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In February, no one knew who RMR was.
Four months later, we still don’t know a lot about the mysterious masked artist. But now, he has a major label deal with Warner Records, loads of industry buzz, and collaborations with A-list rappers like Future, Lil Baby, and Westside Gunn.
It's all thanks to one of the most brilliantly executed introductions from a new artist we've seen in years. On the morning of February 27, RMR uploaded a music video for his debut song, "Rascal." It opens with a shot of four men, each aiming guns at the camera. In the middle is RMR, wearing a bulletproof vest, a ski mask, and a large gun slung over his shoulder. It looks like a scene out of a Chief Keef video, until RMR opens his mouth and belts out an a cappella version of Rascal Flatts' "These Days." Then he transitions into a stirring take on "Bless the Broken Road," updated to include lines like, "Fuck 12, fuck 12/Fuck 12, fuck 12."
It went viral immediately.
Within hours, every major label A&R in the country was scrambling to get in touch with the masked man in the video. And as "Rascal" continued to make the rounds on Twitter that afternoon, RMR was already fielding calls from journalists at major outlets like Rolling Stone. By that weekend, the video had been removed from YouTube amid rumors of a copyright strike, but the impact of the viral frenzy couldn't be undone. RMR had everyone's attention.
At first, it all seemed a little too good to be true. Here was a mysterious masked artist who popped up out of nowhere with a viral video that married the worlds of hip-hop and country, aided by a juicy controversy about being removed from YouTube. Only a year after the arrival of Lil Nas X, "Rascal" was met with some natural skepticism that it might be part of a devious plan from some music industry executive who wanted to recapture the magic of "Old Town Road." And even if it was authentic, no one was sure if RMR had more to offer than one clever music video and some slick internet marketing. What would he do next?
A couple months later, Warner Records announced they had partnered with CMNTY RCRDS to sign RMR after Masked Gorilla's Roger Gengo flagged the young artist within the label. Then RMR put out a sturdy follow-up single called "Dealer," along with a Future and Lil Baby-assisted remix that put any one-hit-wonder concerns to rest.
In late May, an advanced copy of his debut EP, Drug Dealing Is a Lost Art, made its way to my inbox, and by the time I made it to the third song, I knew I had to speak with him. Anyone who hears this EP will know there's a lot more going on here than an internet-savvy artist who figured out how to harness the surprise factor of another rap-meets-country moment. RMR isn't a gimmick or the brainchild of an old music executive. He's a natural-born songwriter with a powerful voice that can shape-shift to match any genre or musical backdrop it encounters. Somehow, RMR is just as effective teaming up with Westside Gunn for a rags-to-riches anthem as he is belting out melodies on a country song. He can do it all.
After the success of "Rascal," RMR did a few short interviews where he offered up vague responses like, "I'm from the world," when asked about his background, so I was a little worried he might not be ready for the spotlight that will likely follow an exceptional debut like this. But when he joined my Zoom call on May 26, he was poised. RMR is the kind of guy who always find ways to pull deep, thoughtful epiphanies out of the most mundane circumstances. He has a habit of throwing out phrases like "expand your consciousness" when explaining his ultimate goals as an artist, but he does so in a remarkably grounded, believable way.
For RMR, there's meaning behind everything he does. There's a deliberate intention behind his decision to wear a mask. There's a reason behind his desire to push through commonly accepted genre boundaries. And it's no accident he chose to call himself RMR (pronounced "rumor"). During our conversation, he also acknowledged the unusual circumstances he finds himself in as he tries to launch a career in the middle of a pandemic. "I think it's amazing overall," he noted. "I'm an artist of the pandemic. I emerged when everything started happening. I don't know what the other world is like."
A few days after our first talk, protests broke out across the country in response to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black people. RMR flew out to Minneapolis to participate in the protests himself, and he spoke about the experience in a follow-up conversation on June 10. Both interviews, lightly edited for clarity, are below. Drug Dealing Is a Lost Art is now available on streaming services.
Why did you want to introduce yourself by interpolating a Rascal Flatts song?
I love Rascal Flatts. My whole thing is I don't listen to just one genre of music. I want to open up people's consciousness to go out and discover new music and new genres. There's a lot of people out there who are like, "Oh, music is boring right now. Hip-hop is worse than it's ever been." But it's, like, no, you're just not looking deep enough. People call me a "genre-bending artist" and whatnot, but I'm just making music. And it goes along with the mask. Don't judge the mask, judge the music.
