Spotify’s most popular R&B playlist includes 40 songs, and almost every one contains drums. But you won’t find any percussion in Pink Sweat$’ “Honesty” — little more than a tranquil line on guitar and a series of harmonies, the track is like a demo that never got beefed up but somehow sneaked onto the streaming platform anyway. That fragility immediately marks it as an outlier, and that’s the point.
“I’m not trying to be different — I am different,” Pink Sweat$ says. “I never talk about sex in an explicit way; that’s intentional. I never degrade women; that’s intentional. I don’t have a [fancy] haircut. I wear pink. That’s not typical for the history of R&B.”
Setting aside color preferences for a moment — “He told me yesterday that his bedsheets are pink; that’s dedication,” says Miles Beard, an A&R who signed Sweat$ to a publishing deal — now is a good time for the singer to peddle his stripped-back acoustic sound. That’s because R&B’s mainstream has begun turning away from the trap-indebted style that led to hits for Ty Dolla $ign and Bryson Tiller. Instead, the genre is making room for artists who produce soothing ballads with the texture of lullabies.
Acoustic instruments crept back onto R&B radio in 2017, when Kevin Ross’ “Long Song Away” and Sevyn Streeter’s “Before I Do” both became hits. Daniel Caesar scored with a pair of acoustic ballads last year that did well on both the airwaves and streaming; “Best Part” was almost drum-less. Sweat$ is a logical extension of this style, and he is currently enjoying heavy support on streaming services: “Honest” is in the Number Two position on Are & Be, with close to 35 million streams on Spotify alone.
That’s quick work, considering that Pink Sweat$ had never released a song before last July. He grew up in “the ‘hood in Philly” focused on drumming. After an alienating move to a well-off, predominantly white suburb in the 10th grade, he sang in front of a non-church audience for the first time at a talent show, hoping that the exposure would help him meet some of his more standoffish peers, especially those of the opposite sex. Back in Philadelphia after graduating, unsure of what he wanted to do, Sweat$ “started hanging around studios.” “People I knew a little older than me had a spot,” he recalls.
Though he wasn’t necessarily interested in the spotlight, he had deep reserves of talent. “I’ve never played the violin in my life,” Sweat$ says. “But if I picked it up tomorrow I’m 100 percent sure I could make something that sounds decent.”
“He’s not the kind of guy that needs to sit there and pick apart a lyric for an hour,” adds Beard. “He just sets up a microphone by a chair or a sofa and starts going — he has that gift.”
Sweat$’ talent soon became apparent to those around him. “One day I demo’d a song for somebody, went in the booth and freestyled, and the studio erupted,” he remembers. Even so, he didn’t immediately move his focus away from writing. “I was always doing different shit — writing, like, country songs in the ‘hood where motherfuckers be walking around with guns,” he says. “We were at the studio one time with a dude who had an Uzi. It’s like, what if he trips, not even on some malicious shit, or gets startled? That’s when I was like, I gotta figure out how to get up outta here.”
Another factor added urgency to Sweat$’ turn towards singing: “I got sick with achalasia,” he says. “It deteriorates the nerves in your esophagus.” He spent months throwing up multiple times a day and suffered from depression before he was properly diagnosed and treated. “Being diagnosed with achalasia put things into perspective for me — it made me realize I shouldn’t waste time, because I didn’t know if this would lead to me losing my voice,” Sweat$ says. “The universe gave me a reason” to sing again.
He already knew his mission as a singer. “I’m tired of hearing the same varieties of styles,” Sweat$ explains. “I hear songs, and I know that’s a hit, but damn, I heard that flow so many fucking times. People are like, ‘You gotta put the Migos flow on it.’ Why?”
Even before “Honesty” came out as his lead single in July, Sweat$ and his manager, Josh Feshbach, forged a relationship with Indify, a company that prides itself on using streaming and social media data to identify potential stars very early in their careers. Singer-songwriters seem to perform particularly well on the artist-discovery platform, which music industry insiders pay to access. Indify, in turn, brought Sweat$ to the attention of Human Re Sources, a distribution company that was founded with financial help from Spotify and has a direct relationship — though not an exclusive one — with the streaming service. Human Re Sources signed Sweat$ and started pushing his music to various playlist gurus.
“Playlisting is so important these days,” says Austin Thomas, who runs A&R at Human Re Sources. “Based off relationships we have at Spotify, Apple, Amazon and other platforms, we can really put a plan around an artist, and Pink is the perfect example of that.” This week, Sweat$ was in the Number Four position on Are & Be, higher than both veteran stars (Chris Brown, Trey Songz) and newer acts like Jacquees and Ella Mai with major radio singles. Since Are & Be has close to five million followers, Sweat$’ high position helped bump up his overall streaming numbers, revenue and general visibility.
That paid off almost immediately. Beard works at Artist Publishing Group — a boutique label and music publisher with a roster of writers that includes Charlie Puth and Yung Berg — and he watched as “Honesty” started to pop up on major playlists. Soon after, he reached out to Sweat$ about a potential publishing deal. “We flew him out to L.A. five days later and booked him for a bunch of [writing] sessions,” Beard says. “It was amazing: He could do the acoustic-R&B thing, but he was writing songs for movies, hip-hop hooks, straight pop songs.”
APG signed Sweat$ for publishing — he has already sold songs to a number of other artists — and soon major labels were fighting to sign him as an artist. “The label side got more aggressive than the publishing stuff,” Beard says. “It was every single person putting out an offer.” Atlantic ended up the winner, according to a source who works closely with Sweat$. (The label declined to comment on the deal.)
Sweat$ released Volume 1, a six-track EP, in November, with all the songs following the acoustic format of “Honesty.” While the palette is restricted, the tracks flit across styles. At times, Sweat$ sounds like the heir to the soft-soul singer Tony Rich. But the guitar tuning on “Cocaine” is more Nineties alternative than R&B, and “No Replacing You” would fit right in on some rocker’s lost MTV Unplugged album.
His next EP, Volume 2, is due March 28, and it will maintain the bare feel of the first installment. There will be some percussion, this time around, but not of the conventional variety. “The drums are not actually drums — it’s me hitting the table, clapping my hands, snapping,” Sweat$ says. “People are still like, ‘Most times you release a full-produced thing first.’ And I’m like, that’s why I’m doing it the other way.”