Sr3MM, the triple album that Rae Sremmurd released in May, failed to spawn a Top 25 hit. But that hasn’t hampered group member Swae Lee, who established an impressive solo pedigree this year by appearing on a string of hits crossing multiple genres. His is the first voice on Jhene Aiko’s drowsy R&B cut “Sativa,” which came out last year but peaked at radio — and earned a platinum certification — in June. That’s Lee chirping “someone says” on Travis Scott’s bunker-busting “Sicko Mode,” which reached Number One on the Hot 100 this month. Lee is also a vital presence on two different pop radio hits, “Sunflower” with Post Malone and “Close to Me” with Ellie Goulding and Diplo, which combined to reach an audience of more than 43 million listeners last week.
And those are just his biggest singles. In addition, Lee contributed to “Chun Swae,” a highlight from Nicki Minaj’s Queen, “Arms Around You,” a bizarre track with Lil Pump, XXXTentacion and Maluma that reached Number 28 on the Hot 100, “Hopeless Romantic,” a Gold-certified team-up with Wiz Khalifa, and “Borrowed Love,” an afrobeats fusion record on Metro Boomin’s Number One album Not All Heroes Wear Capes.
Lee had a good year, so Rolling Stone spoke with him about it.
Did you decide at the start of this year that you would really work to establish yourself as a solo presence?
Me and my brother both have different styles. I always want to be doing something, never taking a moment off. I’m always locked in the studio, so I wanted to spread out a little bit, show ’em a different side of me, hone in on my melodic side, bring different fans in.
Of all the features you did, do you have a favorite?
“Borrowed Love” from the Metro album. The Diplo song. The Benny Blanco song [“Better to Lie”]. There are so many. I decided to work with Camila Cabello [on the remix of “Real Friends”] even though that song went under the radar and they didn’t put the right push on it. But I was excited to work with Camila Cabello. I’m a fan of hers. We need to make another one, an original song. I feel like we would make a smash. I feel like I’m missing a real important feature. Oh, “Sunflower!” Me and Post Malone. That’s one of my favorite ones. And the fact that it’s in a Spider-Man movie [Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse]? That’s huge.
I think one of your first hits this year was your feature on “Sativa.”
Oh yeah. I pulled up on Jhene super late one night. It was probably 12, 1 o’clock in the morning. She told me she had a couple songs, wanted to catch a wave, get something we could put out. She played that song; it was crazy. I did my verse. Smoke some sativa to it. Jxmmi put out a verse on it too. It’s platinum now.
Do you like working in the R&B space?
I’m a melody guy. I got melodies for days. That’s my strong point. Anything with a melody on it, I can knock that out quick. I’m like the real Rick James. I’m the new Michael Jackson. Once I learn how to dance.
A lot of your collaborators this year are more on the pop side of the spectrum rather than rappers. What’s that been like for you?
It’s dope. I wouldn’t say it’s new, because I’ve been making pop songs. But it’s good that the world is finally catching up to my wave, starting to understand these melodies and give me the credit that I think I deserve because I had a Number One song [“Black Beatles”]. There’s a certain audience that wanted to sleep on me, sleep on the Sremmlife shit. Finally they’re waking up. It’s a good feeling.
You’re on two different songs in the top 20 on pop radio this week. In the past, that format hasn’t been very friendly to hip-hop — do you feel like it’s more open now?
They’re definitely more open. My voice is becoming a household voice, something people are familiar with. It always has this feeling of either turn-up or missing someone. That’s what people say about it.
How did the Ellie Goulding and Diplo song come together?
Diplo and I from the same city, Tupelo Mississippi. Ellie Goulding’s a legend — her voice is crazy. You wouldn’t expect us to come together like that because we’re from two different worlds. But it’s making a lot of noise right now.
Do any collaborations seem too crazy for you?
Nah. I’m willing to try anything. A lot of people are scared, but that’s because their talents are limited. I can rap, sing all kind of stuff. I’m up for any task.
You didn’t mention “Sicko Mode,” but that’s Number One this week.
I forgot about that feature right there! Everyone wants to act like I’m not on that one. I did that “someone said” part that everybody knows and springs out when it comes on. Travis and I actually did seven songs together. That was the one he went the biggest with. It’s Number One, so I’ve got another Number One song under my belt.
Is there a reason that you’re not officially credited?
I don’t know what the reason is. I don’t take it to heart, because when that publishing comes in, I’m still getting some of that. The people that know, they know. I’m definitely on there. It’s unfortunate I couldn’t get credited for it. But no hard feelings. There’s 1000 more songs to be made. And there’s a hundred more times to go Number One.
How about your Nicki record, “Chun Swae”?
That joint is crazy right there. When I came up with that hook, I loved that hook. It was one of my favorites at the time. Metro Boomin produced it. Hopefully we get to do a video to it.
What do you like about Metro’s production?
It always cuts through whether he’s doing R&B, trap or some pop shit. It’s gonna be very melodic. And it’s going to spark some emotion in the people that listen to it.
Were you pleased with the reception to Swaecation, your third of Sr3mm?
No, I was not. Some people acted like they couldn’t understand a triple album, like it went over a lot of people’s heads. They really let me down. I put some really dope songs on there, some styles that people hadn’t heard from me yet. People’s attentions spans are so short, so I feel like all that music went over people’s heads. People who are ahead of the curve will know “Offshore” featuring Young Thug. They’ll know “Heat of the Moment.” They’ll know “Lost Angels,” which is one of the saddest — the ambience on that song is crazy. It’ll make you miss your ex.
People need to tune in more and understand, ok, this guy is dropping some major jewels. I want people to receive it and digest it, but if not, it’s ok, because I’m going to be making more songs, more vibes, that they can understand and easily rock with, that are easy on the ears.
Is that frustrating when you want to make a different style but fans want another “No Type”?
Yeah, sometimes they just want “No Type” or “Powerglide.” The ones we put a major push behind, they always show love. But I want them to be 100% tuned in to every single song that drops. I want them to know all the lyrics. I’m really passionate about my music.
How did you end up on “Sunflower”?
We was in the studio this one night in L.A. just going crazy all night. Cooking up, drinking corkscrews, drinking beers. We made six, seven songs. The Spider-Man people came and heard it and they picked that one. And I saw the movie already, and it’s crazy, because Spider-Man is actually singing the song in the movie. Hell yeah.
What was your favorite thing you heard this year that you weren’t on?
I liked “Mo Bamba.” That’s a dope song. He unlocked on that joint.
Do you have a strategy going into 2019?
No pressure on music. I’m back on tour now, but when I was off the road, I was in my old house, and I created like over 1,000 songs. I’ve got enough songs to last my whole life in the music game.