How did you come up with the idea for the "Rascal" video?
The idea just came to me. A lot of people shoot videos like that, but the song is so beautiful in itself, and the juxtaposition in the art is always going to be parallel. So with everything that I release, including "Rascal" as the first, just expect the unexpected. That's it. That's me and my music. It's unexpected. You don't expect a song like that coming out of a guy looking like that.
All of your visuals have been on-point so far. Do you think of yourself as a visual artist, too?
I'm an artist all over. I'm definitely a left-brainer. I've got right-brain qualities, but I like to do a lot of things left-brain. Art is very important, so yeah, I would consider myself that.
The mask has become a big part of your identity as an artist. How did you decide what it would look like?
Faith, believing, and humble. [Points to the words written on his mask] Imperfections. Imperfect. And then obviously my name. You're never too big, so always try to grow. Imperfections. Incomplete.
The "Rascal" video went viral right away, but no one knows much about you. Do you think people have any misconceptions?
There's always preconceived notions. There's always rumors.
Since then, you've put out other songs that blur genres. Why do you think it’s so natural for you to jump between country and rap and all these other sounds?
Because I like music. I love music. I love entertainment. I love art. To me, it's all the same at the end of the day. You can say everything's classical music. You can say everything's jazz. You can say everything's rock and roll. There's elements in everything. So when you're an artist who likes to expand your mind, you're an artist who loves growth, and you're an artist who is not afraid to change, that's just how it's going to come out. You're going to [holds up quotation marks in the air with his fingers] "genre-bend." But to you, you're just making music.
Do you think that's the way of the future? In a few years, every kid making music won't give a fuck about genres?
I feel like I'm showing you what the future could look like. I'm showing you what artists could look like. I'm not trying to be arrogant or anything, but I'm just showing you what the future could look like. And then it's your decision. It's the other artist' decision and it's the consumer's decision. If you stop listening to one-track-minded artists and open up to different variations, then music's growing and art's growing. Then the consciousness is open.
Without using genre names or labels, how would you describe your own music?
Anointment. That's it.
When you get in the studio, is there a specific mood or a feeling you usually try to convey?
I don't go in there trying to top the next record or whatnot. I feed off of energy. So whoever the engineer is or whoever the producer is, when I go in there, I'm not really there to prove anything to them. He or she is going to see what they see. They've already got a preconceived notion of me coming in there. So when I start doing what I'm doing, I don't care if they put on a country beat, or some blues, or some bachata. If they put something on, I'm going with it. I'm going to go in. Then, their preconceived notions are going change. I might just introduce something brand new. Or if I brought somebody with me that's never heard of that, I might just introduce them to it.
You have listed Kanye, Drake, and Michael Jackson as major influences. But you also dabble in country. Who were some of the first country artists you listened to?
Keith Urban. Gary LaVox of Rascal Flatts, obviously. Jason Aldean is super dope. Toby Keith. I love Toby Keith. There's a lot of artists. Dixie Chicks. They're dope. Jimmy Buffett. I love Jimmy Buffett.
Lil Nas X stirred up a lot of conversation about the intersection of country and rap last year with "Old Town Road." Your version of country mixed with rap is a lot different than his, but did he have any influence on your music?
I was listening to different types of music before I heard Lil Nas X. But of course, everybody's influenced by the fly on the wall. The littlest thing can influence something. It's the butterfly effect.
Let's get into this EP. When you were making Drug Dealing Is a Lost Art, what was your biggest goal for it?
To raise consciousness. You take a very urban kid, I don't care what color he is—shit, let's say he's from Detroit—and he's listening to my EP, and his favorite song is "Welfare," because that relates to him. And then the next song up is "Silence." He's like, "What the fuck?" But then he starts liking "Silence." And then he starts looking for different sounds that kind of remind him of "Silence." Like Billie Eilish, or something like that. And then he starts liking them. Now he's growing. It's growth. It's change. Or somebody who just likes "I'm Not Over You," and they love pop music, and then they end up liking "Welfare." And now they running over to Meek Mill and they run over to a whole bunch of trap artists or whatnot. Expand.
For a lot of people my age, Kanye West was an artist who did that. His music helped introduce people to all different kinds of artists.
