Last year, hip-hop aficionados engaged in a spirited debated about the 2020 rap MVPs on the popular app Clubhouse. Sparked by Rap Radar podcast co-host B. Dot and his controversial top 10 list, listeners sparred with him over one name: Russ.
Questions and comments arose regarding the rapper’s accolades and 2020 resume. While most couldn’t rattle off song titles or album releases, one would realize that the answers were only a few clicks away by performing a simple Google search.
At the top of the 2020, Russ released his third album, SHAKE THE SNOW GLOBE. Headlined by his gold-certified, BIA-featuring single “BEST ON EARTH,” his latest effort awarded him his second top five release on the Billboard 200 albums chart, debuting at No. 4. Peaking at No. 46 on the Hot 100, “BEST ON EARTH” also earned a stamp of approval from Rihanna, who dubbed the song “her new fav” on Instagram.
Following the release of SHAKE THE SNOW GLOBE’s deluxe reissue, Russ’s torrid run intensified when he announced his departure from Columbia Records last July, making him an independent artist once again. He embraced his newfound freedom by dropping new records every Friday. For the next six months, he released 15 songs, including a collaboration with Kehlani and a five-track EP titled CHOMP. The mini-opus was a dazzling lyrical exhibition by the Jersey product, who tested his rap prowess against Black Thought, Benny the Butcher, Crooked I, Ab-Soul, and more.
“For it to come together and be well-received as well as it was, I saw people saying, ‘Damn, I’ll take back any Russ slander,'” he tells Billboard. “It’s funny because I knew that was going to happen, and that’s partly why I did it. I knew people had me f–ked up like, ‘Russ is just a singer.’ My fans know I can rap.”
Besides becoming a force on the music front, Russ is looking to have similar success on the business side. After releasing his first book, It’s All In Your Head, in 2019, he’s now heading to the cannabis industry. This week, he partnered with West Coast cannabis brand Wonderbrett to announce his first line, CHOMP, named after his latest EP.
Billboard caught up with Russ to speak about his 2020 run, mastering the art of detachment, handling fear, wanting a Grammy, and more.
How would you sum up your 2020?
Musically, I feel like 2020 was a really great year for me. It honestly feels like with every session and release as the days and weeks go by, I’m just coming more into my own as an artist. I’m just really excited and looking forward to the next session and releases, because I feel more self-aware than I ever have. I feel like that’s helping my music, and I’m becoming more of myself and who I wanted to be.
I remember you did this interview not too long ago, and the clip spoke about having an attachment to results. Being an independent artist, how have you mastered the art of detachment knowing you’re carrying more of a load on your shoulders versus when you were on a major?
To be honest, that’s an everyday thing, mastering the law of detachment. I try to go back to that 18-year-old kid in the basement just making songs and not really worrying too much about what was going to happen after that. Just having that utmost confidence and faith that everything I wanted out of life I was going to get and whatever was going to happen was irrelevant knowing it is going to happen. It’s easy nowadays.
Regardless of being independent, it’s easy to put out a song and instantly start checking the views, retweets, plays — and none of that s–t really matters. Not immediately anyway. I feel like as an artist or someone like me, sometimes, it’s like I want to put out a song and tomorrow I want instant [return on investment]. It rarely works like that. Rarely do you get Rihanna to post your song the next day after dropping. It takes time for music to spread around the world.
And it’s not even about that… for me, it’s just about making something that I like and sharing it with the world. And whatever results come from that, is honestly what’s supposed to happen. As an artist — and I’m guilty of this — you feel like everyone else has it wrong and y’all are sleep. It’s like, “Man, if you put out every song the same way you put out every other song, the reason one does better and one doesn’t do better is because it’s the music.” It’s just that simple.
If I put out a song a week, and the song on week 11 takes off, but the song on week four didn’t, that’s just how the cookie crumbles. I think that’s why I always liked the song-a-week format — because it kind of got me out of my own way, as far as the attachment to results goes. When you’re putting out a song a week, you kind of don’t have time to get hung up on one song, because you’re already onto the next one. It kind of forces you not to give a f–k about the results, because you’re thinking about what’s dropping next… In seven or eight months, you can look back and be like, “Oh s–t, this one did really well.”
