As 2018 winds down, Billboard is asking some of the artists who helped define the year in music to look back on their accomplishments, favorite memories and pop-culture obsessions from the past 12 months. Check out other interviews with St. Vincent, Anne-Marie, Kali Uchis and Dan + Shay.
If you turn on the radio, scroll through YouTube or check the homepage of your favorite streaming service or browse through YouTube, there’s a solid chance that Swae Lee will pop up. The 23-year-old first made a name for himself as one-half of hip-hop duo Rae Sremmurd along with his brother Slim Jxmmi, but he showed that his talents can’t be pigeonholed with the May release of his solo debut, Swaecation. Packaged as a triple album with Rae Sremmurd’s third album, SR3MM, and Jxmmi’s solo debut, Jxmtro, Lee’s album moved beyond his bass-heavy roots and explored more melodic and tender production that highlighted his vocal capabilities. “It’s a dope feeling,” he tells Billboard about the album’s warm reception. “Especially when you put out hella songs and the world is just wanting more and more. It keeps me inspired and motivated.”
Hella songs, indeed: On top of his solo work, Lee joined forces with artists across genre lines for more than a dozen separate collaborations this year, including: “Close To Me” with Ellie Goulding and Diplo; “Chun Swae” with Nicki Minaj; “Sicko Mode” with Travis Scott, Drake and Big Hawk; “Arms Around You” with XXXTentacion, Lil Pump and Maluma; “The Ways” with Khalid… and the list goes on and on. Many of these tracks charted on the Billboard Hot 100, including the soothing Post Malone team-up “Sunflower,” which is currently at No. 7. And Lee isn’t modest about his talents: “I’m the King of Melodies, fo sho’ fo sho’!” he says, laughing. “I’ll take that crown.”
Below, he tells Billboard about his upcoming solo project (due early next year), why he’s over adlibs and what happened to that sad Christmas song he teased on Twitter.
This year, you showed so much versatility on your solo album, Swaecation, and all your collaborations with other artists. Why was it important for you to showcase those other sides of you?
By the middle of last year, I had put out so many songs that did good, but people were forgetting [about them]. It’s like they were trying to sleep on me. But that’s the natural cycle in the game: New, temporary artists come in, people think they’re amazing, and then they forget about the real artists and all the big shit going on. But I had to keep making songs and being consistent, just to remind them. A lot of people didn’t even know my full talents — they classified me as a rapper. Slim Jxmmi and my gang knew what I could do, so it was time for me to unleash everything. So when “Unforgettable” [with French Montana] dropped and I was singing on it, everyone was like, “Oh this n—a is crazy!” And the numbers don’t lie when I sing on songs — they just go up!
Were you nervous about dropping your first solo record?
No, I wasn’t nervous about putting it out. I understood the music and wanted the world to digest it. But it might’ve been ahead of its time! People may have to go back in two years to appreciate it to the max, you know what I’m saying? Even though it did pretty good — I always looked at the numbers — I saw it in my head doing better. But I’m gonna be dropping the most stupid solo project ever. When the fans access music, it has to be so easy for them to get to. I had Swaecation in the mix of SR3MM, and that was 27 songs in total, so people may not have known to get right to Swaecation. I’m just gonna make things more accessible and make a real solo project, maybe about 12 songs. Just all bangers!
Do you have an idea of what we can expect from it?
I’m thinking to drop it in late January or February. I’m working with Mike WiLL Made-It, Metro Boomin, Super Mario and also couple of underground producers who aren’t mainstream yet but have that mainstream sound. Like I got Chase The Money, Ronny J and DJ Sremm — our Rae Sremmurd DJ — on there too. But people know how I’m coming with it, they see what’s taking place! [Laughs] With this project, I’m not playing. I’m stepping on n—as’ throats. I’m gonna up the standards for these 2010-whatever artists. I’m gonna push the music forward.
You’re ending 2018 with another top 10 single: Your Post Malone collaboration “Sunflower” is sitting at No. 7 on the Hot 100. Do you still celebrate those wins, or are you used to them by now?
Nah, I’ll never get used to that — I’ll always celebrate my wins. I’m never going to brush those off. If I was still broke working at McDonald’s and had these same things happen to me, it would still be big. I’m never gonna get to a point where I just become numb to those type of things, because it’s not normal. The everyday person is not gonna be doing this. They’re not gonna be top 10. Like, I’m steady up there, which is a good sign.
If I named an artist who was active this year, you’ve probably worked with them, from Camila Cabello on the “Real Friends” remix to Diplo and Ellie Goulding on “Close to Me.” What were your own favorite collaborations this year?
I’d have to say “Sunflower” with Post Malone, because it’s a movie placement [in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse]. The main character sings “Sunflower” and uses my vocals to calm him down in a certain situation — like my music was therapeutic for him. Benny Blanco and I did a crazy one that I liked [“Better to Lie”], and that was one of the most illest verses I’ve ever did. [Begins singing] “Killin’ the vibes, killin’ the vibes/ All of this waitin’ around, killin’ the vibes.” But one of my favorite collabs was the Metro Boomin one with Wizkid [“Borrowed Love” from Boomin’s Not All Heroes Wear Capes LP]. Not to mention my part on Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode.” I’m just gonna pick up my Grammy for that one!
I’m gonna say that I’m dropping the best Christmas carol in 50 years. I know it’s a big statement, but I strongly believe it! [Laughs] The song’s vibe is really tears of joy, but it can also be taken as sad tune. It’s so bangin’. And I want everyone to do the “Sad Christmas” challenge and just play my song while opening gifts…and cry while they’re doing it!
What’s the best concert or performance you saw this year?
It was Childish Gambino. I saw him in Atlanta, and we were on tour together. Watching him doing his thing on stage and how he performed was inspiring.
What’s a song you couldn’t get out of your head this year?
Sheck Wes’ “Mo Bamba,” but everyone’s gonna say that, so I’m gonna pick that Don Toliver and Travis Scott song. [Astroworld’s “Can’t Say”] What’s it called again? [Sings] “No, you can’t say if I’m mad or not/ Smokin’ hella weed, I’m on the alcohol.” I like that song!
What’s a musical trend you’d like to see go away in 2019?
Everyone trying to do the same adlibs: “Ooh yeah! A-yuh!” Everyone’s doing it, and no one is switching it up! I gotta switch up my dances too because everyone is doing them. I have a little one-two step that only I can do.
What was your most memorable fan interaction this year?
Ah man, there were so many! But this one man bought my food because I ain’t have no money on me! So he bought me and my friends’ food, and I gave him free tickets to our concert. It was just a hot dog street vendor when we were in Los Angeles. He did a good deed. That’s a real one right there.
Name another artist you’d most like to invite to a holiday dinner with your family.
Post Malone, because he’s gonna come through with the good vibes and gifts. Just drinking corkscrews and eggnog and turning up. Just having a good ‘ol time!
Speaking of gifts, what are you getting your pet monkeys?
I need to get them their first piece of clothing, so I’m gonna buy them onesies, make sure they have all the fruits that they love on a plate that’s bigger than them and let them go ham.