When Love Renaissance launched in 2012, the record label’s mission was simple: make it cool to be in love again.
The ’90s had a reputation for pumping out love-making R&B anthems, but by the next decade, the industry shifted its focus to Top 40 pop and hip-hop club records. “The early 2000s was the return of gangster [music], and the mid-2000s was like, ‘We can finally party to hip-hop music,’” Justice Baiden, head of A&R at LVRN, tells Complex. “Then, fast-forwarding to where we are now, there is kind of a resurgence. But I feel like we skipped the stage of making it cool to be in love, which was our goal.”
With such a broad mission, LVRN’s five founders—Justice Baiden, Tunde Balogun, Sean Famoso, Carlon Ramong, and Junia Abaidoo—had to build the company gradually. In 2013, they signed their first artist, Atlanta singer and rapper Raury, whom Ramong and Baiden were previously managing. By 2016, they added two more artists: DRAM and 6LACK.
“It was crazy,” Tunde Balogun, president of LVRN, recalls of those early days. “It was Raury, 6LACK, and DRAM. At this time, Raury was flying all over the world. DRAM was picking up. And 6LACK had just recently gotten out of his old agreement. We were all still coming up.”
Since then, Love Renaissance has made major steps to solidify its legacy. Though Raury left the label in 2018, LVRN has developed some of the biggest breakout acts in R&B and hip-hop over the last few years, including 6LACK, Boogie, and Summer Walker. In 2016, 6LACK earned a Grammy nomination for his debut project Free 6LACK. And last year, Summer Walker’s debut studio album, Over It, was met with critical acclaim and has sold over one million units to date.
“We knew what we wanted to build,” Balogun says. “The idea of what we could do increased over time, but we knew we wanted to build a great business.”
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Since March, the music industry has been turned upside down. The pandemic has “affected the executives more than it has the artists,” Baiden says. “Our artists are already recluses on their own. Quarantine was already a lifestyle for them. So, it didn’t really affect them in terms of their creative processes.”
Meeting the challenges head-on, LVRN has dropped two major projects during quarantine: 6LACK’s 6pc Hot and Summer Walker’s Life On Earth. While the writing and recording processes may not have been interrupted, the collective was forced to think outside of the box when it came to the album rollouts.
“Having ownership and dictating your culture is very important. It’s not yours if you can’t really own it.” - Justice Baiden
“When we’re putting out albums, we’re trying to figure out the best way to be social, but still obviously respect the rules that have been laid out for us,” Baiden explains. “We’re just forced to be creative in terms of finding different ways to do things that have already been done.”
On June 26, 6LACK dropped his six-song EP, 6pc Hot. In tandem with the project, the team launched 6lackbox, a digital hub that offered exclusive content and activations. Through 6lackbox, fans could reserve an exclusive delivery of 6LACK’s new hot sauce, 600 Degrees, which would come to their doors via self-driving bots. LVRN also partnered with Postmates and a local Black-owned restaurant to deliver free bottles of the sauce with every purchase of the sponsored “6pc Hot” chicken wings order. Or fans could browse merch through the augmented reality digital store, Chicken Shop.
Sean Famoso, the label’s head of marketing, says they wanted to come up with ideas that embody who 6LACK is as an artist and offer a product other than the usual T-shirt or hoodie. “I mean, everybody drops merch with a project, but who do we know that makes hot sauce?” Famoso says. “I think him being able to pair a product with a project with a platform that embodies all things 6LACK was really something new for us.”
The rollout for Summer Walker’s Life On Earth, which dropped on July 10, also included a touch of augmented reality. Ahead of the project’s release, Summer revealed the tracklist with a custom AR filter that depicted each song next to a UFO when fans pointed their phones at the sky.
Carlon Ramong, LVRN’s Head of Creative Direction says it was important for them to create a world around her album that would bring her fans together. “With Summer, we obviously didn’t want her traveling a lot, so she wasn’t able to go to a lot of cities with activations,” he explains. “But also, she has a huge fan base. So it was important for us to have activations, while still doing the socially distanced thing. Even though she’s not physically able to be there, finding new and creative ways to bring her fans to the world of the album was important for us.”
In the midst of the pandemic, touring has become nonexistent, forcing labels like LVRN to adjust their tactics. Artists who would have normally spent a majority of this year on the road, have been exploring virtual reality and game spaces. The artists on LVRN are in a unique space, though, and the founders acknowledge that some of their signees are reclusive and introverted. Last year, Summer Walker made headlines after canceling the remaining dates of her North American tour due to social anxiety. Junia Abaidoo, head of touring and operations at LVRN, says the label’s priority is finding creative ways to highlight their artists while catering to their personalities.
“We try to do things that make sense for each artist,” Abaidoo explains. “Even though we do have a few artists who are more reclusive and introverted, it manifests in different ways. When we play to their strengths and what they are comfortable with, they’re able to thrive in any setting, but definitely in performance.”
