How Saweetie (Already) Changed the Rap Game
She's redefining what it means to build a brand — and says her album will be out "definitely before the summer."
Saweetie won’t stop reminding you that she finished college, but she’ll never stop learning. She walks into the Beverly Hills Hotel’s Polo Lounge in late January in full Elle Woods regalia: a silk fuschia pantsuit, a red Hermès Birkin in her hands — the kind she has rapped about countless times and showed off on social media — stuffed with notebooks and folders, like an ultra-luxe school bag. Before diving into her plan for global domination, Saweetie carefully stows away the small plates and silverware at the table (“Sorry, I just don’t like clutter,” she explains), showing off a surprisingly simple French manicure devoid of crystals or other distractions. Right now, it’s the only low-key thing about her.
Since graduating from the University of Southern California in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in communication and an emphasis in business, Saweetie has been balancing her lives as both a hitmaker and an aspiring mogul. She’s got the string of hits (three Rhythmic Airplay No. 1s, including the multiplatinum “My Type”) and the 2022 Grammy Award nominations (best new artist and best rap song for her Doja Cat collaboration, “Best Friend”), but she has also become a next-gen branding queen, breezing through ads that don’t even feel like ads and joining an elite crew of global superstars like BTS and J Balvin who have had their own themed McDonald’s meals.
“I’ve shown that I can still be a respected artist, but I’ve changed the way businesses present brand partnerships to artists,” she says. “Now, it’s not just a photo shoot. Now it’s, ‘We want additional high-level content that can exist on TikTok, on Twitter.’ Not only do they want the product placement, they want us to interact in a way that’ll make people laugh, make people think.”
All the while, the world continues counting down the days until she finally delivers her long-awaited, oft-delayed first studio album, Pretty B–ch Music (which, at the least, should arrive before Rihanna drops R9). “I’ve put my foot down. I’m going to finally lock in to record this album,” Saweetie says firmly, promising that it will arrive “definitely before the summer.” Yes, she has said that before, but Saweetie has had her eye on playing the long game from the start, back when she was uploading viral freestyles from her car that landed her a Warner Records deal in 2018. On her breakthrough hit, “Icy Grl,” the artist born Diamonté Quiava Valentin Harper — then living in a small Los Angeles apartment she found on Craigslist — laid out her grand vision: “You tryna get a bag of weed? I’m tryna get a bag a week/Put it in my savings and invest in the right companies.”
Four years later, it’s still a pretty accurate mission statement for Billboard‘s 2022 Women in Music Game Changer recipient, who is redefining what it means to build a brand in the influencer era — and showing her fans the process behind it, even as her music career develops at its own pace.
“Saweetie is the poster child for well-roundedness in the market. Everyone right now wants to work with Saweetie because she has such great engagement,” says Sabrina Brazil, her longtime content manager. The two have been linked since before they were born: Their fathers were in prison together and had babies around the same time once they got out. The two met as kids, but it wasn’t until Saweetie transferred to USC, where Brazil was studying business, that they joined forces and “started branding and doing content before we knew we were branding and doing content,” Brazil says. She would take photos and videos of Saweetie, and the pair would come up with entire backstories for them. “One day, we’re like, ‘We’re selling Scarface!,’ ” she recalls. Music, Brazil says, has always been a vessel for a lot more: “We’re in gaming, we’re in cosmetics, we’re in fashion.”
“No one works harder than Saweetie,” adds Warner Records co-chairman/COO Tom Corson. “There’s no replacement for true talent, charisma and perseverance.”
At times, that ambition has threatened to eclipse Saweetie’s identity as an artist: Her biggest hits, “My Type” and “Tap In,” are both based around samples of early-2000s hits by Petey Pablo and Too $hort, respectively, which has led some detractors to question her originality. It was a conversation with none other than Cher, however — they crossed paths as co-stars of a recent MAC Cosmetics campaign — that motivated Saweetie to push herself more on the album. “I don’t want to be safe anymore. Now it’s time to experiment,” she says. Her new single, “Closer” (featuring H.E.R.), is a roller-rink-ready love song that sounds right at home on top 40, and she has teased both an upcoming Latin collaboration and a song about meditation. She pushes back on the idea that she needs to define the “Saweetie sound” — who says a 28-year-old has to have herself all figured out? Pretty B–ch Music, she promises, will “address the different layers of who I am as a woman.”
