Saweetie On Her 'ICY GRL' Breakout & Plans For 2019: 'If Your Music Isn't Timeless, It's Going To Be Forgotten'
She tells Billboard about her personal highlights from 2018
As 2018 winds down, Billboard is asking some of the artists who helped define the year in music to look back on their accomplishments, favorite memories and pop-culture obsessions from the past 12 months. Check out other interviews with St. Vincent, Anne-Marie, Kali Uchis, Dan + Shay, Swae Lee, Lauv, Old Dominion, Mitski, Sofi Tukker and Jason Isbell.
In her bouncy motivational hit "ICY GRL," Bay Area rapper Saweetie spits confident rhymes about sipping Hennessy on the beach and "stacking paper steadily so I can live in luxury." But the 25-year-old artist, born Diamonté Harper, admits she wrote the song "in a room with just a mattress in it."
"There was a moment where I didn't really have anything," she remembers. "And the only option was for me to either mope, which I don't like doing, or to be aspirational."
Today, those aspirations are looking more like realities. After an Instagram clip of Saweetie freestyling the song went viral late last year, she signed to Warner Bros. Records in February, and the studio version of the track has since raked in more than 126 million streams across all platforms. During the rest of her jam-packed 2018, Saweetie released her debut EP, High Maintenance (in partnership with her very own label, ICY); appeared on projects with David Guetta, London On Da Track and Kehlani (who added her own spin to an "ICY GRL" remix); and even starred in an ad for Rihanna's Fenty Beauty.
The morning after her third Rolling Loud set, Saweetie tells Billboard about her proudest moments of 2018, why she insisted on going to college and her plans for the new year.
First off, we have to talk about your outfit at Rolling Loud. Where did you find those skirts?
I go on Pinterest a lot for inspiration. There was this scene from a really old movie -- I'm not even sure what it's from -- but the girl who was actually wearing [the skirt had it in] a satin blue, and she had white fur around it.
I was like, "Oh my gosh, that reminds me of Mean Girls." I requested red with white fur, but then Ariana Grande came out with "thank u, next." So I was like, "Let me just do a dope, crazy color." I changed it to hot pink. I think it really added to the performance. I'm finally getting the [hang of] what works for what type of event and what colors stand out. What people didn't know is that we had to fix those skirts an hour before we arrived because they were too long. [Laughs] So it was a mess, but it ended up working out.
You first got into music at age 14. What made you want to be a rapper?
Around the time that I was in high school, a lot of rappers were coming out with mixtapes of them rapping over other people's instrumentals, specifically Young Money. I thought it was so fly and dope what they were doing. I was already writing poetry, so I transitioned from writing poetry a cappella to writing over beats, and it was way more exciting to me that way. You know when you're a kid and you're like, "I want to be this," and then a couple weeks later it's something else? Me wanting to be an artist never really faded away. I knew that no matter what else I tried to pursue, my passion was always that. I didn't record until I was probably 18. Not growing up in a L.A. or New York, you're just thinking, How the hell am I going to push through this game? But eventually time went on, social media came about, and that's what I started using to put my music out there.
What motivated you to start posting freestyles from your car on Instagram?
I couldn't afford studio time. I had turned down hospital job offers, and I was like, You keep not wanting to work anywhere else, so you need to go 100 percent for what you want to do. And since you don't have a studio, how else are you going to get your music out? Recording in the car and posting the videos online.
You now have more than 1.5 million Instagram followers. How have you adjusted to social media fame?
I’m not used to getting weird comments. You have people sending you paragraphs about your work, and it’s just like… [Laughs] I read my comments. People would tell you not to, but I like interacting with fans. Besides that, I don’t go to blogs. From time to time, I see people just say off-the-wall shit, and instead of popping off back online, I just put it in a song.
It can be tempting for aspiring artists to forego the traditional college route and do music full-time, but you were determined to get your communications and business degree at USC. Why?
I made a promise to myself. I was like, my dream school is USC, and if I can get a degree from USC, nobody can tell me shit. They have the number one communications school in the country, and that's my major. I was like, if I apply to USC and get in, that's a sign that I need to stay in college and finish it. If I don't get in, I'm going to drop out of school and move to L.A. to pursue music. So I applied. If you get denied, you get an envelope, but if you get in, you get a really big welcome package. Every time I checked the mail, there was no package, so my heart would be beating. Time has passed, and I finally get a packet. That was a sign to stay in school. And I'm glad I did, because it really taught me how to be an adult and have a balanced lifestyle.
What did you write your admissions essay about?
I attended a football game at USC, but I didn't go to the school yet, and I just explained how the atmosphere made me want to be a Trojan and how I felt like I was already one. It was a really personal essay. The point of the admissions [process] isn't to sound smart -- it's to sound like a human and make that emotional connection with whoever is reading it. You only have 300 to 500 words to make them feel like they know you. It's so stressful, girl!
You put out your debut EP, High Maintenance, early this year. What's the story behind that title?
High maintenance means a lot of care. My relationships are high maintenance, my body is high maintenance, and my soul is high maintenance. I really care about my friends and my family; I eat good; I pray a lot. So it's like, I really care about my relationships with my family, my friends, my body and my soul.
