Well past noon on a sweltering Wednesday, Rae Sremmurd’s rented Encino, Calif., home is still. A large breakfast takeout order remains mostly untouched on the dining room table. Empty Hennessy bottles line one side of the kitchen sink, while on the other, fresh pineapples wait to be hurled from the stage, one of the group’s trademarks. Eventually, Swae Lee, 23, and his brother, Slim Jxmmi -(pronounced “Jimmy”), 24, emerge from within the house, their eyes sleepy from morning weed-smoking sessions and their demeanors polite, in keeping with their Mississippi upbringing.
Rae Sremmurd — Puma’s latest brand ambassador and hip-hop’s leading party-starter since 2014, when “No Flex Zone” reached No. 36 on the Billboard Hot 100 — was also raised with an instinct for practicality. Or so Jxmmi’s attitude toward dressing fashionably suggests: “I’m a straight country boy,” he says, sinking back into a sofa. “I put the Balmains on Monday, I’m going to wear them till the next Monday. They cost $500 — they was meant to be worn!”
“That’s how you know you fresh,” adds Swae. “Save on water — don’t have to wash so much.”
They may not be fitted in hat-to-loafer designer pieces like Future or dripping in futuristic rags like Kanye West, but, today at least, Rae Sremmurd is sporting a more mature look than the flight goggles and cotton candy-colored furs the pair is known for: slim pants in sensible material and a T-shirt for Jxmmi, accented with flowery Gucci slides, and a white tank top for Swae, paired with a Gucci lion belt buckle. “One day I’ll be wearing vintage, looking Will Smith,” says Swae. “But I might just come one day in YSL boots and a D&G shirt. Whatever feels good.”
Meanwhile, though it may be hard to imagine the chanting, cartoon-voiced proteges of producer Mike Will Made It attaining anything like a grown-man sound, they have taken a big step in that direction with second album SremmLife 2, which debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 in September. Coolly sophisticated songs like “Do Yoga” and “Black Beatles” suggest the party is not over — it just moved to the penthouse. Along with Swae’s writing credit this year on the highest-debuting single of Beyoncé’s career, “Formation,” it should hush the rap purists who dismissed the brothers’ music as junk food. “People were saying, ‘Oh, they only make party music,’ ” says Swae. “So we gave them this to show them we can do everything.”
Because their mother was in the army, Jxmmi and Swae (born Aaquil and Khalif Brown, respectively) lived all over before settling in Tupelo, Miss. They brought the dance style known as jigging with them from a stint in Texas, and choreographed routines as Dem Outta St8 Boyz. While Swae was “cool with everybody,” Jxmmi says he was introverted. Still, he burst to life when it came to music. In sixth grade, he picked up the baritone saxophone, joined the marching band and learned to read music. He says it kept him out of trouble, and both boys excelled in school. They worked restaurant jobs and never smoked or drank until they were 18. Jxmmi even enrolled in college.
Still, their drive ultimately meant disobeying their mother to play gigs in other cities, and they finally left home to live in an abandoned house. It had electricity, so they could cook, but no heat. “I had to deal with a lot of shit, and I didn’t let it stop me,” says Jxmmi. Their success, he adds, “sounds like a fairy tale. It is a fairy tale.” According to Swae: “We never put our heads down like, ‘Who can we turn to?’ ”
If Rae Sremmurd wanted to answer its critics by making “lyrical” rap full of hard-knock stories, it could have. But the duo chose optimism. “It even says in the Bible [that] what you say is what you bring onto you in your life. We’re talking about positive stuff or things we want. Not, ‘Oh, I’m the hardest out, bang bang,’ ” says Jxmmi. “Nobody expecting guns — they just expect to have a good time and see girls shaking their butts.”
A performance in Memphis led the brothers to BET’s amateur competition Wild-Out Wednesday, which snagged them label meetings in New York. Eventually, they met Mike Will in Atlanta and he signed them to his imprint, Ear Drummers, in early 2014. Since then, even naysayers, like WQHT (Hot 97) New York morning-show co-host Ebro Darden, can’t deny they have been on a winning streak. “A lot of artists are scared to say, ‘I like to do regular stuff,’ ” says Jxmmi. “They want to be hard, be the alpha male. Not us. We just want to have a good life.”
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 17 issue of Billboard. Along with Rae Sremmurd and Sofia Richie, St. Vincent and Marc Jacobs are featured on a separate Billboard Style Issue cover for the Sept. 17 issue.