For 24-year-old singer and rapper Coi Leray, the stakes had never been higher.
This summer, she was named to XXL magazine’s annual “Freshman Class” list, a coveted honor for rookie MCs (past Freshmen include superstars Travis Scott, Kendrick Lamar and Megan Thee Stallion). To promote the issue, the honorees traditionally join to videotape what’s known as the Freshman Cypher, a showcase and test of their freestyle skills. In a foursome with fellow Freshmen DDG, Lakeyah and Morray, Leray got the clean-up spot. In a ramshackle 40 seconds of mike time, she dropped a couple of tame quips — “Watch us all lit / Watch us all get richer” — then ended her abbreviated verse with an impromptu twerk.
The booty pop, if anything, made for a Cypher that was hard to forget. (The video received more than 5 million views on YouTube, making it the most-watched XXL Freshman clip this year.) But online commenters pushed back with the cartoonish fury of a thousand Comic Book Guys, offended by her cheeky indifference. “Coi Leray must be stopped!” wrote YouTuber No Life Shaq. “It’s all going down in flames,” read the comments. “Worst freestyle ever.”
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Inside Republic Studios in Century City, Leray is dressed less like a supervillain and more like a Powerpuff Girl in a baby pink Saint Jhn sweatsuit and matching Jeremy Scott Adidas sneakers topped with plush teddy bears. She has spent the better part of the summer in this studio, knocking out songs for a debut album that’s due in late fall. For now, she sits serenely at a baby grand piano, feeling out the notes to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”
“I know I’m not the best freestyler, because I don’t freestyle,” Leray says, adjusting her pink beanie over the baby hairs that frame her face. “There are plenty of people that can freestyle, but they can’t get in the studio and make a hit record.
With apologies to No Life Shaq, Leray has earned her bragging rights. After her 2018 breakout song “Huddy” got traction on Soundcloud and TikTok, Leray signed a deal with Republic Records in 2019. She released “No More Parties” in January 2021. The seething, R&B-tinged treatise on fake friends peaked at No. 26 on the Billboard Hot 100. The remix featuring Lil Durk dropped a month later and by the spring, it went platinum. Leray quickly followed with the Pooh Shiesty-assisted track, “Big Purr (Prrdd),” which reached No. 69, and is now up for a City Girls remix.
“The Freshman list is important — it’s this moment people spend their careers waiting for,” acknowledges Leray. “But even if I didn’t make that list, I would have been fine. I’d just be sitting on a different list of people who didn’t make the Freshman list, like Drake, Lil Baby, Young Thug, A.S.A.P. Rocky.”
“You have to be a multi-hyphenate these days to rise to the top, and Coi Leray embodies that,” says Georgette Cline, editorial site director at XXL. “She raps, she thrives with the melody, is an entertaining songwriter, dances, and leans all the way into social media. Instead of being angry at becoming a viral moment, she used it to her advantage and now performs that same freestyle verse at her shows, throwing it right back at the people who hated on her.”
“I swear, people keep notifications on me just so they can hate on my performance, my body, my braces,” she says, giving an eye roll to critics of her recent appearance at the Rolling Loud festival in Miami. “But it all works perfectly with my promo plan,” she adds, flashing a glittery, impish smile. “Run the views up!”
Swinging between a childlike, bubblegum warble on songs like “Big Purr (Prrdd)” and a deeper, tomboyish bravado on “Huddy” and “Rick Owens,” Leray stirs mischief and chaos into the genre, toying with new voices and personae from song to song.
“I wanna challenge myself,” she says. Citing inspiration from Lady Gaga, Avril Lavigne and Doja Cat, she says of her new material, “I wouldn’t mind being a pop girl.” Still, Leray resists comparisons to other female performers, pop or hip-hop. “I’m so confident in who I am that I don’t look at nobody as competition. I could be in a room with anybody and [not] feel like they’re overshadowing me. I write my own music. I’m not a hundred percent where I want to be, but I’ve gotten better because I’m growing up.”
Leray was born in Boston and raised in Hackensack, N.J. She declines to publicly identify her mom, whom she describes as “ride-or-die.” On the other hand, Leray’s father is a familiar name to ‘90s hip-hop heads: Raymond “Benzino” Scott, the rapper, producer and former co-owner of storied hip-hop magazine The Source.
“I was a baby around the time my dad founded the magazine, so I didn’t understand what was going on,” explains Leray, vaguely nodding to her father’s notorious feuds with Eminem and Russell Simmons, as well as a gender discrimination lawsuit in which he was named a defendant. “By the time I was old enough to understand, my mom and dad were splitting up. I’m the only girl [out of five children], so I stayed with my mom.”
The subject of her father is a delicate one, albeit something that she has not shied away from in her music. On “No More Parties,” she professes: “My daddy let me down / but I promise you I won’t let up.” Benzino, hardly one to walk away from a fight, swapped barbs with his daughter over Instagram; the two eventually made peace. She seeks to further unpack their relationship in an upcoming episode of her documentary series, “The Life of Coi Leray,” to be released ahead of her album.
“One thing my dad taught us was morals and respect,” says Leray. “He was strict with me because I was the only girl — that’s why I grew up wearing baggy clothes. He didn’t like me wearing tight jeans. We may both be artists, but we didn’t have that daddy-daughter bond when I was growing up. Now we’re at a point where we can sit down, have conversations, and continue to build our relationship as adults.
“There’s still a lot I don’t know about him, and a lot of things he does that I don’t agree with,” she says. “I’m pretty sure he feels the same about me.”
If Leray inherited anything from her father, it’s a relentless, entrepreneurial spirit. As a teenager, Leray worked an assortment of jobs, from food service to marketing, to help provide for her family. She dropped out of high school in 10th grade to concentrate on her music career; she was later awarded an honorary diploma by Montclair High in New Jersey.
“Besides the music, I got so many other things on my list that need to get done,” she says excitedly, tapping the toes of her teddy bear sneakers. “I invented a baby hair brush. I want to open an aquarium in New Jersey. I want to buy my mom a car. She’s such a good woman, I want to make it so she won’t ever have to work again.”
Leray now resides between various studios and her new home tucked away in the hills of Los Angeles. As blithely as she writes off negative online comments, she stays wary of real-life lurkers; after a strange car recently followed her into her neighborhood, she says she invests thousands of dollars a month in security, and apart from her new beau, Toronto rapper Pressa, she keeps her social circle airtight. As she sings on a recent single, “At the top it get lonely / f— what they all say ‘cause they don’t know me.”
“I have all this because I’m doing myself,” she says. “If I did what everyone else did, I would get swept under the rug.
“I’m a star,” she concludes, “and I’m here forever.”
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