High Times With the Black Beatles: Inside Rae Sremmurd’s Wild Third Album
It didn’t make the news, but a couple of months back Slim Jxmmi drove his Ferrari into a fence. “It was a beautiful Ferrari,” says his younger brother, Swae Lee. Together they make up the pop-rap duo Rae Sremmurd; they’re in their home studio in the suburbs north of L.A.
“I played chicken with traffic,” Jxmmi explains. “I woke up from this party, don’t even know where my shirt was, got in the Ferrari, no shirt on.” A few blocks from his house, he blew a red light, overcooked a turn and crashed. “Drove home with the front dragging on the ground, like, kkgrrssshhhk,” he says. Swae shakes his head: “He fucked that motherfucker up.” Jxmmi grins. “It was a rental. I just got my license, so now I’m actually gonna buy myself some cars.” Meaning he didn’t have a license when he crashed? “You can do anything without a license,” he replies. “I got pulled over once doing 160 on the highway, trying to do 200. Got off with a warning. Said, ‘Shit, Sremmlife!'”
For the brothers of Rae Sremmurd, “Sremmlife” is an all-purpose motto connoting a nonstop whirl of partying, thrill-chasing, money-spending and, on occasion, vehicular death-tempting. If Swae seems unflappably laid-back, Jxmmi is wilder, more intense. He tells me he’s got a baby on the way, but impending fatherhood clearly hasn’t slowed him down. You can hear the difference in their personalities in their music – Swae slipping into silky, lover-man melodies; Jxmmi rapping with scowling aggression about haters – and you can see it in their live shows. In 2015, minutes into a Governors Ball set, Jxmmi jumped off the stage and split his leg open. “I’m like a stuntman for real,” he tells me, hiking up the right leg of his blue boxing trunks to show off a gnarly horseshoe-shaped scar on his thigh. “I could see the meat in my leg,” he recalls. “But I couldn’t feel anything, ’cause you’re in shock.”
It’s 4 p.m. on a March afternoon and Rae Sremmurd are putting the finishing-touches on their imminent third album, which has a working title of Sr3mm. (The duo are part of a music-making collective called Ear Drummers, presided over by the Atlanta superproducer Mike Will Made-It, and their name is the collective’s name spelled backward.) The new album will come on the heels of the biggest success of their career – the quintuple-platinum 2016 single “Black Beatles,” featuring Gucci Mane, which topped the Hot 100 for seven weeks, soundtracked the viral “mannequin challenge” and earned an endorsement from none other than Paul McCartney, who’s name-checked in the lyrics and who uploaded his own version of the challenge, posing motionless at a piano while the song played.
“I actually met him years ago at Coachella,” Swae says of McCartney. “I ran into him backstage. I don’t think he knew our music, but he was chitchatting with us, dropping all this game, telling us to stay true.”
Swae is barechested, wearing camouflage shorts and a necklace made of linked gold-and-diamond fish skeletons. As he talks, his pet spider monkey, Lil G, curls up against his stomach. Swae’s seeming girlfriend, Marliesia, is standing beside him, braiding his hair.
“Ah! Be gentle!” he tells her. “You don’t have gentle hands.” She sighs, accustomed, it seems, to his needling. Lil G, who cost Swae $20,000, is “two, three months old,” he says, and wearing a tiny monkey diaper that members of the Sremmurd entourage are tasked with changing during my visit.
Swae also spent $15,000 on a baby Capuchin monkey named Naya, who’s elsewhere in the house, and he owns two dogs and two mini-pigs, too. The pigs are “on a farm out somewhere towards the desert so they can be happy and terrorize stuff,” he says. “They ran around my old crib, biting everything, tearing up couches.” I ask how he grew interested in pet monkeys and pigs, and he nods at Marliesia. “She recommended the pigs, and I was like, ‘Fuck it, I’m rich.'”
