

A product of Houston, Texas, Ken started freestyling in high school, but didn’t start recording until she graduated. At 19, she began dropping freestyles over social media and was met with enough traction to take the next step. The rhymer’s inspiration came from artists like Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne, whose creativity and sharp wordplay are equally felt throughout Ken’s style, though she clearly has her own signature sound—a blend of sexy, fun and provocative energy.

She cut mixtapes soon after, and her father would sell them to coworkers at his welding job despite the racy lyrics. “I would dibble and dabble in the freaky,” Ken, born Kentavia Miller, says with a laugh. “I was really scared ’cause [my dad] would listen to my music, and he was selling my mixtapes to his coworkers, so I was like, ‘No, they’re gonna think his daughter is a ho!’”

Her moniker KenTheMan began as a title to fill the username box on SoundCloud, where she’d upload her music. “Ken” was taken so she got creative. “I was gonna go by Ken when I dropped my first freestyle on SoundCloud,” she explains. “But, of course, Ken wasn’t available so I just put ‘TheMan.’ I wasn’t really sticking with that shit.” Instead, it stuck with her.

“A lot of people started saying, ‘You go harder than dudes. You really the man.’” Ken possessed a gender-bending duality in her style that helped her garner new fans. “It’s like I really do have a dominant type of rap,” the MC expresses. “Like, I rap about girl stuff, but it’s hella aggressive and just hella demanding and hella confident like a man…”

While Houston DJs pushed her music heavily over the years, Ken lacked support from local acts who she hoped would extend a hand. “I wanted some guidance from the people that have been there before,” she admits. “I wanted some love from the other rappers that are bigger and stuff, but I didn’t get that, so I felt like I wasn’t getting support when really I was. It was right there [with the DJs], where I needed it to be.”

Her 2017 track, “Deserve,” was her formal introduction, though it wasn’t until 2019 when she dropped “He Be Like,” that the world fully took notice and her glow up began. Ken was working independently for four years until 2019, when she caught the ear of her current manager, Melissa Keklak of MK Entertainment. She’s known as Problem’s former manager, and the former President of Blac Youngsta’s Heavy Camp. The female energy was palpable, as the two formed more of a sisterhood that’s kept Ken’s uncompromising vision for herself and her career consistent.

“I had so many people when I first started shopping her be like, ‘You have something, but change her name,’ and that was one thing I would never do,” Keklak recalls. “And they’re like, ‘Well, it’s gonna be hard for her in this industry,’ and it’s like, well, then it’s gonna be hard for us. But is it really, though? Because if we’re staying true and authentic and on brand to what she represents, how do you not win?”

Ken continued dropping projects, including ​​2020’s buzzworthy EP 4 da 304’s. When the labels came calling, she preferred a partnership as opposed to a traditional record deal. “We were flying everywhere in the last year, like, everyone wanted her,” Keklak continues. “It’s a good problem to have, but in the same sense, it’s very overwhelming because you have 15 people here bidding on you and you’re like, Where is the right home?” Money was getting tight, but they didn’t want to compromise. “It literally took me six months to save up for the ‘He Be Like’ video,” Ken adds. “It’s expensive to be a rapper.”

After meeting with several labels, they negotiated a deal with Asylum Records in 2021. Ken felt the label was the perfect place for her. “I was patient, and I did find somebody that actually cared about my mind and creativity and listened to me,” she conveys. When she read her contract, she went line by line, noting every section that wasn’t clear to her. Keklak did the same. It was less of an act of distrust and more as a means to understand every facet of her career—right down to the terms and conditions. “See, I’m a reader,” Ken affirms with a smile.

The fall 2021 release of her EP, What’s My Name, was the cherry on top of her hustle, as the project was a culmination of everything she had worked for thus far. Two major cosigns were also a big push, as 2Chainz brought Ken out on stage at Houston’s Toyota Center for 2021’s Legends of the Streetz Tour last fall and Snoop Dogg has frequently posted her music. “It was like, Damn, I’m at the Toyota Center with 2Chainz!” she shares excitedly. “And I don’t know what it is, but Snoop Dogg loves him some me… I feel like that stuff is beautiful to me…out of all the people in the universe, they’re the ones supporting. It’s crazy.”

With upcoming Rolling Loud tour dates fueling her momentum and her own tour in motion, Ken’s gearing up to record a deluxe version of her What’s My Name EP. “I’m dying to get back into the studio,” she explains. “Right now, I’m collecting files and I’m collecting thoughts. So, I feel like when I get back in, the music is gonna be hard.”

She knows exactly where she’s going and doesn’t need to ask for directions—redefining The Man.

Check out more from XXL’s Winter 2021 issue including our cover story featuring the XXL awards board members, Juice Wrld's mother reflects on her son, Big30 gears up for his debut album, a look back at the history of remixing hip-hop songs, Latin trap star Eladio Carrion talks about working with Bobby Shmurda, Tobe Nwigwe's viral movement with a purpose and more.

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