There’s something beautifully defiant about Coi Leray’s spirit. Despite having the world obsessed with–and critiquing–her every move, the 24-year-old artist still embraces authenticity and much as she does creativity. Her debut studio album, Trendsetter, was released earlier this month and not only is it aptly titled but it shows the dynamism of Leray’s evolution. On the blistering opening track, “Hollywood Dreams,” she boldly states: “He asked me who I’m living for–I looked him in his eyes and I told him for me.” It’s as if the emcee, who has gone viral for more lighthearted tracks like “TWINNEM” and the Nicki Minaj-assisted “Blick Blick,” is telling naysayers it is and always has been the Coi Leray show–and they should simply feel honored to watch.

“Throughout my career, people have always shared their opinions about me, how they feel and what they think,” Leray tells ESSENCE. “I’m glad to remind people that I do it for myself and I’m living for myself…I love myself more than anybody and that I will put myself first.” That message is powerful coming from a young Black woman who sonically and aesthetically goes against the grain. From her signature braids to showing off her naturally petite frame, she serves as a source of pride for supporters. Leray is aware of the pressure placed on her yet insists it only makes her more resilient.

“I’ve always been versatile and I love music. But sometimes–in this day and age–I feel like people go based off of what they’re used to. As a female artist and not being a hundred percent sex symbol, sometimes you have to put in a little bit more work for people to really see and hear you. I just applied pressure and made sure that people heard and saw me and did it with confidence. The fans appreciate it.”

Said pressure can be heard throughout Trendsetter, where Leray explores topics like the codependency of a romantic relationship (“Clingy” featuring NAV) and her own struggles with mental health (“Anxiety”). Though this level of transparency can be uncomfortable for certain artists to execute, she believes it’s necessary to connect with listeners.

“Everything I write about is through experience. I don’t wanna sugarcoat it in no way. Behind Instagram, social media and TikTok, we go through real life situations that people don’t like to touch on. I like to touch on it because I like to show people there’s more to life than Birkin bags and Lamborghini cars, you know…who’s got the most streams in the world, who’s number one. Sometimes it’s okay to just chill, talk about some issues, vent…it’s okay to cry. My music is powerful so I wanna just show more.” And with Leray’s online presence, which boasts over 23 million followers, that power can be subjected to unprecedented amounts of hate.

From the backlash she’s received over live performances, award nominations and comparisons to other Black women entertainers, she routinely finds herself in the crossfire of controversy. At one point, it became too much for Leray who earlier this year took a break from social media altogether. Now she’s back and stronger than ever but knows that ignoring the negativity is a strategy worth sticking to. “This is what it is: I don’t want people to bring me out of my character for them. I don’t wanna be looked at as a bad person cause I can make people f-cking hate me. Just because you’re miserable and mad and everybody hates you wanna make me miserable and mad so they can hate me? F-ck that. A big part of the frustration is wanting to express yourself in a certain way but you can’t. So you just gotta put it all in music, sit back, charge it to the game and just come 10 times harder like I did with “Blick Blick.” There’s great, amazing things you get from the internet but also it can destroy you. So I tend to block it out.”

Leray initially blocked out the body shaming she had been subjected to, which ignited with her appearance at the 2021 BET Awards. The rapper has been reclaiming her narrative, embracing her size and maintaining the self-awareness she has become known for. “I wish it didn’t get this bad with the whole body shaming thing–I think it’s so pathetic. Yeah, I weigh like 110 pounds. I’m mad small. I’ve always been little. Is it by choice? No, this is just how God made me. If I had an option to make this ass 20 times bigger of course I would–who wouldn’t want a fat ass? I’ve never met a girl who said she wants a pancake in my life…like ever. But this is what God gave me. So what am I gonna do? Are you him?”

That kind of self-assurance is what Leray hopes people will take as the overarching theme on her latest project. “I want the listeners to become trendsetters. Hopefully, everyone in the industry can come together and take away a lot of competition, even though hip hop is competition. If people can understand that everyone can contribute to this industry, then it might limit the animosity and tension and shit that comes with it. Everyone has something in them. What you have in you and what you were made for–that’s the trend. You just have to find it.”