It’s an unseasonably chilly spring day in Agoura Hills, Los Angeles, and everyone seems to be talking about it. A Complex film crew sets up shop outside of a big, beautiful home, the exterior of which is unassuming. Despite the three-car garage sitting adjacent, and a batting cage behind that, few would guess a celebrity lived here. Perhaps the Rolls Royce, with an all-white interior, parked in the cul-de-sac compromises that notion.
As people converse, a tatted man emerges from the front door in a white tank top, noticeably unaffected by the cool air. Donning a pink trucker hat and black jeans, he tugs on the straps of his scribbled-on backpack, and struts past the production crew to his black Ford Bronco. He marvels at the impressive machine, hops in, and revs the engine. A booming roar fills the air, causing many of the crew members to gasp.
This is Blackbear, an R&B singer/rapper (so the internet labels him) and producer who matches the truck’s sound with his own visceral, “WAAHOOOOO!”
As he does so, Mister Hay, Bear’s manager, calls me over.
“This is your first quote. Write this down,” he instructs. “Live your fucking life.”
Everyone laughs, but the poignancy of Hay’s comment—the immediacy of it—resonates given the artist he represents. In 2015, Blackbear was diagnosed with necrotizing pancreatitis. The disorder nearly claimed the then 24-year-old’s life.
“I’m grateful for every second,” he says.
Born Mat Musto in Pittston, Pennsylvania, Blackbear moved with his mom to Daytona Beach, Florida as a child. In high school, he and his friends formed a punk-rock band called Polaroid and Musto dropped out in 9th grade to focus on music. The move worked as the group landed a deal with Leakmob Records by the time Musto turned 16.
Shortly thereafter, he pursued a solo career under his given name and was discovered by Tabari Francis in 2008 on the mother of all social platforms, MySpace. Francis shopped Musto’s demo around, with industry giants like Akon and Ne-Yo taking interest. The latter took Musto to Atlanta and gave him a crash course in all aspects of music production.
In 2011, Musto adopted the Blackbear moniker and got his big break when he co-wrote Justin Bieber’s “Boyfriend” with future frequent collaborator and fellow Mansionz group member, Mike Posner. A newspaper clipping featuring a review of the song rests on his billiards table.
That same room, which Musto has affectionately dubbed the “Bear Den,” houses his customized pink rollerblades. Pink, being the unofficial color of Blackbear. In fact, he loves it so much that he enlisted Cam’ron, the Lord of Pink himself, to hop on a song called “bright pink tims” last year.
Additionally, several blown-up checks—the type presented to charities during halftime at basketball games—line the walls of the Bear Den. One is a $500,000 check to Riff Raff, the first major artist Blackbear signed to his production company, Beartrap Sound. Another is written to Blackbear with the amount reading 100 million streams, which is what his smash hit “do re mi” featuring Gucci Mane garnered.
Although Bear admittedly prefers to remain out of the spotlight, he still appreciates being recognized for his work. The accolades on his wall serve as a reminder to himself about what he’s done.
“The last time I claimed that I started something, people got mad,” he says with a laugh. “So I don't claim it anymore. I just… There's dates on my Instagram.”
He’s referring to being the first independent artist ever to monetize streaming on Soundcloud.
“I love being the first,” he continues with a smile. “I’m like obsessed with it.”
In 2017, Bear inked a $10 million contract with Interscope. No giant check hangs for that one, but it is referenced on his guitar (also containing pink, handwritten scribbles), mounted on a wall hook across from the front door.
The reason I make music is to make people feel something, anything.
Despite the record deal, Blackbear isn’t trapped. According to Hay and an IG post from Bear, the rapper and his team still own the music he releases; Interscope has simply “leased the rights” to digital druglord (2017) and cybersex (2017), his two most recent albums.
It’s an interesting place to be in an industry where artists are typically either staunchly independent or beholden to 360 deals. Blackbear doesn’t quite belong to either category. The freedom this situation presents won’t compromise his other business ventures, like his partnership with Puma to promote the release of the new RS-0. Nor will it affect his creativity or (most importantly) his music.
