Kenzo B first got her start in an energetic, ultra-competitive battle rap arena, deep in the belly of the south Bronx. It was a place where only the brave survive — surrounded by opponents, the only thing she could do was send lyrical jabs all around. The venue? Her family’s living room. “I was like seven or eight,” the 19-year-old drill rapper recalls with a laugh. The competition came from her brothers, the eldest of whom was already dabbling in music and wanted his siblings in on the action. “My brothers had me watching battle rap, and before one of them would go battle, he would practice his rhymes on me,” she says. “Then we would battle each other. That’s why I rap the way I rap. In my house, being able to freestyle was a flex.”
This spirit of friendly competition dates back to hip-hop’s beginnings—50 years ago, right there in the south Bronx. When Kool Herc and his contemporaries were codifying the art form, some of the earliest MCs, DJs, and especially breakdancers were rocking PUMAs. In the same way that Kenzo is refitting that competitive ethos for a new era, PUMA Classics have endured for decades, looking as fresh today as when the pieces of cardboard first came to constitute a challenge.
Although she’s still a teenager, Kenzo — born Te'arah Gaines — has the soul of a veteran emcee. She rhymes from the gut, known for her throaty, brolic, and quick-witted bars. Incorporating elements of trap, boom-bap and gangster rap, her songs have made her a distinctive figure in Bronx drill. She began rapping at 13 and, six years later, is recognized as one of the scene’s most promising new lights.
Eventually, Kenzo’s brother urged her to pick up the pen herself and bring something more to the table, but she didn’t think anything of it. “I tried writing one day as a joke,” Kenzo says. “And from there—because I loved to do it—I just kept doing it.” Her first song was about a bowl of cereal, to the tune of Drake’s “Started From the Bottom.” She still remembers her bars: “I was like, ‘Hangin’ with my sis and bros, drinkin’ all this milk / eatin’ bowls of cereal, dancin’ ‘cause we kilt.’”
Kenzo’s mother saw the foundations of stardom being laid, and started saving up money to fund her kids’ studio time. Kenzo knew her time in the booth was limited, so she prepared all of her rhymes beforehand, in order to best duke it out on tape with her brothers. By the time she was 13, Kenzo and her siblings had filmed their first music video. “Then, basically, we posted it on YouTube,” she explains. “And it really didn't get a lot of views, but back then — for what it was — it was a reasonable amount.”
Befitting someone who had such an unconventional upbringing, Kenzo is cut from a far different cloth than the other New York drill rappers of her ilk. Her 2022 breakout “Bump It” uses a sample from 1962 surf rock anthem “Miserlou”; Kenzo expertly rides the beat, delivering barb after barb: “Top 5 real bitch don’t @ me / Fuck all thе talkin’ just send me the addy / If shе chattin’, I'm beatin’ her badly / Flatten her out, turn that bitch to a patty.” In the same way the iconic PUMA Classic line has a pedigree that would make them must-haves across history while feeling uniquely of-the-moment, Kenzo obviously has the chops to thrive in any era of New York hip-hop.
“Bump It” was actually Kenzo’s first real attempt to formally release music; with the exception of her cereal-themed bars, it was technically the second song she ever wrote. The first was a response to a boy who dissed her brother in a song, and pulled Kenzo into it for good measure. She wasn’t having it. “I was like, I’m just gonna come back at him,” she explains. “So I wrote this thing real quick, I put my phone up, and I’m just recording on my phone, spittin’.” It’s reminiscent of the early days of hip-hop, back when girls like Roxanne Shanté and MC Lyte were thrown into the fire as collateral damage for someone else’s war and barked back with a vengeance. “I posted it on Instagram, and it went a little crazy,” she says. The buzz only fueled her desire to keep going. That’s when she wrote “Bump It”. She sat on it for a month, “and then one day in December 2021, something told me, ‘Today’s the day to make a Triller.’”
In the Triller for “Bump It,” Kenzo dons a ski mask, a Nike hoodie, and some Ugg boots, hardbody bullying the camera lens as she unleashes her menacing bars. “The significant thing about my Triller was that I had on a ski mask, so for females that was like a big thing,” she says. “They see me and they’re like, ‘She from the Bronx, she from the hood and she got on a ski mask?’ Like people started getting anxious like, ‘Who is that?’”
Within a month, her social media had jumped from 1000 followers to 10k; the number kept rising from there. By summer 2022, Kenzo had inked a deal with Warner, via French Montana’s Coke Boys imprint. In the past eight months, she’s been prolific, releasing her critically acclaimed Top Dawg EP and guesting on DJ Drama and French Montana’s Coke Boys 6 track “Gang Gang.” Her latest single, “DeadGame,” is another step forward: she ricochets across the stuttering beat and snaps through the track. It’s not just a song — it’s a threat to anyone underestimating her, hating on her, or trying to occupy the same lane as her. The most remarkable aspect of the track is Kenzo’s unorthodox rhyme pattern, which somehow fits the beat like a glove: “Stop the act for the net, all you bitches ain’t what y’all be claimin’ to be / Ya bitches know I was made for the streets / Them lil bitches gon’ die all like spinning on feet / That bitch a lil’ body I'll put her to sleep / I don't need a knocka, bet her ass getting beat / Got the scalp when I see her, I hope she got energy, I’m tryna fix up her teeth.”
The Notes app on Kenzo’s phone is filled with rhymes, organized in order with different folders and tabs. She flashes the screen towards me eagerly, excited to show just how many songs she has waiting to be recorded. Kenzo has been going hard for the past year — although, if you ask her, she hasn’t been productive enough — but feels that she’s still learning the ropes of major-label life. “I knew the process of making music, but I didn't know the process of being a signed artist,” she explains. “Having to do stuff by the books… like, EPs come before an album, mixtapes come after the EP. Stuff like that. I’m still learning.”
Learning is fine: Kenzo is on the edge of 20, and it’s obvious that she’s playing the long game. “I feel like I can see myself in two ways,” she says matter-of-factly. “I can see myself using music to brand myself into something way bigger than music or I can see myself as someone whose life revolves around music.” She pauses. “I can also be someone who is known for music now, but then you meet me in 20 more years, and you have to be one of my big supporters to know I used to be drill rappin’. Maybe I’m owning my own label at that point, and I don’t wanna make music anymore.”
Adapting to change is one of hip-hop’s core tenets, and the CA Pro is just another instance in which PUMA has endured despite the shifting sands and trends that rise and fall. Easily adapted to any outfit, they complete—or define—looks that would be right at home in ‘78 or ones from some distant, alluring future.
Right now, though, Kenzo has big plans for her next tracks. “I want to make music speaking on some real-life shit,” she says. “There’s movies and there’s documentaries. Documentaries are more real and informative — I’m trying to make some shit like that.”