It’s shortly after 12 p.m. on a muggy, sluggish Monday in August, and Aaquil “Slim Jxmmi” Brown is shirtless under his pink fur.
“I’m about to start modeling for Gucci in this damn coat!” he jokes.
The 24-year-old hops from the ledge of a black Benz party truck, steps briefly into a spa in New York’s Greenwich Village, and then hustles back outside to puff a blunt while waiting for his 23-year-old brother, Khalif “Swae Lee” Brown, to exit the vehicle. They step into the spa as a unit—Rae Sremmurd—heading for a small room made cozier by a hot tub. The pair needs some relaxation before what promises to be an intense day: They’re in New York City to spread the celebration gospel of their sophomore album, SremmLife 2 (out today), and to settle some scores. Jxmmi gestures to his fur again and says, “I’m wearing this to all our interviews. I hope we see Ebro tomorrow.”
Last year, Hot 97’s Ebro Darden, the New York radio personality and former program director had harsh criticism for the Mississippi duo, who became superstars under the tutelage of Atlanta producer Mike WiLL Made-It. Specifically, he objected to Complex placing their debut album, SremmLife, in the No. 3 spot of the best albums of 2015 list. Ebro said he enjoyed their music and called them “nice kids” but went on to explain, “The words ‘high level’ and ‘rap’ for Rae Sremmurd’ is not a thing. They didn’t write that shit. Any of it. Mike WiLL Made-It made that album.”
“Those are false accusations,” Swae Lee says. Rae Sremmurd has an on-air interview with Ebro scheduled for the next day, so the mood is a little tense. “If you want to see who wrote our songs, look at our credits. Don't pull shit out your ass.”
Jxmmi jumps in: “The bruh say we don't write our own lyrics. Do you read the credits? Since you do so much research and you know so much about hip-hop. The credits are gonna have all the writers. Who the writers? Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi.”
Not everyone wants to see Rae Sremmurd live out their dreams. Critics—Ebro is just one of them—question their artistry and deride them for a perceived lack of depth. And they have fresh ammunition now: SremmLife produced hit after hit, but the songs they’ve released since haven’t popped. With the release of their second album, a question looms large: Is Rae Sremmurd here to stay, or is it one and done? How do two artists known for nonstop partying get serious about sophomore pressure?
Over the next couple hours at the spa, Jxmmi playfully talks shit to Ebro on Twitter. “@Ebro tomorrow it’s going to be [three fire emojis],” he tweets, referencing the duo’s upcoming Hot 97 interview. Ebro’s response: “Facts. Still not #3 of 2015.”
“It’s all good, we platinum now,” Jxmmi tweets back; SremmLife was certified in July. For him, that's the trump card. He shows the tweet to everyone in the room.
“Yo I just murdered Ebro! He think he got more swag than me, I got more swag than you, bro!” he shouts. “I don’t care about your list, ain’t no one care about Ebro’s list…. You said we not number three—shit, the world say we platinum.”
Rae Sremmurd is in their early 20s, but they look like teens: they stand at about 5’6” and appear to weigh maybe 150 pounds soaking wet. The baby-faced Swae Lee seems perpetually high, speaking quickly but calmly, his eyes fixed in a permanent squint. Jxmmi enunciates more deliberately, and alternates between running around a room and settling back into his chair to chill. They can be on at a moment’s notice.
“We got high metabolism,” Swae says, laughing. “We always been like that.”
But for now, Jxmmi reclines in a chair next to the hot tub, enjoying his buzz. The fur is finally gone, and his tattooed torso is covered by chains. His signature Gucci goggles hug the side of his head. He says Red Tails, the movie that told the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of black pilots who fought during World War II, inspired the look. “I was like, That shit look clean,” he says of the goggles. “All my little kid dreams, I’m living them out.”
Starting out as teens under the name Dem Outta St8 Boys, Swae and Jxmmi produced their own music, threw parties at an abandoned house in Tupelo, Mississippi (where they also lived for a time), and booked shows in Kentucky, Alabama, and Georgia. In 2014 they were discovered by P-Nasty, a producer on Mike WiLL Made-It’s Ear Drummer label. After moving to Atlanta to focus on music, the duo signed to Ear Drummer Records and renamed themselves Rae Sremmurd.
In May 2014, they released their first single, “No Flex Zone,” and everything changed. The song’s unhinged hook, coupled with Mike WiLL’s methodically busy beat, made it a club staple and one of the hottest songs of the summer. Nicki Minaj remixed it, giving the squeaky-voiced upstarts a stamp of approval. “No Type” touched down in September, preaching about democratic taste in sexual partners, and surpassed the reach of “No Flex Zone,” peaking at No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100. That one-two punch culminated with SremmLife. The January 2015 release yielded five singles, but also held up as a complete album, a relentless 11-song set that wasted no time.
