"Dua! Ella! Hear ye!” Post Malone beckons up to the second-floor windows. “This is important!”
It’s a warm September afternoon at a rented mansion in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, and Post Malone and his beer-buzzed posse are hanging by the pool while Dua Lipa and Ella Mai change outfits upstairs. The scene is like a cross between Romeo and Juliet and High School Musical, if it were sponsored by Juul and Bud Light. The girls, all business and surrounded by fidgeting stylists, peer down to the huddle of boys and wait impatiently for Post to speak.
“Do you watch Love Island?” he asks, grinning.
It’s a good icebreaker. Lipa and Mai, both Londoners, do in fact watch the British reality dating show, and it provides some common ground for these three very different artists: They admit to bingeing it on international flights, wonder if they’re making an Australian version, and all agree the show is more enlightened than it seems. When one of the boys suggests that “reality TV is wack,” Post Malone quickly corrects him. “No, dude, this one is good,” he says. “It’s all about the concept. Don’t be so quick to judge.”
It’s no surprise that these artists are hooked on this show. The ITV2 hit is about crossing lines and testing limits, and has been praised for planting new ideas about relationships inside a retrograde setting. In some ways, that’s what this group is doing with music, and it’s why they’ve come together to discuss the 61st annual Grammy Awards during an unprecedented moment of change. As three of music’s promising and original young voices -- all, coincidentally, 23 years old -- they’re hopefuls in a variety of categories.
Post Malone -- the heavily tattooed hip-hop crooner born Austin Post and raised in Grapevine, Texas -- is already a superstar. (As such, he’s reportedly not eligible for best new artist.) His second album, beerbongs & bentleys, topped the Billboard 200 in May, setting a first-week streaming record, and he’s had four top 10 Billboard Hot 100 hits, including two No. 1s, “Rockstar” and “Psycho.” Drawn to his melancholy anthems and blurry blend of hip-hop, soul, rock and blues, Kanye West, Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, Tiësto and John Mayer have all collaborated or performed with Post Malone. His approach may not be a comfortable fit for any particular Grammy category -- he was conspicuously absent from last year’s nominations -- but when you ask him about how he should be classified, he just shrugs and smiles. “Call me a rapper, call me whatever you want,” he says, once the three -- instantly chummy, as incongruous a grouping as they may seem -- have gathered around the house’s dining room table. “There’s no genres no more, and I don’t feel tethered to anything.”
The fiercely determined alt-pop darling Dua Lipa, meanwhile, seems to have been born with a plan. After delivering her breakout hit “New Rules,” which was included on her 2017 self-titled debut album, the smoky-voiced singer strutted over to the dance charts. Through smart, club-lite crossovers with EDM heavyweights -- Martin Garrix, MNEK, Calvin Harris and the Diplo-Mark Ronson project Silk City -- she has become a dance-pop diva in the tradition of early Lady Gaga and Britney Spears. The key, she says, was resisting the urge to collaborate until she had built up her own brand. “When I think about crossing boundaries, I also think about agency,” she says. “I never wanted to do it without having some of my own success first.”
Ella Mai -- like Lipa, a potential best new artist nominee -- nods vigorously. “You never want it to happen where your name is underneath someone else’s for the rest of your career,” she says. “Put out what you love; it’ll pick up when the timing is right.” Mai, who is signed to Interscope through her mentor and go-to producer DJ Mustard’s label, speaks from experience. It was more than a year before fan fervor sent her sleeper hit “Boo’d Up” to the top of the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart and brought a classic, sensual sound back to pop radio. When her moment came, the singer, named after Ella Fitzgerald, was ready with three EPs that introduced the world to the breadth of her sound: confident, throwback R&B with flickers of trap and ’90s house. “It’s about a feeling,” she says. (Her first full-length is due Oct. 12, too late to qualify for this year’s Grammy Awards, though her prior projects are eligible.)
