When Latto appears in the lobby of the Sea Fire Grill, a seafood restaurant in midtown Manhattan, it’s apparent that she is on edge. As is everyone else: Her entourage has preceded her arrival by a few minutes, trickling in in twos and threes, until there are 12 of us waiting to be seated for a seven-person reservation that was supposed to begin an hour ago.
Latto scans the scene, seemingly trying to determine the likelihood that this mid-November night is about to go left. One of her managers procures a hairbrush and smooths out her 40 inches of pin-straight 613-blonde hair, which contrasts nicely against her outfit, essentially a black silk Balenciaga pajama set. It’s a sweet gesture, but the moment remains tense. It’s been a long day, and this is Latto’s last stop for the night. “I would never live here,” she says of New York. “I cannot see it, like, it’s too busy. Where’s your peace? Where is your relax time?”
The 23-year-old rapper, who hails from Atlanta, is capping off a stellar year of success. After making her full-length debut in 2020 with Queen of Da Souf, an album as stone-cold as it was sultry, she spent most of 2021 spitting out singles to remind listeners of her qualifications. She’s collaborated with Young Thug and Future, snatched up corporate soundtrack checks from F9 and a Netflix film starring Halle Berry, and waited patiently to perform at festivals like Rolling Loud as the world tentatively began opening up again.
The hostess informs us that only 10 of us can be seated; two members of our group vanish quietly by the time we make it to the table, nestled in a far back nook of the restaurant. Looking at the menu, Latto softens up. She considers trying caviar for the first time, but decides she’s too hungry to experiment.
Just a few hours ago, she taped her first-ever talk-show performance, on Late Night with Seth Meyers. She thinks the performance went well, but she admits she was nervous about the choreography, since she was not able to first practice it in her boots — a chunky heeled pair of over-the-knee Louboutins whose black and red matched her ladybug-inspired ensemble.
Seated with Latto and her sister Brooklyn are several label people, team members, and colleagues who feel more like a group of close-knit friends. Everyone is chattering, and Latto doesn’t know what to get on the wine list; after much back and forth, her sister and a friend choose a glass of Riesling for her. It arrives with a small fleet of oysters. “All right, so boom,” Latto says excitedly, showing Brooklyn how to eat the shellfish. Latto has always been a seafood fan, but only recently discovered the joys of oysters.
Latto snaps a few quick shots of the wine glass in her hand, remarking on how elegant it looks. And it does look elegant — her bejeweled fingers matching the glint of her dazzly purse, a set of bracelets that are probably worth more than my life, and a timeless set of French nail press-ons. “I swear to God, you would think based on my aesthetic and my image and stuff I like to be glammed up,” she told me. “My favorite is sweats on, no nails,” she says. Tonight, she’s also wearing Bottega Veneta sparkle stretch heels, but she says she would prefer to be in a pair of Air Force Ones any day. In a brief Zoom conversation back in July, she told me she prefers taking care of her family to spending money on herself. Most of the people at the table have small touches of ice on them; she and Brooklyn wear matching diamond cuban link necklaces.
Visually, Latto is the culmination of a certain class of female rapper that is as glamorous as it is braggadocious. You would hardly ever guess that she was born Alyssa Stephens — a name that feels understated compared to the scale of the life she lives. Her name has been a focus of much conversation and debate: Since her 2016 win on the reality competition show The Rap Game, where she performed under the stage name “Miss Mulatto,” she’s dropped the “Miss” and then, more recently, the “Mu.”
At first, she rejected complaints and comments about her original stage name’s connection to the racial epithet. “I was trying to stick with what I thought I knew,” she says. “I knew my intentions. I wasn’t open to changing it, because I was like, ‘If y’all don’t understand it, then that’s on y’all.’ But I’m maturing and growing as a person.” Eventually, she came around, and she now sees those previous feelings as an unfortunate product of her own stubbornness.
A few drinks in, the table bursts into a conversation about star signs. Latto is a Capricorn, with her birthday falling three days shy of Christmas. She says her boyfriend is a Libra (she is notoriously quiet about who she’s dating — “Blogs want to know who I’m fuckin’/Rap bitch ain’t talking ‘bout nothing,” she raps on a recent single). Soon everyone is roasting different signs, and the table shakes with laughter. “I think Capricorns are the greatest sign to walk this earth,” Latto says. “But I don’t know, I just heard that.”
She is planning a big-ass, Wild West-themed 23rd birthday party when we meet, and at dinner she remembers, suddenly, to tell her manager to hit up Lil Nas X — she would love for him to perform “Old Town Road” at the soiree. “And this one is a reach, but I want Miley Cyrus to perform ‘Party in the USA,’” she swoons. Latto, who began rapping at age eight, was in middle school when the track was released. “I just thought she was so badass,” she said. “I used to watch that music video over and over again.” She also wants a mechanical bull, strategically positioned in the party so that everyone can see.
As her salmon arrives, Latto and Brooklyn film several takes of a TikTok video in which Latto scarfs down her meal to match the plate-clanging and chewing noises of an audio clip from the movie White Chicks. Soon after the meal, it becomes one of her most viewed videos, with more than 10 million views.
While TikTok is a big starmaker for many artists these days, Latto prides herself on the years of hustle and dedication she put in long before she ever heard of the app. “A lot of people just do this for a check: Make a catchy song, and go viral,” she says. “But I was at the end of the real cipher come-up, the groundwork, passing out CDs thing.”