The duo’s creative process, much like the songs it churns out, is rooted in instant gratification. They rarely sit down to write rhymes. They vibe to a beat—usually from Mike WiLL Made-It—and record off the top of the head several times before picking out the highlights that will make the final cut. It’s how they crafted their hits, and it was the approach that resulted in the hook for Beyoncé’s “Formation,” the lead single from LEMONADE and the namesake of her subsequent stadium tour. Swae Lee freestyled the words “ladies, let’s get in formation” over one of the many beats in Mike WiLL’s library, and when it eventually reached Bey’s ears, she saw the potential. Swae Lee received a writing credit in the liner notes, but Jxmmi tells Complex that parts of his freestyle made the final cut as well.
“Don’t nobody know it, so I’ma say it here first: We both wrote on that record and it go crazy. I got my credits too,” he says. “When she first dropped it, I didn’t know I wrote nothing on it, but now I know.”
“We might fuck around and write sometimes, then sometimes we might just freestyle four bars and make a smash,” Swae Lee boasts. He reveals that Katy Perry recorded something he wrote for her as well. “I wrote this track and she laid it and it’s pretty dope. She got a lot of style. She about to come with it!”
With cosigns like Perry and Beyoncé, Rae Sremmurd say avoiding a sophomore slump is just a matter of continuing to do what they’ve been doing. Swae and Jxmmi feel that they already proved themselves with SremmLife; now their job is to satiate the fans they charmed.
“They know who we is, we know what we got,” Jxmmi says. “Ain’t nobody know us before, so our first [album] was the pressure one. We don’ did it from nothing. We started from zero and went to 100. Ain’t nothing to go to 200!”
But unlike their initial singles, the four songs released in the months leading up to SremmLife 2 have been slow to catch on. “By Chance,” “Over Here,” “Look Alive,” and “Do Yoga” have all failed to crack Billboard’s Hot 100. Rae Sremmurd say that’s because of how much those songs diverge from their previous singles—much of the new material is less frenetic, more downbeat. “Look Alive” is an especially hazy left-turn for fans primed for explosions rather than end-of-the-party rambling.
“Sometimes when something so different, people don’t know how to take it,” Jxmmi says.
Even without a radio smash for their new album, 2016 has been a huge year for Rae Sremmurd: They landed a lucrative partnership with Puma, shot a forthcoming limited series with MTV, recently recorded with Diplo and ComplexCon headliner Skrillex, and are embarking on a tour with Atlanta oddball Lil Yachty. Plenty to be excited about; plenty of protection against naysayers. “We just want to kill all the hate, basically,” Swae says.
But when asked if they’re working on solo material, the mood in the room changes. Jxmmi shifts in his chair and sighs. “I already know the industry been wanting to ask that question,” he says. “The whole industry going to do shit to separate us. We got separate tracks, because we can both rap.” Moments later, he says he won’t release his solo material, “because I don’t want to satisfy the world like that.”
But Swae Lee admits that he has a possible album in the works, “a retarded project called Swaecation,” he says. “I have eight songs right now that I feel like are candidates for the project, but I gotta make sure they’re all up to par.”
Jxmmi, meanwhile, is skeptical of anything that casts the group as anything but a rock-solid unit. “Don’t be interviewing Rae Sremmurd if you’re only going to do half an interview,” he cautions later.
In response, Swae Lee clarifies his Swaecation revelation: “When we say solo projects, we say chances for the fans to get to see us individually. But we’re still Sremmed out. We might put them on the same disc—who knows? We definitely got different projects that we’re working on and tweaking.”
For his part, Jxmmi wants to renew his focus on DJing. He manned the sounds at their house parties back when they were teenagers, and he wants to use their new position to help put on artists like Bobo Swae and Impxct, from SremmLifeCrew, the new label the brothers founded in March. He wants to empower others through partying. “Even through bad situations we would have a good attitude, and that had a lot to do with energy,” Jxmmi says. “I’m turn up everything. I’m dynamite! For my generation I’m fucking Uncle Luke.”
Later that day, at a private show at VFILES, a streetwear boutique in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, Rae Sremmurd partly backs up Jxmmi’s boast. The packed scene recalls one of the parties they hosted at their abandoned house in Mississippi three years ago. As the DJ plays SremmLife songs before the performance, the audience—a cramped collection of 20-somethings—moshes and pushes into the rail guarding the stage. The appearance of the brothers riles up the crowd even further; a security guard motions for the throng to back away from the stage. But Swae Lee taps the man’s shoulder and tells him to stop, before motioning for the crowd to come closer.
Midway through the set, the power to the DJ’s laptop and the lights go out; the only sound is coming from Swae Lee and Jxmmi’s microphones. Unbothered, they rap acapella versions of “No Type” and “No Flex Zone,” keeping the crowd’s energy up while the DJ and their handlers scramble to figure out the cause of the power outage. Issue resolved, they continue the performance without a hitch. So long as they give their energy to the audience, they’ll get it back in return. All setbacks are temporary.
“It was way harder before,” Jxmmi says later, reflecting on their days scraping by in Mississippi. “This is way easy.”
Shot at Silk Day Spa.
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