“We’re going to be a global Black company.” - Tunde Balogun
Abaidoo cites Summer’s 2020 BET Awards performance with Usher as an example. It was shot in an intimate studio setup against two dreamlike stages. “[Summer Walker is] an artist who thrives in a setting like that, where she can really control the environment,” Abaidoo explains. “She has her camera team that she trusts. She has her band, and we shot it in the city that she lives in. So it can be a positive for certain people.”
One month later, 6LACK created another unique performance experience. In partnership with YouTube, he returned to his hometown of Atlanta, where he gave a live virtual performance on a rooftop overlooking the city. While the show, dubbed “Live from the Edge,” was set up to promote his latest EP, 6LACK also wanted to send another message. Throughout his performance, a billboard screen displayed empowering images from recent Black Lives Matter protests that popped up around the country in the wake of multiple police killings of Black people.
The majority of executives at major corporate labels are white, but Love Renaissance is in a unique position. All of its five founders are Black, which they say makes a huge difference for how the company operates. In addition to better serving the needs and goals of their artists, Baiden and Balogun agree that it sends an important message to new generations of aspiring music professionals.
“We've seen what’s happened as the genre progressed and moved forward and transcended the space. It’s becoming the most popular place in music,” Baiden explains. “The executives need to reflect that, because number one, it teaches one thing that we need to teach to the youth: having ownership and dictating your culture is very important. It’s not yours if you can’t really own it.”
Baiden adds, “The reason why I want to do things like this is to be a blueprint and show that it's okay, and it's possible to be a Black person and do great things in music on the executive side,” Baiden says. “When I was coming up, I needed to see that.”
Love Renaissance also puts a big emphasis on mental health. The label recently launched its mental health division to help artists and employees cope with issues like anxiety and depression. Baiden says the idea stemmed from frustration over the constant news cycle about artists suffering in silence. “How many things do you keep seeing or features do we have to keep having of our favorite artists not doing so well for us to just take it serious?” he asks.
Right now, the division is in its infancy, but Ramong says they’ve already started to see results. In addition to the work artists are doing, executives have kickstarted a group therapy session to cope with day-to-day obstacles. Ramong argues that mental health should be a priority for every entertainment company.
“Obviously, we’re in the trial period,” he notes. “It’s a new thing, but it’s been amazing for the artists and the staff. For so long, we’ve thought about the hits and the money and the glam that comes with the entertainment industry, and we’re not taking care of the people that work in it or reap the benefits from it. I think as a whole, the industry needs to do a better job of what needs to be mandatory for the wellbeing of people in the industry.”
Admittedly, there is a lot of “red tape” they have to work around, like the liabilities that come with building a health company. But Baiden says the payoff is worth the risk. “We’re taking that leap of faith, but to do the right thing or what you feel is right is never going to be easy,” he says. “So we just bypass a lot of the warning signs that we had.”
The future for Love Renaissance is bright. Speaking about their upcoming plans, the executives bring up several new initiatives, including venturing into film. But their mission, over everything, is to turn their artists and company into global powerhouses. When it comes to the success of the artists, Balogun says they knew they reached that goal “when they started selling five million records worldwide and could do arenas in any country or continent in the world.”
Though much of the spotlight is on Summer and 6LACK at the moment, LVRN has also been building up its roster. Now, there are a total of nine artists, including DRAM, Boogie, Cruel Santino, and Kitty Kash. The collective is particularly excited about some of their newest signees like OMB Bloodbath, Young Rog, and Eli.
Houston’s OMB Bloodbath is the label’s latest woman on the roster and she has an inspiring story to tell. “She’s like a hometown hero,” Baiden adds. “She's been grinding forever, and obviously that's the story of most rappers, but what makes her unique is she turned her life around without the opportunity. Usually, it takes people to make it big for them to just be smarter, but she had a really rough life experience. She’s been shot and has done jail time and all the things that you would not want to happen to you. But she went through all those things and came out on the other side at a very young age, and was able to be like, ‘Yo, I'm going to do turkey drives for my community and be a person they look up to.’"
Meanwhile, sixteen-year-old Eli is originally from the Washington Metropolitan area, but Baiden met him through a friend at a concert in Philadelphia. He says he’s most excited to “do something special and really nurture this kid and push him.”
The executives have varying answers about who they are in competition with at the moment. Some say Dreamville or Quality Control, but they all say the big goal is to follow in the footsteps of labels like Bad Boy Records or LaFace. Those may be big shoes to fill, but Balogun suggests they are just getting started.
“We’re pretty much in the mindset, we're going to be a global Black company,” he says. “It always just gets bigger. There’s always something else we’re always trying to not be complacent. So making [our artists] global solidified stars, being able to go do shows in Brazil, that’s what I’m talking about… If you look at the companies like Motown, Uptown, Bad Boy, LaFace, those class of executives run the industry now, and that's what we want.”