The EP oozes confidence. Where do you think you get yours from?
There was a moment in time when I didn't have a lot of things. I was renting rooms off of Craigslist. I wrote "ICY GRL" in a room with just a mattress in it. I think when you have nothing, your only option is to be aspirational, because you want better for yourself. I'm the type of person where, though I may be struggling, you're not going to see it, because I know how to put myself together. Some criticism I've received is, "Oh my gosh, she hasn't lived through anything in her life, she's related to so and so and she went to USC." [Saweetie is related to producer Zaytoven and actress Gabrielle Union] Y'all know nothing about me. Just because I'm related to whoever I'm related to doesn't mean I've had doors open to me because of their name. So there was a moment where I didn't really have anything. And the only option was for me to either mope, which I don't like doing, or to be aspirational. I think that attitude has stuck with me since.
Was there a moment this year when you realized, "I've made it"? Did any of the lyrics in "ICY GRL" come true?
I feel like my lyrics always come true. I'm serious. [Laughs] “Put it in my savings and invest in the right companies” -- I’ve made some strategic investments in music, fashion and beauty that I’ll be revealing in 2019. And I'm not in a mansion right now, but I'm definitely living better than what I was living in a year ago, so that was a fulfilling prophecy for me. I was like, "Wow, I need to be careful about what I say, and if I'm saying it, I need to mean it." It's a good thing, though!
Why was it important for you to start your own label, ICY?
I thought it'd be dope for there to be a powerhouse that's ran by a woman. I feel like the powerhouses that have come out before are male-dominated. So I want to in the future establish artists and become an ICY powerhouse. I think that'd be dope.
What was your most proud moment of 2018?
Performing at Oracle Arena [in Oakland for the Aubrey & the Three Migos Tour]. Going back home and receiving love from people in the Bay Area was super exciting for me. It was actually my favorite performance to date. I had so much fun on that stage. I’m very grateful that Migos and Drake brought me out that night. It was really interesting how the stage was set up -- especially with that [the floating part] and the graphics. I was able to get perspective as a fan and perspective as a performer, so it was really dope to get those two insights.
What’s the most memorable fan interaction you had this year?
I remember this girl telling me that after she listened to “B.A.N.,” it gave her the confidence to break up with her boyfriend who she’d been with for eight years, because it just wasn't healthy. I was like, "Wow, the power of music! I’m glad that I was able to help you move on to something that’s better for yourself." When people can connect to my music, I feel like I’ve done my job. When I grew up listening to music, it could make me really happy, make me really want to dance, or help me cope with a difficult time in my life. So if I’m able to help you feel emotionally better, I feel like I did my job.
This year, you also starred in a Fenty Beauty Super Bowl ad. How did that come together?
My friend runs the marketing for Fenty. When "ICY GRL" first came out, she showed them the video, and they thought I'd be a perfect fit for the ad. So "ICY GRL" was the pitch, and they loved it.
Did you get to meet Rihanna?
No, but I'd love to.
Do you think she knows that you give her a shout-out in "B.A.N."?
[Rapping] Ever since I cut you off, my skin glowin' like Rihanna's. Hopefully she does!
If you could travel back in time 11 months, what advice would you give yourself?
To not say yes to everything. It always sounds good, but when you’re actually in a busy day or a busy week, it can get a little stressful. It sounds exciting to be busy and have access to all these events and things you couldn’t do before, but if your body is tired, it’s really hard to do all of those things at once. I haven’t really found a balance yet.
Time for some rapid-fire questions. Favorite city you visited this year?
I always enjoy going to Miami. I like South Beach, staying by the pool all day, eating food.
Whom did you text the most in 2018?
My manager. [Laughs.] There are things constantly going on.
Who’s an artist that you’d invite to a holiday dinner with your family?
I’d invite Kelly Rowland, because I heard she can cook. She could help my grandma out in the kitchen. She’d be perfect at a holiday party.
What’s a song that you couldn't get out of your head this year?
“ICY GRL.” I hear it everywhere. People are always reciting the lyrics to me.
What’s a musical trend you’d like to see go away in 2019?
You know what’s funny? I’ve heard people say they’d like to stop hearing rappers have songs without choruses, and that’s me. [Laughs] Like, “ICY GRL” didn’t have a chorus, “Pissed” didn’t have a chorus. So I’m pretty sure that I’m somebody’s answer.
What are your goals for next year?
Put up a couple No. 1s on Billboard. I want the No. 1 -- I’m gonna have the No. 1 album. And I’d just like to continue to make great music, because I think longevity is completely important. I think a lot of artists get recycled in this day and age, so I’m trying to make sure my music is timeless.
What does it mean to you to be timeless?
There's a weird dynamic going on in the industry, because the fans want so much music constantly being put out. If your music isn't timeless, they're going to seek out the next artist for their music, and your music is going to be forgotten. When you have something timeless, it automatically becomes something in music history. Who wouldn't want to have something that's forever going to be loved and be played, whether it's at a wedding, a party or just in your car? If I can have something like that, I'd feel really accomplished.