There’s something awfully familiar about the opening lines of “Cancelled.,” the first song on Kiana Ledé’s debut album Kiki. Sure, it’s a sample of Tik Tok star Jasmin Orlando’s viral “single queen” rant, but really, it sounds like the wine-drenched voicemail you’ve considered sending your ex post-breakup. “I am a single queen. You know the f–king vibes,” Orlando cries. The next few lines tell you all you need to know about Ledé’s songs: “Fuck men these days, fuck them all! They will hurt everyone’s feelings.”
Kiki, the singer-songwriter’s dissertation on love and heartbreak, takes listeners through every stage of millennial dating, from comfort (“Protection.”) and vulnerability (“Honest.”) to adoration (“Chocolate.”), all wrapped in a 17-track package released on April 3, 2020—Ledé’s 23rd birthday. “I have a wall up all the time. But in my music, all that shit goes away,” Ledé tells ELLE.com from self-isolation in Los Angeles. “What you hear is exactly who I am because I’m writing what I’ve been through and what I’m feeling at the time.” Just as the soulful sounds of influences like SWV, Erykah Badu and India.Arie guided her through her toughest times, Ledé wants her music to help her fans work through their emotions. “Whenever I learn something, I want to share it,” she says. “Quality of life is very important to me because I know we really only have one life.”
Ledé’s first two EPs, 2018’s Selfless and 2019’s Myself—both projects featuring her viral breakout single “Ex”—were an “abridged version” of the singer: “a very young, naive, lost—still happy—[but] depressed Kiana.” On Kiki, she becomes whole, crediting a trip back to her hometown of South Phoenix with helping her reach a moment of clarity. It’s the reason she chose to pose in front of her childhood home for her album artwork, and why the album’s title is her childhood nickname. “I wanted to go home because I felt like I was running away from who I actually am,” she explains. “ Going back to that house was me no longer running away from it. I’ve been ashamed of it my whole life. And now this is me saying, ‘This house made me who I am and I’m going to show it to the world. The world deserves to see why I am who I am.'”
Ledé’s first “big” stage was her living room, performing ‘90s hits for her parents. Her mother bought her a karaoke box to practice with, but a young, goggly-eyed Ledé was more fascinated with her father’s precious stereo, even when he forbade her from going anywhere near it. “He put it in one of those glass cabinets that opened when you clicked it. One day, I went to turn it up and he got really mad and said, ‘Get the fuck away from the stereo.’ I realized at that point that music was very precious in our house.” Music became so important to Ledé’s life that she barely paid attention in school: “I wanted to put all my energy into creating music.” Now, Ledé’s voice is the one coming out of her father’s stereo.
When did you fall in love with music?
I knew very early on that I wasn’t good at anything else. I wasn’t good at school. I was a straight-A honor student but only because I had ADHD and my mom was like, “That’s not an excuse. Sit down and do your homework.” I wanted to put all my energy into creating music and my mom knew it too. She put me into art school, choir, and pageants so I could perform at an early age. I felt like my whole life was prepping for what I’m doing now. I’ve been performing on the stage my entire life—I’m really comfortable sharing my emotions onstage with other people.
You seem comfortable sharing your emotions through music too. Is there a difference?
I’ve always been a very open book. All of the things I’m feeling right now are going to come out in songs six months or a year from now. I’m able to be open about them because I’m talking from a healed place, a very removed place; I’ve already processed all those emotions. It’d be much harder for me to be open about things that are happening present-day because I’ll remember something I should have said.
You wrote on Instagram that this album is the “most me I’ve ever been.” How does the Kiana Ledé on Selfless and Myself differ from the Kiana on Kiki?
Because this is a new journey. On Myself, I showed my artistic side: very outgoing, very strong and confident. But some of that was a facade—me taking in opinions from other people about my art. I realized I was taking baby steps away from the “real” Kiana every day. I was trying to prove to myself and the world that I loved myself.
Now, I’m able to create music I know is going to make me happy. I spent 10 days at a writers’ camp in Malibu with a couple of producers and writer Derek Milano. Derek allowed me to be completely me. He’s my perfect musical match. I stuck with the people who believed in me and [I] was able to make music with no restrictions, to a point where I was free-styling. [And] I don’t freestyle—I’m a very slow thinker. But the music we wrote together and the way he writes helped me trust myself.
Kiki comes with a heady dose of nostalgia, from sampling Outkast and Brandy to Notorious B.I.G’s “Juicy.” Why does music from that era resonate with you?
I live in nostalgia. When we’re born, we start out pure, and growing is really just unlearning things we’ve been taught [by] our parents—some pain, some tragedy. I’m constantly trying to undo all that shit and get back to my most innocent, natural form—my most loving form. I love ‘90s and early 2000s music because I didn’t have any cares in the world; I understood life enough to appreciate it and I didn’t have any responsibility.
“Movin.” is such a bad bitch anthem.
I wrote that when I had just broken up with my ex-boyfriend and I was in that mood: I’ve been through the anger, I’ve been through this denial, I’ve been through sadness, so let me just get a move on now. Let me make myself feel better and stop thinking about the little shit, because I’m only going to get in my own way. Let me make the best out of this situation and keep it movin’. I’m really good at doing that.
You have some of the best features ever—Ari Lennox, 6LACK, Lucky Daye. How did these collaborations come about?
Even though some are my friends, they’re all busy, so some of the pieces just fell perfectly into place. Lucky is very hard to link with and he’s always disappearing. During Grammy weekend, we went to all the same parties and one day he was like, “I’m going into the studio. I’ll have that feature for you tonight.” So I went to the studio and did not leave until it was done. I’ve known Arin Ray since I was 16 years old so I sent him a song and two nights later he came to the studio.
Ari was a very similar thing. We sent it off to her and immediately she was like, “I already got three lines, I’m ready.” I knew I wanted 6LACK on a song but I didn’t know which and I didn’t know how to get to him because he’s not somebody I’ve ever met in real life. One day he messaged me randomly on Instagram like, “Hey, I’m a big fan.” Talk about perfect timing. It feels great getting the respect from artists you respect.
What would you tell young Kiana?
I would say trust your gut—your heart never lies. I spent so much time trying to please people and questioned myself to the point where I’d beat myself into the ground. I didn’t respect my ideas or myself enough to stand up for myself. That’s also due to me starting when I was really young. I was 15 years when I got signed for the first time and it didn’t work. If I knew all the things about the industry and life and people and myself that I know now, I would be even further than I am now. But I’m happy where I’m at. [Even] if nobody else understands you but you, and nobody else has got you but you, you’re going to be fine. It’s not often singers get another chance at this life.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.