This week, a new pop solo star was unofficially minted, as Swae Lee — one half of hitmaking hip-hop duo Rae Sremmurd– notched his first No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, as a co-lead with Post Malone on “Sunflower (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse).”
It feels a long time coming, since Lee already seemed poised to become a breakout star on his own over a year ago. After enjoying the biggest crossover hit of his career along with Rae partner (and real life brother) Slim Jxmmi with the Gucci Mane-featuring, Billboard Hot 100-topping “Black Beatles” in late 2016-17, Lee stole the stage on his own in 2017, as the hook singer on French Montana’s unavoidable dancehall-flavored smash “Unforgettable,” a No. 3 Hot 100 Hit in August 2017.
Then last May, Rae Sremmurd released SR3MM, a three-disc set which included one-disc solo spotlights for both for both Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi. Though the set’s lead single was “Powerglide” — a relatively traditional trap banger co-produced by longtime mentor Mike WiLL Made-It and featuring both rappers in lead roles, which peaked at No. 28 on the Hot 100 — the most interesting material on SR3MM was largely found on Lee’s Swaecation disc. The nine-track LP-within-an-LP continued followed in the path of “Unforgettable” on widescreen, irresistible and often internationally minded pop/hip-hop hybrids like “Hurt to Look,” “Touchscreen Navigation” and “Guatemala.” It seemed like all it would take was for one of them to catch on with radio and streaming audiences to establish Lee as a pop star in his own right.
But none of them did. “Guatemala” peaked at No. 84 on the Hot 100, but that was the only Swaecation track to even grace the chart — and the overall SR3MM set also posted underwhelming numbers, becoming the first of the duo’s three albums to miss the top five of the Billboard 200 albums chart (it debuted at No. 6), despite its 27 overall tracks providing a seeming boon for its streaming totals. Swae Lee’s true breakout as a solo star looked like it would have to wait at least another year.
Turns out, it wouldn’t even quite take that long. In October, “Sunflower” notched a resounding No. 9 debut on the Hot 100, easily making it Lee’s biggest hit (with or without his brother) since “Unforgettable.” While “Sunflower” receded on the chart from there, it caught a second life in December, aided by its rise on radio, and climbed to No. 4 before the calendar turned over. This week, it hits No. 1 in its 12th week on the Hot 100, besting even the No. 3 peak of “Unforgettable.”
And if you just heard the song removed from any context, you’d certainly be forgiven for thinking it was a Swaecation deep cut you’d forgotten about. The song has the same combination of sunny melodies and romantic drama (“Thinkin’ in a bad way, losin’ your grip/ Screamin’ at my face, baby, don’t trip”) as the highlights from that set, with a gently knocking beat that suggests Island vibes with its relaxed tempo and warm synth bass, even though it mostly stays away from any specific dancehall or reggae signifiers. Drop it in a set along with “Guatemala” and “Hurt to Look” and many fans would never know the difference.
So what put “Sunflower” over the top where Swaecation failed to break through? Well, there are two fairly obvious answers to that question. The first would be its association with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which has not only become a box office smash — raking in over $300 million worldwide since its December release — but is now also quickly becoming an awards season fixture, taking in best animated feature honors at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards and the Golden Globes. The branding has also extended to its popular lyric video, a clip based on footage from the Spider-Man movie, which has already racked up over 200 million views on YouTube.
But likely even more important to the growth of “Sunflower” is the presence of Post Malone. The genre-splicing hip-hop star born has already notched two prior No. 1s as a lead artist (2017’s “Rockstar,” featuring 21 Savage, and 2018’s “Psycho,” featuring Ty Dolla $ign), and charted all 20 tracks off his Beerbongs & Bentleys album last year. While the track feels more in line with Lee’s solo work than Malone’s traditionally darker, woozier productions, the two artists are co-billed as leads on the track — and also get roughly equal mic time, both delivering one verse and one chorus. Thus, it’s hardly surprising to see the song follow along Malone’s more established chart trajectory.
It’s not just Post Malone that Lee appears with on the Hot 100 this week, either. Not only does he have the No. 1 song in the country this week, he also pops up on two other Hot 100 entries — as a guest on the No. 31-and-climbing “Close to Me,” by Diplo and Ellie Goulding, and on the No. 55-stationed “Arms Around You,” by XXXTENTACION and Lil Pump (also featuring Maluma), which peaked at No. 28 late last year. He’s also an uncredited guest on Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode” — a No. 1 hit in 2018, still hanging around the chart’s top five — and is building a pretty strong case for being the most reliable hook singer on radio.
This is all undoubtedly great news for Swae Lee, who is well on his way to becoming a household name among pop fans as a solo artist. It’s perhaps less-great news for fans of Rae Sremmurd as a duo, however. The split sets of SR3MM had long sparked buzz that there was discord between the brothers Rae, and those rumors were only fed further fuel over the weekend, as Slim Jxmmi delivered a series of (since-deleted) tweets that seemed to suggest he was feeling isolated from Rae Sremmurd as a group, and overshadowed by Lee’s success. Lee himself seemed to deny any split with his own Twitter response, and reps for the group confirmed the duo were staying together, but the timing of Swae’s first solo No. 1 perhaps comes at a non-optimal time for fans hoping the two remain equal partners in Rae Sremmurd. The echoes of another iconic southern rap duo, who were never the same after releasing solo projects within the same mutli-LP — particularly after one of the solo sets spawned one of the biggest hits of the decade — are hard to ignore.
In any event, whether Rae Sremmurd ends up further splintering from here or remains one of the country’s most popular hip-hop duos well into the 2020s, it’s clear at this point that Swae Lee’s commercial potential is pretty formidable on its own. By the time of his next Swaecation-type set — which may be coming soon, as he teased a solo project for late January or February in a Billboard interview late last year — his solo stardom should officially be in full blossom.