"They had moved to North Hollywood, and I lived really close, so I was hanging out with them every day. They make music like every day and I would watch them do their thing, we would write certain songs sometimes. And, I always say this in every interview, but the collaboration thing was never something that anybody thought would happen. It just happened." Beatty is featured on two of Brockhampton's most beloved tracks, joining Abstract on the chorus of Saturation II's "Queer" and serving a sweet solo falsetto hook on "Bleach" off Saturation III. Last summer he also joined the group, along with Jazmine Sullivan and serpentwithfeet, to perform "Tonya" on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
What Ryan and Brockhampton appear to share is a dedication to unfettered artistic honesty. Multiple times in our hour-long conversation, Beatty reiterates his aversion to contrivance, calculation, and strategy—the very qualities key to the teen scene he was once a part of. He's become, in his words, "very particular" about all of his creative choices. "All of the details are important," he says, citing one of the reasons he waited seven months after Boy In Jeans' release to play the songs live. "There was a moment where I considered not playing live shows for this album, because I wanted to work on the next thing," he explains. "And that became overwhelming in its own way. But then just one day I woke up and I wanted to do it. Also, for a second, the idea of putting on a show scared me, because I knew that it was gonna put a lot of pressure on me to make it as great as I wanted it to be. And it wasn't until we started rehearsing and stuff that I was like, 'You know what? These songs are great. I'm gonna have fun performing them.' And I know that the people coming to see these songs, they're just gonna want to see these songs be performed. It doesn't always have to be this huge spectacle."
The visuals for the live show—including that inspired "Aphex Twink" tag—are the work of another frequent Brockhampton affiliate, visual artist Miloš Mihajlov, who also directed music videos for 10 tracks from Boy In Jeans, which Beatty released weekly from last summer into the fall. Making them was something of an endurance test, shooting and editing every day. "We shot every video in two weeks," he explains. "We shot 'God In Jeans' and 'Camo' in the same day. It was me and four other, like, 20-year olds. I swear I blacked out for those two weeks, because we worked so hard."
Working on a tight budget, the concepts were kept basic, but varied, as were the locations—wrestling in the desert in "God In Jeans," wandering L.A.'s Koreatown in "Pink Floyd," buried in beach sand up to his shoulders in "Flash," dancing in an artist's studio in "Powerslide" and in the back of a moving truck in "Camo." They're alternately sexy, wistful and celebratory. Most feature Beatty playing to camera; some include Andrew, a swarthy friend of Mihajlov, in settings that straddle the playful and erotic; and they all communicate the image of a new Ryan Beatty. "I knew I wanted to keep the concepts simple, but also keep it beautiful," he says. "I also think this record feels very real life to me, and so I wanted to keep that in the visuals. The way that they're shot—it just feels right with the song for me. There's this grittiness to it that translates well."
Abstract took the directorial reins on "Bruise," the first video from the record, released last spring. With Beatty goofily skating on a suburban street, it could pass for a Brockhampton video, while the song itself garnered attention for its remembrance of going to a dance with a high school girlfriend -- and ending up in the bathroom making out with a boy. "I knew that I wanted to put that one out first," he says. "Just because of the story that it tells and that it just felt right to put it out first. Everything that I write definitely comes from a real place. But it's also beautiful to make something that's so personal that other people can then take and make it personal for them too."
Equally personal is the quietly poetic "Cupid," one of the few album tracks without a video, partly because it is already so visual, but a huge fan favorite. The song sweetly evokes a nighttime hookup on the baseball field with a guy who's got a girl: "Drawing hearts on my skin / With our initials in it / Ain't it nice out here, on the baseball field, when we're alone? / Press your lips against my neck / With me you don't pretend like with you're with your girlfriend / She's nice but she's not me." It's resonates, achingly—a more common scenario than many a closeted guy would care to admit. "That song is very special to me," he says. "And I didn't I didn't want to put something out just to put it out. I wanted the video to have as much substance as the song did, and I found that difficult."
This is all creatively light years away from the Ryan Beatty who emerged in 2012. It was a first chapter that many young artists might consider a dream gig, but slowly unfolded for Beatty as something of a nightmare. Inspired YouTube covers led to a debut EP, Because of You, that entered the iTunes Pop Album Chart at No. 1, a manager and an indie record deal. His parents relocated from Fresno to suburban L.A. to allow him to pursue his career (a sacrifice he shouts out on Boy In Jeans' "Pink Floyd"). There were videos, premieres with Radio Disney, Ryan Seacrest and Entertainment Weekly, a support slot on Cody Simpson's 2013 tour, and a second, self-titled EP. But increasingly, Beatty was miserable—surrounded by people who thought they knew what was best for him.