By Jeremiah Tucker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Kitty, formerly Kitty Pryde, is the rap de plume of 19-year-old Floridian Kathryn Beckwith, who worked at Claire's and was either attending college or high school when -- like so many young people these days -- she was discovered on the Internet. I watched her perform a 30-minute set last weekend in Madison, Wis., only about 60 percent of which was rap music -- the nominal reason for her being on stage.
The rest of her act consisted of stage banter and some halfhearted dancing, along with the occasional command to "bounce," deploying the placeholder as if she either didn't know what else to say or she suddenly remembered this was supposed to be a hip-hop show. Most of her commentary concerned the songs she could barely be bothered to perform, along with reminders to follow her on Twitter.
And it was fantastic, despite a creeping concern that I was watching a version of the future.
Since last year Kitty has been the focus of an inescapable brand of boring trend stories and think pieces that marvel at the new channels delivering art to a wider audience, as if it remains novel that radio, TV and labels aren't breaking acts like they used to.
That said, Kitty does feel more like a product of an emerging culture than most of the subjects of similar new-media stories. The foundation of her popularity was built on the blogging platform Tumblr, where vulnerability is a currency and putting yourself out there for public consumption in ways fearless, strange and banal can feel like an arms race.
Her video for her single "OK Cupid," one of the best songs of 2012, captured that aesthetic perfectly and made her Internet famous. In the video Kitty pulls down her lower lip to reveal the word "princess" tattooed on the inside -- the video's money shot -- and cavorts with her friends around a messy house choked with tchotchkes, artifacts of hipsterdom brushing against the trappings of a normal lower-middle-class home.
It was the perfect document to prompt mockery or befuddlement from anyone not conversant in the lingua franca of Tumblr, while simultaneously inspiring undying devotion from a legion of young fans who have shared similar documents of their knowing identities emerging from ordinary backgrounds.
"OK Cupid" has both na•vetŽ and bite, an update of falling-for-the-bad-boy pop staple for millennials; Pryde rapping: "Lordy, shorty you're a 10 and I wait for your drunk dials at 3:30 a.m. I love them. So call me sober when you're ready, not goin' steady, but babe I planned our wedding already."
Saturday night she introduced one song by telling the audience that it was about Skrillex following her on Twitter, then unfollowing her. She announced another song by clarifying, "This is my only real hip-hop song," pause, "kind of." She would often cut the songs off abruptly, and she casually mentioned that the local football team tried to rape her last time she was in town. I'm pretty sure she was joking.
Most of the people I came with found the performance baffling. Maybe Kitty wasn't feeling the crowd. Who knows? Her persona came through anyway: anxious, uncertain, bored, snotty, hilarious.
On her best singles, that's enough. Live, her act is going to require a little more effort, at least if she cares if crowds not predisposed to liking her are going to care about her music, but she has time. She's young.
And it's not as if she's the only one struggling to figure out how to leverage online culture in the real world. Though I do worry about this quote she gave "The Chicago Tribune" in a recent interview: "I don't sit around and try to get better at things. I just do what comes naturally, and I don't ever do what people tell me to do."
The headliner, Danny Brown, at 32 years old has been around longer, and he got here, poised on the cusp of breaking through to a much larger fan base, the old-fashioned way -- by being really, really good at rapping.
Brown consistently delivers the best verse on the posse cut, that hip-hop staples where a bunch of emcees take turns on the mic, most often these days on remixes of popular singles, and he has an ever-expanding body of top-notch solo material.
(My favorite line of his, by the way, is, "You soft as Elvin off the Cosbys," which always makes me laugh.)
He's a high-fashion weirdo with a hipster haircut who cuts a unique figure in hip-hop. He raps in a nasal yap that can escalate into a mean, commanding bark, nimbly bridging the arty and aggressive ends of hip-hop.
The crowd was full of awkward-looking young guys wearing too-big ball caps, reminding me of redneck kids I've seen around Joplin sitting in their pickup trucks, with dip in their mouths, listening to Lil Wayne.
Danny Brown can reach that crowd. Kitty, probably not. But the world might be a better place if she did.