Courtesy of Ktlyn, Facebook
When San Diego-native rapper Ktlyn first performed in front of a live audience, it was at the Peppermint Club in LA—a venue that holds 250 people. The second time, 9,000 fans sang every word of her verse back to her at the Coca-Cola Roxy in Atlanta.
“I didn’t even think I was capable of that to be honest,” she says, remembering standing in front of the largest crowd she’d ever performed for while on tour with hip hop artist Russ. “I just kind of channeled what I’ve seen my favorites do. And did that.”
Last February, Ktlyn took to TikTok to take on Russ’ open verse challenge for “Handsomer,” recording her bars in an Off-White tee against a blue-lit background.
“I won’t lie that extra coin don’t hurt / but I gets money baby, I’d just rather spend yours first / I know for sure this pussy worth more than a Hermes purse / I got the best on earth so that dick better come with some perks,” she rapped, a response to Russ’ song about a gold-digging woman.
@ktlynraps I won’t lie that extra coin don’t hurt 🤣 @russ eng @brendangone #handsomer #russ #rap ♬ HANDSOMER (Remix) (Feat. Ktlyn) – Russ
It wasn’t her first time dueting larger artists and dropping her own verses, but it was the first time her views crept into the two-digit millions.
Russ took notice—along with the rest of the social platform—releasing a remix with her verse on it. Since that day, her video has amassed some 26.M views, 33.1K comments, and garnered her more than 2 million followers.
This was the beginning of Ktlyn’s path to record deals, a platinum single, touring, and getting her music featured in TV commercials. Before stadiums in Atlanta and millions of adoring fans, though, Ktlyn was just another aspiring artist getting lost in the crowd.
Growing up in Rancho Bernardo, the now 26-year-old lived with her mom in a one-bedroom apartment where she had to find ways to entertain herself each day.
“I was like 10 or 11. I saw [You Got Served] and I thought it had the coolest soundtrack ever. I basically watched it every single day,” she says. “I’d say that was probably the turning point of diving into hip-hop music and becoming obsessed with it.”
Courtesy of Ktlyn
She names Eminem, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, and Lil Wayne as early influences, helping her fall in love with the genre as she dove into the intricacies of hip hop.
“I was looking up the lyrics, practicing their cadences, and really just getting their music down,” Ktlyn says. “I would not stop playing the song over and over until I did it perfectly. Like, if it was an intense Eminem song, I would replay it out loud until I felt like I was Eminem.”
While attending Rancho Bernardo high school, Ktlyn often freestyled for her basketball teammates or at parties or in her car after school or anywhere anyone would listen—effectively creating her own remix of You Got Served.
It wasn’t until college, though, that she began pursuing music professionally while living in Los Angeles.
“It was years of networking, like just being in the studio with anybody I could possibly get in with,” she says of having to build a network outside of San Diego. The rapper eventually linked up with Too $hort, the legendary Oakland rapper and record producer, who gave Ktlyn her first chance at recording professionally. But still, she needed to do more.
Courtesy of Ktlyn, Facebook
“I was pushing my music on Instagram and it just was not reaching a new audience, the algorithm was working against me, or my music just wasn’t good enough yet,” she says of her days before joining TikTok.
She shot her very first TikTok on July 16, 2020. Walking down a suburban street, she wore a simple beige cropped top, ripped jean shorts, white sneakers and her long blonde hair hanging down past her chest. She freestyled on top of Jack Harlow’s “What’s Poppin.” It only got a few likes.
When I came across Ktlyn, it was 2021. This unassuming 20-something was trying out her own verse over Cardi B’s “WAP.” It was clean, it was good. I watched a few more of her videos and then went back to scrolling. I forgot about her, that is, until the Russ track.
She was going viral. Her open verse on “Handsomer” was gaining traction. Fans were begging Russ to release her version on a remix.
@ktlynraps Dc: @kaileyandtrav y’all killed this! 👏🔥 REMIX DROPS AT MIDNIGHT 🚀#handsomerchallenge @russ ♬ HANDSOMER (Remix) (Feat. Ktlyn) – Russ
You couldn’t scroll TikTok without every other video being people dancing and lip syncing along to Ktlyn’s rap. Creators @kaileyandtrav even started a dance challenge to her version which blew up across the country (#handsomerchallenge currently sits at more than 30 million views).
And on March 9, 2021 Russ’ “Handsomer” remix dropped featuring this new unsigned artist who unwittingly turned the tables on his lyrics. I remember this era clearly. The track ran through my bones that summer. The carbs that fueled my workouts.
“Usually, my goal is to make women feel empowered or anybody who’s listening to my music feel empowered, however they can relate to it,” Ktlyn says. “I just love the idea of people listening to my music and just instantly maybe feeling more confident.”
She was the girl next door reminding you of your own badass self, the stranger in the bathroom reassuring you that you don’t need him. And TikTok was hungry for more.
Courtesy of Ktlyn, Facebook
Over the next few days after the single released, fans pushed, pleaded, demanded that Russ release a full version with her voice across the entire track. It was chaos; polite bullying, but complete chaos. This was her song now and they needed him to know it.
“He was like, ‘I cannot post anything else without people being like: Where is this song?” she says. “Russ is the coolest, most genuine guy. And he got to see how amazing my fan base is and how hard they went for me to have that moment.”
Russ released the “Handsomer Extended Remix” on April 7, 2021, giving her an extra verse across the 3:12 song. Her version became the official remix of the single, reaching No. 1 on U.S. iTunes and No. 59 on the Billboard Hot 100. The official music video? It featured Tiffany Haddish and Snoop Dogg if you wanted any indication of how big the song got.
A day later, Russ signed her to his new label, Diemon Records, asking her to join his Journey Is Everything World Tour last spring. It was not only Ktlyn’s first tour, but it was also the first time she’d perform to anything larger than a small room full of mostly friends and family.
“I kind of went into it like an alternate head space and was just like, ‘Okay, this is the time,’” she says. “Like you know you’ve been working your whole life for this moment. It’s the same concept. It’s just more people.”
Since that tour, Ktlyn has put out four singles under her new label, threw out the first pitch at a Padres game last October, lent her music to a national State Farm commercial, received a platinum plaque for Russ’ “Handsomer Extended Remix,” and made her Hollywood Bowl debut in front of nearly 18,000 fans.
“I think right now I’m trying to feed my fans music as much as I possibly can until I’ve earned the privilege of them sitting through a full album of mine,” she says of what’s next.
Going back to the first video I watched of hers, I couldn’t help but notice the comment sitting at the top saying, “She will never have a hit record but go off.” Maybe that creator was right about an album, but my money’s on the girl singing:
“Imagine if I listen what a hater gotta say / I never givе a broke b*tch any time of day (no way) / You ugly when you jealous, b*tch look at that face / I’m hot right now, and you not, mm-kay?”