Yeah. Kanye is definitely an influence. Like I said, it's the butterfly effect. I get influenced by a lot of things. But yeah, Ye definitely helped the blueprint. The blueprint was already made, but he definitely helped that with artists.
What producers did you work with on this EP?
Timbaland and my in-house producers, The Do Betters. And then ISM. My manager knew ISM, so we connected on that.
When did you make most of these songs?
Most of [the EP] was created before the video dropped.
The first song is "Welfare," featuring Westside Gunn. Why did you want to lead off with that song?
It's about struggle. Coming from the bottom. It's motivation. You can do a 180. Anybody can do it. You can do it. Your life was in shambles, but you have faith, you have discipline, you don't mind the rumors, you keep to yourself, and you can turn it around.
How did you get connected with Westside Gunn?
My people are connected with his people, and he's dope. We're about to connect real, real soon, and get better acquainted. He's amazing.
My favorite song on the EP is "Nouveau Riche." What were you trying to achieve when you were in the studio that day?
I didn't write that in the studio. I wrote that on my own. Like, "Silence" was written at 4:00 a.m. "Nouveau Riche" was written throughout the day, just walking around the crib. I turned on the beat. First, the melody came to me, and then I found the beat. We mashed it together, and that was about it. The song is about projecting exactly what I wanted. Before all this, I wrote "Nouveau Riche."
Nouveau riche, in French, means new money, but it's kind of like slander. So when you see somebody, you're like, "Oh, they're nouveau riche." It means, likd, he's new to money. It's kind of like calling somebody n***a rich. You're new to money, but you're going to lose it. You don't know how to deal with money, because you don't come from generational wealth. So you're just new money. You're not old money. With "Nouveau Riche," that's what you hear. I was just speaking it all into existence.
This EP shows just how strong your vocal range is. How did you develop your voice?
You just popped out with that voice?
I came out of the womb with that. The doctors say I couldn't stop singing.
Your music is about more than just the sound, though. I can tell you really care about the messages in your songs. What are the main things you’re trying to communicate to people on this EP?
I'm trying to communicate that change is not bad. Growth is not bad. Expand your consciousness. Go ahead and see what else is out there. The world's huge. It's not your 15-block radius. It's not just your high school friends. It's not just not your hood. There's way more cultures. We're a giant mixing pot. We don't know the meaning of life. So go ahead and meet as many people as you can, and be good to as many people as you can. Try to look at everything through other people's lenses. Try to see from different perspectives, because the world's huge. It's all about growth.
You open up about yourself in your music, but in interviews, you don't like saying what your name is or where you’re from. You wear a mask and say things like, "I'm from the world." Why do you prefer that approach?
Because it's about the music. It's about the growth. It's not about me. It's about raising your consciousness. That's the message. It's not about me. The other guy got another life. Shit, that n***a might be an accountant. Who knows?
What's the most important thing you want people to know about you right now?
I'm here to just expand the mind of everybody and the consciousness. I'm just here to help people grow. That's it. That's all I want. I'm here to help erase stereotypes. That's what I'm here for.
[Editor's Note: The rest of this interview was conducted two weeks later, on June 10.]
I saw some photos of you in Minneapolis, protesting. What was that experience like?
The experience was cool. It was very polarizing. Right when we landed, the whole city was on fire. There was smoke coming from the city. I was able to be there with the people at ground zero, and hear exactly what their perspective is. I actually spoke to [George Floyd's] brother. It was very polarizing. It was beautiful. It was something like I'd never seen him before.
Why did you think it was important for you to go out there?
Actions speak louder than words.
A couple weeks ago, you told me you hoped your music would help expand people's consciousness and show everyone that change isn’t bad. Do you think that's even more relevant, in the middle of this revolution that’s going on?
That's exactly what I'm doing. Especially in a time like this, where it feels like the country is at a stand still. The differences are being brought up. It may be uncomfortable, but the differences are being brought up between races. Even gender is being brought up right now. So if you can put yourself in another person's shoes and see from their perspective—if you could live the life of another person for just a little bit—it will help you grow a lot. If you've been paying attention to somebody and you've been taking the initiative to be able to see where they're coming from, that helps you grow. Ignorance isn't bliss anymore. It's not bliss. We're not living in that no more.