But Swae says he’s an animal lover, too: “I like wildlife. I wanna go in the jungle and see elephants and shit. I’m gonna go to the Amazon. Anyone fucking with wildlife, poaching them, they need to be taken out. They corny for that. Shout out to PETA.” On one Sr3mm song he raps, absurdly, about “whipping up checks like tofu.” “The vegans are gonna fuck with that line,” he tells me.
There’s a bleakness running through much contemporary rap – a self-destructive, fatalist air, with young MCs rapping about narcotizing themselves to the point of oblivion. Against that backdrop, Rae Sremmurd stand in sunny contrast. Their songs celebrate an untroubled hedonism – what Swae characterizes as “turn-up, party-with-your-friends music. People ask us, ‘Why not make songs about, like, pain? About killing niggas?’ And I’m like, ‘Man, we get that every day in real life!’ We try to keep happy vibes.”
The brothers were born in Tupelo, Mississippi, and describe their biography as hardscrabble – as teenagers they squatted in an abandoned house for a stretch, penniless but throwing house parties all the same, striving to break big as musicians. They both worked at a mattress factory, “breaking our backs working 12-hour shifts,” Swae recalls. “That wasn’t fun.” When Mike Will – whose credits include Gucci Mane, Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé – caught wind of their early work through a mutual acquaintance, he took them under his wing and groom them into superstars. When they got big, releasing hooky hits like “No Flex Zone” and “No Type,” they celebrated success with flamboyant glee, wearing pink fur coats and enormous Gucci ski goggles cocked sideways on their heads.
Here at their house, a six-bedroom rental listed at $12,000 a month, you can smell the weed from the driveway, where a Rolls Royce is parked. The kitchen is stocked with protein supplements, oatmeal cream pies and multiple boxes of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Cocoa Pebbles. The studio, off the living room, is decorated with a life-size E.T. and a bunch of Dragon Ball Z figurines. As Swae sits in a swivel chair, Lil G wraps his arms tenderly around his neck. “I can’t be without him – he go with me to the grocery store,” Swae says of the monkey, taking a deep drag from a blunt. I point up at a smoke detector, and say I’m surprised it’s not blaring. “I didn’t know we had one in here!” he says. “That shit must be immune to smoke now. Or it must be high as shit.” I note that Lil G must be getting a contact high, too. Swae considers this: “I don’t blow smoke at him, but yeah, he probably be high.”
The brothers play some songs from the new album, which consists of three discs – two “solo” sides and a group disc combining their styles. “My side is crazy melodic,” says Swae, cuing up a reggaetón-ish track called “Guatemala,” about taking a girl to Guatemala. There’s another song on Swae’s disc called “Little Marliesia,” but he says, “I might need to change that title because she’s controversial now.”
Just the other day, it turns out, Marliesia took to social media accusing Swae of infidelity. “People think I cheated on her with Blac Chyna,” Swae explains. “Did you?” Marliesia asks. He is silent for about five seconds before answering, “I’m not a cheater.” She leans over to him and murmurs something about how he’d better not change the song title.
Jxmmi tells me he’s not as comfortable singing as his brother, and so he “came out spraying” – he mimes firing a machine gun – on his solo disc. His tracks are flinty and sparse. On one, called “Fuck It, I’m Balling,” he raps, “I might just get lost inside of these drugs.” He tells me this is a metaphor: “The drug is balling. We don’t care: We living reckless! Somebody come get me before I spend all my money!”
The guests across Sr3mm include Young Thug, Future, Travis Scott and, rapping with surprising ferocity, Zoe Kravitz. “We linked up through mutual friends,” Jxmmi explains. “I wrote her verse. She’s savage. She’s cool. She smokes. Her feature price about to go up.”
The album’s release date has been pushed back a few times – thanks to tinkering, the brothers say, and to their label’s sense of ideal timing. Jxmmi says he’s impatient, though: “I can’t sleep at night.” Swae turns to me. “When it come out, it’s gonna change the world,” he says. “I’m about to make a major statement. I’m about to take a massive shit. Everyone’s gonna hear this album and know that real rock stars lived on the Earth at the same time they did.”