Once again, it’s not about the results. It’s just about making s–t that’s a good representation of yourself and sharing it with the world. I think that’s why I have the fans that I do. Regardless of numbers, my messages are usually pretty solid. If a song doesn’t go diamond, or have radio play, it doesn’t matter — because my fans heard it and it’s a real message. It’s about putting out the truth and what you think is dope.
I remember you were talking about “BANKRUPT” on Instagram. You were like, “Yo, I’m kind of shook” when it came to releasing the song. Then, I saw you changed the caption.
Yeah, because I woke up and I was like, “F–k this.” I had an epiphany, because something woke me up that night and I guess I was reading it like my 18-year-old self. I was like, “What the f–k am I talking about? Put the song out and shut up.” Like, “Bro, get over yourself. You have a bunch of fans and the song is a smash. Put it out!” I was like, “What the f–k am I talking about?”
Every once in a while, being in the industry long enough and dealing with everything, it beats you down a bit. It’s not as easy to just have that reckless popping [attitude] that I had when I was 19 and hadn’t been tested yet. It was easier back then. Every once in a while I flip, and that was me catching myself. F–k that entire caption.
How do you embrace fear at this stage of your career?
I guess I don’t try to live with it for too long. Not in its natural form at least, as fear. If it is the fear, I acknowledge it, but I try to use it as fuel and momentum. I try to flip it. I think if you let it linger, it’s going to end up being destructive. It’s easier said than done. I have those moments where I slip, but I always catch myself. That’s why it’s crazy being an independent artist because I get to move and do things in the spur of the moment. I’ll wake up like, “F–k this song. Never mind.”
Like “BANKRUPT.” I like to deliver songs weeks in advance because it fucks with the weird little f–kin’ algorithms on the DSPs. Three weeks ago, I had delivered “BANKRUPT” — but then I was like, “Nah, let me put this one out.” So I uploaded a different one and then went back to “BANKRUPT.” It’s that type of freedom that I love — being an independent and having that freedom. If you’re with a label, when s–t is locked in, it’s locked in. There’s too many moving parts at that point and they act like it’s impossible.
I like being able to pivot and move off different parts and move off my gut and be able to have those moments where I do snap the f–k out of it. Fear plays a role, but usually plays a positive one.
I know “UGLY” with Lil Baby was recently most-added at radio. Since being independent, the obstacle you were trying to climb was gaining that radio support. What has that win done for your confidence level?
It feels like I just cracked the code. That last remaining code. So now there’s officially nothing that a label can offer me that I can’t provide myself. Radio play, beforehand, was maybe the only thing they could hang over my head. Like, “Yeah, you’re independent, but you’re not on the radio. You haven’t figured that one out.” But it’s like, “Nah, I have.”
Now, the only other thing that maybe labels could do is an award show type of thing — award show connections, because that’s about as industry as you can get. I’m really confident running my own operation as my own label. I’m funding all my videos and the PR agency is better than anything I’ve had with a label. Radio play is on-lock now. I’m a full f–king label. I have all the confidence when the song is the “right song,” that I have all the resources I need to make it do what it needs to do.
I remember you posted a tweet about your love for the Grammys a couple of years ago. With you being further along in your career, does that elusive gold trophy still hold weight in your eyes?
Yeah, I still want a Grammy. Until I get one, I’ma always want one. I’m not gonna be that person who downplays what they really want out of fear of embarrassment. A lot of people downplay the job they really want, or the school they want to get into, or the girl they really want, so just in case they get rejected, they could just be like, “I didn’t really want it…” People are scared of looking stupid and failing in public, but I’m not.
I have lapses where I am, but deep down when I go to sleep, I want a Grammy. I’ve always looked up to that award and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I want a Grammy, so what? If that means every year I don’t win one and people are gonna laugh at me, it’s cool, because no position in life is permanent. In due time, the pendulum swings. So when I get that Grammy, keep that energy.
