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With 'Gucci On My Body,' Baby Ariel Is Ready to Jump From Musical.ly Stardom to Mainstream Pop Success

Baby Ariel
Courtesy of Baby A Records

Baby Ariel

At the moment, Ariel Martin can’t remember the title of the first song she ever lip-synched to on Musical.ly, the video app she joined in 2015 and on which she still commands 29.1 million followers under the name Baby Ariel. 

But she can rap it.

“I graduate with honors, I ball, 'Nead O'Connor, I did a freestyle, then I got a shout-out from Obama,” blurts the 17-year-old social-media influencer and emerging pop singer, bopping in her seat at Billboard’s offices on a chilly October morning. She’s wearing jeans and a baby-blue crewneck from her own merch line, her wide green eyes lined with glittery pink shadow. She’ll later identify the track as her idol Nicki Minaj’s 2012 cut “I’m Legit.” But at the moment, the video that paved the way for internet fame “feels like so long ago.”

Who can blame her? Three years after she signed up for Musical.ly, Martin (whose first name is pronounced like the letters R-E-L) has successfully spun her fanbase on the platform into her own legit mini-empire, which now includes a book, a starring role in the Nickelodeon TV film Bixler High Private Eye and, recently, a budding music career. She made her singing debut in 2017 with the heart-eyed “Aww” and released the finger-snapping pop jam “Perf” this past January. But it’s her third solo release — the lip-glossed, infectiously joyous “Gucci On My Body,” released in June — that has her primed for mainstream crossover.

Not bad for a graduate of an app where not singing was the whole point.

Martin was bored at her grandparents’ home just north of Miami during one of South Florida’s frequent floods when she first discovered Musical.ly, on which users (or “Musers”) upload 15-second videos lip-synching to song snippets available on the app. (Musical.ly was absorbed by video app TikTok in August, though Martin still posts to the merged platform.) She chose @BabyAriel as her username on a whim, assuming she’d change it later, and jumped into experimenting with the app’s video filters and special effects. 

“I took them so seriously. For each song, I would sit there for a good hour, figuring out, ‘Okay, what hand motion can I do with this lyric?,’” Martin remembers, making a heart-shape with her fingers. Musical.ly rewarded exaggeration — expressive faces, big gestures and comic timing all made for better videos — and in person, Martin’s just as animated. She talks and moves her hands so fast that it’s almost fitting she turned herself into a literal cartoon character on the single artwork for “Gucci On My Body.” “In my head, that [15 seconds] was like, the world,” she continues. “I got home from school, and it was just what I did.”

Performing came naturally to Martin, whose father is a musician and whose mother is a theater actress. She grew up taking piano and singing lessons, watching cult film classics like Fight Club and Primal Fear and spending hours kneeling over play scripts with her brother, perfecting monologues. Once Musical.ly came into the picture, Martin estimates that she once spent up to four hours per day making videos after school. “It’s weird how much time I put into this,” she says, looking back with a giggle at her father, who sits in on our interview with his hands clasped in an office chair, periodically offering nods that seem to say you're doing great.

Before long, Martin was getting recognized in public — and garnering hundreds of comments on each of her videos. They weren’t always nice: ““You’re ugly, you suck, you’re fat,” Martin rattles off. “Going on social media can be dangerous when you’re not fully confident, and I wasn’t.” But by learning to tune out trolls so early, she says she gained the thick skin needed to break big. At 15, she was named the platform’s top Muser with 13.6 million followers, earning her a spot on a Musical.ly-themed Billboard cover in 2016. The same year, she signed with Creative Artists Agency, and since then, she's graced TIME’s “30 Most Influential People on the Internet” list alongside DJ Khaled and Kim Kardashian and launched collaborations with Nordstrom and Sour Patch Kids.

While she maintains that she never joined the app searching for fame, somewhere along the way, her branding savvy kicked in. “I came to the realization of, “Okay, I can build off of this,’” she says. “Let me build this platform while I, behind-the-scenes, get ready for the day that I want to release music.” In between posts, she continued taking singing lessons and began working with writers like Dernst Emile, who contributed to Justin Bieber’s debut EP and later co-wrote “Perf.” She also found inspiration in the career of Shawn Mendes, who similarly got his start online with the now-defunct video service Vine: “It’s great to see someone make that transition.”

Her planning paid off. “Aww” has logged 8.7 million Spotify streams since its release 10 months ago, and its puppy-filled music video has drawn 46 million YouTube views. Follow-up “Perf” kept the momentum going with a whistled beat and Gen Z-friendly lyrics (“Already an all-star/ Like your Uber rating”), earning more than 5 million Spotify plays. And this year, she also dropped the brooding single “Say It” with RCA Records signee and fellow Musical.ly alum Daniel Skye.

Of course, a major chunk of those plays likely come from Martin’s Musical.ly-born fan club, which includes 9 million Instagram followers. But “Gucci On My Body,” her most adult-friendly solo single to date, seems to have a chance at breaking past the social-media bubble.

With its sticky hook, half-rapped flow and bubbly keyboard blips, the track about how material things can’t replace love is a technicolor daydream, a PG version of — speaking of Nicki — Minaj’s own sugar-coated turn in Young Money’s 2012 hit “BedRock.” And while it doesn’t quite yet have the numbers of its predecessors — it has almost 2 million streams on Spotify and 5.8 million lyric video views on YouTube — it is reaching new listeners via appearances on Spotify playlists like Popjustice’s influential New Music Friday edit (“‘Gucci On My Body’ is like Charli XCX from another dimension,” the site wrote) and the streaming service's own Pop Sauce (where the song sits among tracks from the likes of Sabrina Carpenter and Madison Beer). “That song is really about the behind-the-scenes of my life,” Martin says. “It’s a play on words — I can have all of these nice things, I can have Gucci on my body, but in my head, it’s this person that’s on my mind.”

Now splitting her time between a rented home in Los Angeles and her parents’ place in South Florida, Martin promises several more singles in the works that are “more raw and real,” inspired by musical truth-tellers like Billie Eilish and SZA. (“I like her honesty, and how she tells it how it is,” she says of the latter.) While her releases have so far revolved around her teenage crushes, her upcoming singles will explore the challenges of being a young person living much of your life online. “Kids now are getting phones earlier and earlier,” she says. “Putting stuff out there when you’re not quite sure what you’re putting out is a very scary thing.” 

But Martin’s been there before, and now that she’s gone through the social-media wringer herself — and emerged quite successfully — she wants to share what she’s learned. “I want to be like a big sister to them, and a best friend,” she continues, reaching her arms across the table. “The cool thing is, I’ll meet some of my fans, and they say they’ve grown up with me.”

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