On Friday, Nicki Minaj released Queen, her fourth studio album. An early standout — outside of the internet-breaking “Barbie Dreams” — is “Chun Swae,” the Swae Lee-featuring, Metro Boomin-produced track that anchors the album’s midpoint. It’s an off-kilter, sweet and swirling song, and its unique tone is set wholly by Lee, known for his work as a rapper and singer in Rae Sremmurd. Swae gives nearly everything he touches these days that same tone, a sound built on his delicate falsetto and melodic curiosity. Nicki smartly cedes the spotlight on the track, deploying clearly demarcated, darting verses. As if to make this even clearer, Nicki names the song after her collaborator, something that sets him apart from other guests on Queen, like Eminem, The Weeknd and Future.
Swae Lee has long been sharpening his skills as one of hip-hop’s best (and strangest) hook masters. Since Rae Sremmurd burst onto the scene in 2015, he’s been known for his choruses, from the repetitive chants of “No Flex Zone” and “No Type” to the more melodic “Black Beatles.” In the last two years his voice and approach to songwriting have developed into a singular calling card. He writes looping, high-pitched interjections, memorable whether they’re positioned as the hook or just a phrase memorable enough that it becomes a chorus by default. He sings clearly, in an unusually high register, and in the synth and bass-drenched landscape of 2018 hip-hop, his voice always catches your attention.
On Swaecation, the solo outing that Lee contributed to Rae Sremmurd’s recent triple album SR3MM, he perfected his approach. An ideal Swae Lee song is “Touchscreen Navigation” or “Offshore” (featuring Young Thug) — meandering, built specifically for open windows and billowing shirts. Plenty of artists land on a signature sound; what’s interesting about Swae Lee is how easily he transplants that approach into other artists’ songs.
Another example arrived just last week in “Sicko Mode,” from Travis Scott’s Astroworld. Even though he’s competing with a whole host of names on the track — including Scott himself and, you know, Drake — Swae Lee makes himself indispensable with just a few syllables, repeating the phrase “someone said” with no further context or elaboration. None is needed. He’s uniquely capable of cutting through the haze, and for an occasionally doom-inducing artist like Scott, he’s a good number to have in your phone to unexpectedly brighten up your song.
Another standout from Lee came on “Spoil My Night” from Post Malone’s record-shattering beerbongs & bentleys. The album is light on features and heavy on Post Malone’s synthetic folk-rap, but on its second song, Swae Lee once again makes himself right at home. The result is close to a duet, and it immediately softens the Post Malone aesthetic, a show-stealing turn if there ever was one.
With “Chun Swae,” Nicki deploys Lee perfectly, corralling him to hook duties alone but imbuing the rest of the song with the free-wheeling near-melancholy that he’s been helping artists hit all summer. Swae Lee is beginning to corner a market, though it’s a market of his own invention.