“To be relevant and to be charting, that’s amazing,” she continues. “But I know that my purpose is to deliver a message. My message is to share my truth and to let women know that no matter what you’re going through, hard work pays off. I represent colored women, I represent ambitious women. I represent college girls. I represent women who don’t give a f–k and who are unapologetic.”
Just as social media-savvy artists score big debuts by teasing and hyping material on TikTok, Saweetie takes the same approach with brand partnerships, often using them as launch pads for new music. In October 2020, she previewed her Jhené Aiko collaboration “Back to the Streets” during a Jack Daniel’s livestream ahead of its release. Last fall, she appeared in a Beats by Dre commercial, listening to her own song “Get It Girl” weeks before it would be officially released on the soundtrack to the final season of HBO’s Insecure. (It will also be included on Pretty B–ch Music.)
“Saweetie’s potential is limitless,” says Warner co-chairman/CEO Aaron Bay-Schuck. “She has gone from a viral video rapping in her car to a global artist and brand with some of the biggest hit records in the world, along with garnering incredible cultural currency — all of this in just a few short years. Her development has been nothing short of amazing.”
And development is something Saweetie takes seriously. “Sometimes our hit song is bigger than us and we’re just thrown into the game,” she says. She thinks she “rushed” her first two EPs — 2018’s High Maintenance and 2019’s Icy — to meet demand and doesn’t want to do the same with her album. She scrapped plans for an EP called Icy Season, intended to tide fans over until Pretty B–ch Music, so she could focus on the main event. “When you get signed, the label wants a hit. They want a return on their investment, which I understand,” she says. “But it’s important for artists to understand themselves before they start seeking for hits. Because if you don’t know yourself, you don’t know your music.”
Saweetie has been open about her desire to improve her performance skills, putting in hours of vocal lessons and dance classes following plenty of Twitter snark and online criticism of some of her 2021 gigs. She’s also candid about what’s going on behind the scenes. In April 2020, she parted ways with manager Max Gousse and brought on her uncle (and MC Hammer’s brother) Louis Burrell to manage her instead. And last September, Saweetie signed with Full Stop Management, home to pop stars like Lizzo, Harry Styles and Gwen Stefani, but says matter of factly that she’s “no longer with them.” It was amicable, she explains, but it wasn’t the right time to grow her team.
The way Saweetie sees it, sometimes it’s better to hit the brakes if it means avoiding a crash landing. And if the process takes a little longer? Well, that’s just an opportunity for more content: She has been filming the making of Pretty B–ch Music and plans to release a documentary about it.
“My goal is to be omnipresent,” she says. “When I collaborate with these brands, it’s strategic. It’s to be ubiquitous. It’s to make sure that my name, my music and my message is known globally.” Brazil recalls a tweet from a fan that succinctly summed up their goals. “It said [something] like, ‘The year is 2040. We’re pulling up in our Saweetie cars, drinking our Saweetie drink, eating our Saweetie meal, getting Saweetie gas,’ ” she says. “It was a funny joke because her name is everywhere. The goal is to take over every sphere that we’re in.”
If that means that one day the Icy brand becomes bigger than the music, Saweetie’s more than OK with that. “I want Icy to be so successful that when I’m long gone, my great-great-grandchildren are running it. It’ll be generational wealth,” she says. “I want Icy to supersede Saweetie.” When our interview wraps, she swiftly calls back the waiter and requests their finest cabernet sauvignon. He returns with the glass just as Saweetie pulls out a college-ruled notebook from her Birkin, eager to get back to building her empire.
This story originally appeared in Billboard‘s 2022 Women in Music issue, dated Feb. 26, 2022.