Her recent single “Big Energy,” powered by the same bouncy, retro Tom Tom Club beat that Mariah Carey used in her 1995 hit “Fantasy,” feels hyper-curated for the TikTok generation. It has been a slow burn to its Top 40 spot— its reception has been mixed; some listeners weren’t sure what to make of the pop sound, and others felt her flow sounded too similar to other popular female rappers. In an early December tweet, Latto wrote, “Ian gone lie Twitter kinda killed my enthusiasm for Big Energy when it dropped.. I got unmotivated & didn’t wanna promote it anymore cuz of the negative reactions.”
Producers have pointed out to her that she tends to pick slow, Southern beats. “Big Energy” was a conscious attempt to take a creative risk, and it’s brought her a lot of new fans: The track is her most commercially successful yet. Another recent single, “Soufside,” is a fiery, more classically Latto-style track, running just under two minutes. She says the brevity was strategic. “They tuned in, and I want to keep them tuned in, cause they’re like, ‘Hey, who is this girl?’”
Latto has accomplished a lot, especially considering the difficult circumstances under which she launched her career. Just a few months after she signed with RCA in December 2019, she was headed to an on-air interview in Ohio when she was told the gig was off — nobody was allowed in the station. She and the team headed back to their hotel and tried to order some food, but every restaurant in the area said they were closing up their kitchens.
The year of her dreams had arrived, and everything she had been working towards now seemed in jeopardy due to the pandemic. “I was almost depressed,” she said. “I’m like, ‘My career is over… What the fuck?’”
Latto credits her team for keeping her together. “I feel like we blossomed during quarantine,” she said. “That’s when the team got creative.” Plus, she finally had the time to watch Player’s Club. (To the table’s dismay, she has seen few classic Black movies — not Love and Basketball, not Boyz in the Hood, not Menace to Society. Her friends shoot off titles, and she shakes her head each time as they shriek with laughter and tsk at her.)
Latto describes the platinum and gold plaques that she got last spring for “Muwop” (featuring Gucci Mane) and “B*tch From Da Souf (Remix)” (with Trina and Saweetie) as the highlight of her quarantine. “They was like, ‘We got something for you,’” she tells me, melting at the memory. “And I’m thinking it’s some flowers, but my manager comes out with a plaque. I was crying. That was my favorite, because I don’t play about my plaques. I don’t let anybody touch them — like, look from afar!”
While she’s done her fair share of big-name features, Latto says she intends to mostly keep to herself on her upcoming tracks. “Hold your own, and then nobody can take credit later,” she says. She did land a particularly fun feature with 2 Chainz in November 2020. It was a quick and dirty single, titled “Quarantine Thick” (“She been quarantinin’, now lil’ shawty thick”). He wanted another rapper from Atlanta’s south side on the track, so she was the perfect fit. “I can’t even wrap my head around it,” Latto says. “He could have got somebody that would have got him hella more streams, or somebody that’s way more lit than me.”
Latto’s mom manages the business side of her career, which can get weird at times, but she feels it’s better than getting a stranger involved in her mix. “I want people to know my come-up, my grind, my authenticity,” she says. “I don’t come from rich parents. I just come from hustle.”
Her parents are both from Ohio, where she was born; the family moved to Atlanta when she was two and her mom was still in her teens. “They moved to Atlanta fresh out of high school and just built this life. They had no family here,” she says. “I like it now, but when I was young she was too hip. I couldn’t sneak to the movies or to the skating rink. She was like, ‘Baby, not too long ago I was meeting boys at the skating rink and the movies too.’”
Latto had to pull out of school in tenth grade, and finished her junior and senior year online. At 16, she won The Rap Game and all bets were off. “I wouldn’t change it,” she says. “It’s been my life. It’s just gonna get bigger and bigger scale every year.”
Recently, Latto held an event at the same Skate Zone in Clayton County where she used to hang out when she was younger. The fact that she was able to pay for the skates and food for everyone in attendance felt incredible. “That’s what means the most, when I can circle back to shit I come from,” she says. “Little girls came up to me like, ‘Can I rap for you?’… I’m somebody else’s goals — that’s goals.”
Latto plans to release her second LP this year, preferably after it gets warm out. She wants her next album to do double the numbers of Queen of Da Souf, which sold 14,300 units in its first week. “It’s still in progress because I keep changing my sound, my flows, even the topic,” she says. “I think it’ll be a pre-summer turn up, but it depends on how I feel.” In theory, she could release it right now if she wanted to. But there are a lot of eyes on her at the moment, and she wants everything to be right.
Does she want to prove herself? Yes, of course. Does she feel like she has to? In a way, not really. She and her mother and her sister can have anything they want — what else could she ask for? “I just bought my first house,” she says. “I bought my little dream car. I bought my mom a car and my sister a car. My sister staying with me, she ain’t leaving my side.”
In the current climate, rapping as a woman is a production: a show that is on 24/7, money all the time, rain or shine. “I literally get dressed for Instagram to take pictures,” Latto says. “I have sweats on every other hour of the day.”
As we leave the restaurant, long after all the other patrons, she poses out front for her photographer while she and her entourage wait for black cars to take them into the night. She strolls in and out of the front door over and over, like a real-life boomerang clip, stopping occasionally to let Brooklyn brush her hair. It’s the last bit of work for the evening, before Latto retreats to her hotel room to watch her performance on Seth Meyers. She wants to see it through everyone else’s eyes.