Mai, Lipa and Post Malone are well aware of The Recording Academy’s current issues. They’ve heard president/CEO Neil Portnow’s controversial comments (telling women to “step up” if they want better representation) and watched as A-listers like Drake, Kanye West and Frank Ocean skipped the ceremony or stopped submitting music altogether. Still, none of them think sitting out the awards is the answer.
“Are the Grammys perfect? No,” says Mai. “And maybe I’d like to see even more change. But that’s one of the many reasons I’m going to show up.”
It has been a wild year in music, with unexpected collaborations and boundaries being crossed, and that applies to all three of you. How mindful are you of trying new things?
Dua Lipa: The amazing thing about music at the moment is that people you wouldn't expect to collaborate are working together -- and it’s no longer a headline. I don’t feel like genres exist, especially now. When I collaborate with people, I like to collaborate with people who don’t do what I do. Do we both have our own identities? If so, and we have chemistry, why not try something different?
Ella Mai: I don’t really think about boundaries. I’m very much myself, so I don’t get stuck on where I can and can’t go based on public perception. It’s more of an I-am-who-I-am type of thing.
What about you, Post? People call you a rapper -- do you see yourself that way?
Post Malone: People can call me a rapper. Call me whatever you want. But like Dua said, there’s no genres no more. I don’t feel tethered to anything. And if it makes you feel nice or it makes you feel sad or if it makes you feel anything, who gives a fuck what category it is? So I’ll work with anyone whose music I’m into. What I’m not into is boxes. I don’t put people in boxes.
That amount of artistic freedom seems like a new thing. What do you think has made it possible?
Mai: It’s social media. When I was growing up, you didn't get to really see what an artist was doing in their everyday life. Today it’s so much easier to reach out to people -- to hear something on Twitter or Instagram that you like -- than ever before. When those walls came down, the floodgates opened. When we talk about breaking boundaries, I think social media put us in the driver’s seat.
The Grammys have been criticized, especially recently, for being out of touch. Do you think the awards are keeping up with artists like yourselves? How important are they to you?
Mai: I feel like we’d be lying if we sat here and told you we didn't care. Growing up, the Grammys were so prestigious to me. I don’t think, as artists, we do it for the accolades or to say we’ve won a Grammy, but of course it’d be amazing to have such high recognition. Are they perfect? No. But they are important.
Post Malone: It’s like liking a girl in middle school, right? You try to do something cool to impress her, but at the same time you want to act like you don’t care. But then you’ll do the little bullshit, like 50 pushups at home, and hope she notices. But if she doesn't, whatever, it’s fine.
Lipa: Beautiful analogy!
Post Malone: [Stage-whispering into the recorder] I should’ve gotten a nom last year.
Post, were you disappointed? Many younger artists actually seem to care about the awards. Last year, SZA spoke very openly about what it meant to her. But more established artists like Frank Ocean and Kanye West have stopped attending the ceremony.
Post Malone: Didn't Kanye say, “I keep my Grammys in my sock drawer”? Sure, fine, it’s cool to hate on them, but it’s also cool to have [the awards] because what we do isn't normal. I think of it this way: We’re supposed to be in college, but instead we’re here, traveling around the world and working our asses off. For artists like us, it’s cool to be acknowledged. It’s like getting an A or something. For our art. For something we made ourselves.
Bigger picture, it’s fine to not be recognized by people who don’t necessarily know you so long as you have the ability to recognize yourself. To say, “I made a kick-ass album, I made a kick-ass song, I worked my ass off,” you know? If you actually fuck with your own music, that’s enough. A committee of people can’t be the last word on whether you’re good enough, because it’s bigger than that. It’s your fans and the way you connect with them, and the way you go to bed knowing that your music resonated with someone or helped people out.
Lipa: I agree it doesn't necessarily matter what a committee of people say, but you also have to remember that this committee has a huge influence on what people around the world listen to. The ball is in the academy’s court to give recognition where it’s due, to many different kinds of artists. Another big part of it is participating, like Chance [the Rapper]. He attends because he wants to be a part of the change. He wants to show that if he can do it, you can do it, and I think that’s important.