“The reason I make music is to make people feel something, anything… It’s the same reason [why] I like to draw all over my walls,” the 27-year-old says. “Hopefully it's the right time, right moment [when] it comes on.”
Looking back, Musto admits he formed Polaroid for other reasons: to be popular and get girls. But for those who followed Blackbear’s career since he was a teenager, they’ve witnessed the gradual maturation of a musician to an artist; a boy to a man, with many growing along with him.
Blackbear is reinvention, personified: he went from being a punk-rock artist, to rapping and singing over trap beats; he traded in his black hair for yellow, green, or pink hair (depending on his mood); and of course, ditched his birth name.
For someone unfamiliar with the L.A.-based musician’s trajectory, diving through his catalog is a bit like watching the movie Boyhood. You see snapshots of the eras of a person’s life, finding yourself surprised at how vastly different each iteration is. Somehow, “A Conclusion,” an emo-rock song symbolic of the time period (early 2000s) it was released, and the 2017 hi-hat, heavy kick drum trap single “do re mi” were performed by the same person.
“It’s important to reinvent yourself often, because if you don't, someone else will and squash you like a bug.”
That constant evolution has allowed Blackbear to amass an incredibly expansive discography and diverse catalog. He’s released four studio albums since 2015 (not including the three collaborative projects with Mod Sun, Mike Posner, and 24hrs) and six EPs as a solo artist. Because he dabbles in genres ranging from punk to R&B to rap, regardless of music genre preference, there is a Blackbear song to accommodate any listening palette and any mood.
Blackbear explains his early-to-mid 2010s shift towards R&B as a result of “wanting to get better.” Anthony Hamilton, Brandy, and Monica served as influences, but no one inspired his fondness for the genre as much as Bill Withers.
“I think, personally, he’s one of the greatest songwriters of all time.”
The movement toward rap can be attributed (at least partially) to surviving pancreatitis. It informed digital druglord and cybersex.
“I was feeling very like, you know, fuck yeah!” Which is a pretty solid, succinct review of the project. Up-tempo, plenty of bass, appreciating life in the moment.
I grew up and learned to listen and to shut the fuck up, just stop talking so much. Settle back, because I don’t know shit. No one does.
A common theme in Blackbear’s music is girls, and the pain from rocky relationships. “Idfc,” his 2016 smash single that reached platinum status, is equal parts hypocritical and honest (and as Blackbear himself claims, “sarcastic”). As much as he reiterates, “I don’t fucking care,” it makes you glean that he does, in fact, care. Especially when he says, “I’ve got hella feelings for you.”
The 27-year-old’s pain extends beyond the music. He still feels discomfort from the pancreatitis, which is visible as we sit down to chat. In fact, he apologies multiple times for it, and attempts to mask some of the pain, literally, by wearing sunglasses inside.
“Fighting to get up in the morning, fighting to get on stage, fighting to make music that makes people feel good when I don't: That's been a struggle,” he confesses.
“I need to focus more on the label and be healthy,” he pauses. “I wanna live long. As long as I can.”
Considering how much music he makes, taking his foot off the pedal is probably best for Bear. The thing is, singing, writing, and mixing tracks are cathartic for him. And his listeners.
“There’s like a therapeutic, good feeling that comes from a good song. At the right time.”
Storytelling is what Blackbear does best, but over time, he’s learned that he doesn’t always have to be the one who’s saying something. Listening is key to growth, and it’s what will allow him to continue to evolve, as well as mentor the Beartrap team he’s assembling.
“When I say listen, I mean with your eyes, with your ears. With your soul,” he says. “I grew up and learned to listen and to shut the fuck up, just stop talking so much. Settle back, because I don’t know shit. No one does.”
Only time will tell what the next iteration of Blackbear looks and sounds like. For now, play one of his songs and see where it takes you.
The PUMA RS-0 is available Apr. 14 at select stores and releases globally on Apr. 19 for $130.