Which title or hat are you most proud to wear outside of being an artist, and why?
Probably an author, because I think it helps the most people. I just feel like my book has the potential to help more people than my music does. There’s people that don’t listen to my music who read the book. I understand that, because you may not legitimately like the sound of my music, and that’s fine. But the book is just messages and s–t that everyone can relate to and help.
Everyday people from all over the world say things like, “I got your book, it’s helped me so much.” That’s hard to duplicate in music — even though I’ve done it in music, because the messages in songs are usually very applicable to helping in life — but not every song is going to feel like a self-help book. I would say being an author is what I’m most proud of outside of being an artist, because I think it helps the most people. Like being a businessman is cool for money, but being an author is super helpful.
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In your book, you mention how your grandfather was instrumental in developing your love for music. What advice did he give you back then that still resonates with you today?
I don’t know if it was necessarily words, it was more so his actions. He was trying to help everyone — and then from a music standpoint, he just encouraged me to pick up the guitar, and there wasn’t any doubt in his mind that I should stick with music. I think that right there is advice, via his actions. I could never stop doing music at this point. It would be a disservice to myself, the gift, and to him.
What impressed you the most listening back to yourself as an MC on CHOMP?
You know when you’re younger playing basketball with the older kids, and you think you’re good enough to play up, and then you play in the game and hold your own? You’re like, “All right, I thought I was good enough, and I did good enough.” I kind of went into it assuming that everyone thought I got completely washed and assuming these people might out-rap me. They’re kind of supposed to, when you look at Black Thought, who has been rapping 20 years longer than me. All these guys have been in it for a minute.
Going into it, I thought I was dead nice, but I’m definitely playing up. I was impressed that when I heard their verses, they all went super off. They were all like, “I had to go off because of how crazy you went.” Then listening to the song, I’m like, “Nah, I held my own.” I understand if people want to be like, “You got washed.” You can feel how you want to feel — but you didn’t hear one weak Russ verse on that tape. I like that I was able to impress legends like Alchemist, DJ Premier, and Busta Rhymes. All those guys hit me and gave me props, which was dope.
It’s cool to have fans around the world say you’re dope, but it’s different when the people you look up to in your craft give you that respect. That was a big moment for me. I’m impressed that I was able to pull off CHOMP.
I’m working on CHOMP 2 right now. It’s going to be even nuttier this time. There’s some collabs that are gonna have people like, “What the f–k? How did you even get this?” It’s all the craziest spitters and classic production, and I’m just gonna f–k up people again. I might double down and make it 10 songs. Five was cool, but 10 might make everyone shut the f–k up forever.
I like the five songs, because it’s a quick-hitter and it’s all money.
Do you feel like 10 is too many?
In this case, I’d just go five or seven quick-hitters because it’s heavy jabs you’re coming with.
I was thinking if not 10, seven at most. Just to make it feel a little bit more like this wasn’t a fluke. I’m saying it here, after CHOMP 2 drops, the conversation around me is going to be way different. CHOMP is like having a good rookie season, like, “Oh, you can rap, but do that s–t again.” CHOMP 2 is when I’m giving you five or seven more and it’s a whole group of new rappers I haven’t worked with, and I’m barring up with them too. At that point, you could put both in the playlist and listen to me rap against your top 15 MCs of all-time, and the conversation has to change.
I asked you in 2018 that if you could compare yourself to any NBA player in the league and you said Steph Curry. Do you still feel that same way today?
No, because Steph has gotten his just due and s–t. Now, who I feel like is Damian Lillard. I feel like Dame is in a small market and he never switched and went to a major thing, and I feel being independent and not being buddy-buddy with the industry like that is something I can relate to. Everyone knows he’s dead nice, but you can kinda almost feel like he’s on the outside of the s–t. Even though he’s putting up crazy numbers, they don’t want to give it to him. They don’t want to give him the props so I relate to Dame a lot. Just the way he approaches and attacks the game and s–t, I love it.