Mai: I agree, but I wonder -- isn't part of the argument that the recognition doesn't reflect the times?
Lipa: Yeah, [the academy] should be a mix of people from all different backgrounds and ages to make informed decisions. You can’t leave it to a bunch of people who look alike and feel the same.
January’s telecast inspired #grammyssomale. In response, Neil Portnow said that women should “step up, because they would be welcome.” Do women need to step up, or do they need better representation?
Lipa: We need better representation, no question. There were so many females last year who were stepping up. But they just weren't given the chance. Like how they offered Lorde a Tom Petty tribute instead of a solo slot, when everyone else in her category got one. If you want us to step up, give us equal opportunity to show you what we do.
Mai: We need the opportunity to be able to step up without being stepped on. And we’ll continue to be stepped on, and we need to persevere. Because while I understand the argument that we shouldn't have to go through this in order to get that, that’s also just life. There’s a lot of things that shouldn't happen the way they do, but you have to meet reality to make change.
Post Malone: I think about this a lot, I do, because super-talented female artists don’t get the recognition they deserve. Last year was just super fucking ignorant to female artists. There’s so many dope-ass people that deserve to get a nom, never mind win. I think we need to take a step back and look at the way shit has gone on for a long time and come up with something better. Something that works for everyone.
The Recording Academy recently expanded the number of nominees in certain categories from five to eight to improve representation. Does that make a difference to you?
Mai: When it comes to the committee needing representation of all ages and races and musical backgrounds, that is super important, point-blank. It matters. And the expansion to eight nominees, I think that’s great. And maybe I’d like to see even more change, but that’s one of the many reasons that I’m going to show up. I think people are scared to be the change they want to see, but that’s the only way.
Who would you bring if you were nominated?
Lipa: My parents.
Mai: My mum.
Post Malone: I’d probably bring my cat. Apilli Roller. She’s the bomb. I’d roll up with her fluffy tail. People would probably love that.
If you’re nominated and don’t win, how will you feel?
Post Malone: If you want to be the best at what you do, you’re going to keep working at it until you feel like you’ve hit your potential. It’s like any craft. If I’m a fucking woodcarver, there might be a woodcarver who’s better than me, but you know what? I’m going to stay and carve wood until I’m the fucking best. Play the Leonardo DiCaprio game.
And if you do win, would that victory represent something bigger than yourself?
Mai: If the award was genre-based, the scope is narrower. But for something like best new artist or song of the year, there are layers. It’s not just you, it’s you on behalf of your genre, on behalf of black women, on behalf of your generation. Yeah, I’d be super proud of that.
Lipa: I’m so grateful to have my dual nationality, to be representing London and Pristina [the capital of Kosovo]. I lived in Kosovo for four years before I moved to London, and when I released my first song, all the views came from Kosovo. All of them. If you win, it’s only right to look at the younger women watching and make sure they know that you can come from a place like Kosovo and do whatever you put your mind to.
Post, do you feel like you’re representing hip-hop?
Post Malone: I think we’re in the middle of a paradigm shift. For so long, this has been this and that has been that, you know? I think that’s changing. I like fucking everything. I like grindcore, heavy metal, country music, hip-hop music, funk music. I like R&B music. I’ve met so many people that are like, “Oh, I like everything except country,” or except metal, or except emo rap. What does that really mean? Why generalize?
Is that why you keep branching out in your sound?
Post Malone: Yes. I’m trying to. Let’s get strange. Let’s go to the fringe. People will be like, “Honestly, this guy’s fucking crazy.” You want to experiment while not alienating your fans. And there are steps you can take that they’ll take with you. On Stoney, I did “Feeling Whitney.” And on beerbongs & bentleys, I did “Stay.” Those are songs with no drums, no nothing, just me and a guitar. And people sing that shit! That means one second they’ll be wacky and zany, and the next second they’ll be sitting down and singing along with me and a guitar.
How does it feel to be growing up or self-actualizing as artists while also becoming famous? Do you feel like you’re doing it on your own terms?
