Envelopes, yes. But can mile-long acrylic nails done up in airbrushed art actually open doors? Talk to Kid Sister (aka Melisa Young), the on-the-verge Chicago rapper who has parlayed a full set of Celia Cruz–style talons into a collaboration with Kanye West, a record deal and talks about a future with MTV.
It’s true: Young, 27, owes much to her manicure, her signature accessory since eighth-grade graduation. “It was my first big-girl thing that my mom let me do,” she says, brandishing 10 coral-coated digits painted with white flowers. “They were bright red. I looked like a f—ing harlot! I couldn’t believe my mom let me do it.” Trampy or not, aside from a few years spent away from the acrylics during college, those flamboyant fingertips have become what she calls “my shtick.” So much so that they inspired her hit single “Pro Nails,” a feel-good, old-school-style track with a chorus—“Got her toes done up wit her fingernails matchin’”—that’s undeniably catchy. Last summer, when Young was unsigned and working the music-festival and Chicago club circuits while keeping her day job selling baby clothes, the song caught the right ear—that of Kanye West. He was introduced to it by his DJ, Alain “A-Trak” Macklovitch, Young’s boyfriend. West liked what he heard so much that he added vocals and cameoed in the video, which debuted in December. Fast-forward to spring 2008, and much has changed for Young. Bye-bye baby store, for one; now she’s busy putting the finishing touches on her first album—titled Koko B. Ware, after her favorite WWF wrestler of yore—scheduled for release in late July on Downtown Records.
Young, who has a film degree from Chicago’s Columbia College, didn’t start rapping until two years ago, when she took the stage at a popular party at a local club hosted by her brother, Josh (J2K), one half of the popular DJ duo Flosstradamus. That performance put her in front of some of hip hop’s hottest up-and-coming acts, many of whom contributed to her record—DJ Gant-Man, Trakademicks, DJs Infamous and Develop, Spank Rock and Nina Sky among them. “Who else is on it?” Young asks herself, nearly forgetting her biggest hitmaking muscle: “Oh, Kanye! Kanye! Duh! Don’t forget that, of course…. Kanye is the one that really got the ball rolling on mainstream exposure.”
Indeed, since West lent “Pro Nails” his golden touch, Young has turned some bigwig heads, not the least of which belong to MTV talent execs. In February she did a stint on Total Request Live, followed by performances at MTV Spring Break in Panama City Beach, Florida. And post-interview, she’s off to yet another meeting to discuss potential partnerships with the music network.
But Young is poised to be more than a West-endorsed one-hit wonder. Her music is a throwback to mid-Nineties female rap—think Salt-n-Pepa. But it’s upbeat, happy and almost wholesome when compared to the explicit material put forth by her predecessors and peers. Or, as Young describes it: “Fun, fun, F to the U to the N and more fun! It’s really carefree, fun dance stuff. I think a lot of music that’s done by someone that people would describe as a hipster or, you know, a scenester, that music often comes with a warning label of pretension, of exclusivity, and I’m just, like, you know what, why do we have to be snobs?”
Young’s look is as fresh as her sound, and she’s not afraid to experiment. A few months ago she was working a retro glamour-girl angle with a blond, Twenties-style marcelled bob. Today she’s a mix of kitschy street—oversize T-shirt emblazoned with a cat, printed leggings, sequined sneaks—and slick, flawless beauty, epitomized by her striking long black hair, which, right now, is a virtually undetectable wig. “When I went platinum, I pretty much chemically cut my hair,” she explains with a laugh. “It evaporated, disintegrated.” And despite the less-than-chic connotations that two handfuls of acrylic-tipped nails conjure, Young is no stereotype. “There are definitely girl rappers out there, girl artists, girl anything, who will straight-up wear underwear, or a bikini,” she says, recalling the raunchfest that is MTV Spring Break. “I’m like, ‘Okay, girls, modesty! We’re all classy girls here.’ I felt like I had to be the modesty police…. I’m a big proponent of, Let’s keep it on, let’s keep it dry, keep it clean.” That means a high-low mix of colorful, often casual and relatively covered-up ensembles punctuated by loads of chunky accessories that play to a ghetto-fab vibe. “I don’t like to look trashy,” says the singer, who spent part of her album advance on shoes (Chloé and Manolo Blahnik), a bag (Miu Miu) and a car (a 1990 Mercedes 420 SEL), yet still shops at Target. “But I like to make a statement, and if the statement is a little trashy, then that’s okay to me,” she concedes.
Though Young claims to be a fashion neophyte, there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. She made her TRL debut in a purple Hussein Chalayan dress and Valentino slingbacks, and her requests for this photo shoot read like a veteran fashionista’s wish list, straight from the spring runways: “Clothing: Dior, Hussein Chalayan, Alexander Wang, Topshop stuff (not Kate Moss’s line), Etro, Chloé (footwear and clothing), Balenciaga (knee-high gladiator sandals in black and white), Gracie by Alice McCall (Australian designer), Miu Miu…. Shoes: Christian Louboutin, Chloé, Pierre Hardy, Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent star heels.”
While a girl can certainly get a decent amount of mileage out of her beauty and fashion sense in the entertainment industry, Young has genuine good-natured charisma working for her as well. When, due to time constraints, lots of luggage and lack of a better option, the postshoot interview is moved to a Dunkin’ Donuts on Manhattan’s East 14th Street, she takes it in stride. “Are you a York Peppermint Pattie shake girl or a Reese’s shake girl?” she asks, grabbing the tape recorder and launching into faux-reporter mode as a noisy blender interrupts the conversation. “It looks like those are $1.99…and I want one now. Okay, back to you.”
Music, looks, personality—it’s a package deal that apparently has big network appeal. When asked how her MTV meeting went during a follow-up phone call a few days later, Young is all good news: “Oh, MTV! Let me tell you what these people told me. They want to give me my own show. I’m not kidding!” She notes that nothing’s set in stone, and details have yet to be worked out, but in other words, she seems to have nailed it.