Lipa: One hundred percent. It’s funny. I didn't initially want to get signed. I just wanted to write and figure out who I was, what my style of music was. Then, once I had that and people started to hear my music, then I knew I needed a team of people around me who knew what I wanted and believed in. Some people get caught up in the moment and say, “This person has a big hit -- why don’t you guys collaborate? It’ll get you on the radio!” And that was the one thing I just never wanted to do without having my own success first.
Mai: You never want your name to be underneath someone else’s for the rest of your career. Yeah, featuring on someone else’s big song could get you on the radio -- that’s a cheat code, and that’s the quick way -- but that’s not the way that you want to do it. People are investing in you, not you in the light of someone else.
Lipa: I remember turning down some collaborations that definitely would have gotten me on the radio and that wound up doing really well, but I didn't want to do it until I had my own voice. If I do something just because someone says it’ll get me on the radio, I have to sing that for the rest of my life, and that is fucking terrible. Those first songs define you. That’s why it’s so important to start on your own terms.
Post Malone: There’s a lot of shit right now that feels forced into certain lanes of music. And there are a lot of people that will do songs with someone because they’re doing well right now. But for me, collaborations have to come naturally. It’s important to me to vibe with someone as a person before we do a song. Because if we don’t have that, it’s just not going to be natural.
At this point in your careers, you’re probably getting a lot of input from other people -- people who have been doing this longer than you or who want to steer you. How do you know if a song feels right to you?
Post Malone: It’s a gut test.
Mai: Yeah, a gut feeling. If something is brought to me and I’m not sure about it, I know straight away.
Lipa: If it doesn't feel right, move on to something else. No matter how many people try and tell you there’s time pressure or whatever, there’s no fucking time pressure. Those are their deadlines, not yours.
OK, one more question about the ceremony: What would you wear? Classic look or statement outfit?
Lipa: That’s a hard one. I love dressing up, I love playing around with colors, silhouettes, fabrics. It just depends what mood I’m in!
Mai: Classic. I’d be nervous enough.
Post Malone: I might take it easy. I might wear a cummerbund. I might wear a Benedict Cumberbatch.
Lipa: On a T-shirt!
Post Malone: Yes! I’ll just wear a T-shirt with Benedict Cumberbatch on it. And then suddenly everyone’s wearing Benedict Cumberbatch T-shirts.
-- Lipa’s highest-charting Hot 100 hit, “New Rules,” which peaked at No. 6, has garnered 618.2 million total on-demand U.S. streams, according to Nielsen Music -- 260.2 million from on-demand streams of its viral video alone.
-- In July, “New Rules” broke the record for most weeks spent on the pop songs radio airplay chart with 45 weeks. Her hit bested the run of Edwin McCain’s ballad “I’ll Be” in 1998.
-- Calvin Harris and Silk City (Diplo and Mark Ronson) tapped Lipa this year for separate hits: Harris’ “One Kiss,” which hit No. 1 on two dance charts, and Silk City’s “Electricity,” which peaked at No. 39 on Hot Dance/Electronic Songs.
-- On June 14, Post Malone announced that the inaugural Posty Fest -- featuring artists he hand-selected -- would take place in Dallas on Oct. 28, with himself and Travis Scott headlining and Tyler, the Creator performing.
-- “Rockstar,” Post Malone’s No. 1 hit featuring 21 Savage, earned him song of the year at 2018’s MTV Video Music Awards and top rap song at this year’s Billboard Music Awards.
-- In mid-September, Mai’s breakout hit “Boo’d Up” (released in February 2017) became the longest-running No. 1 by a woman this decade on the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart. The song peaked at No. 5 on the Hot 100.
-- “Boo’d Up” has earned 550.5 million on-demand U.S. streams, according to Nielsen Music. Meanwhile, her follow-up hit, “Trip,” is climbing the Hot 100, currently sitting at No. 18.
-- Following her own 15-city Boo’d Up Tour this year, Mai is joining Bruno Mars for a handful of dates on the final leg of his 24K Magic Tour.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 13 issue of Billboard.