“I think I’m antisocial,” says Smoove’L, sprawled out on a bed at the Maxwell hotel in Manhattan, hours before his packed show at S.O.B.’s. To his right are his publicist and two confidants, but Smoove’s gaze rarely leaves his own side of the room.
“I’m not a person you can’t approach, but just don’t think you’re about to smile in my face and then we’re friends the next day,” he clarifies. “You’ve got to build something. That’s how it is. I’m a cool person, though.”
Antisocial or not, Smoove’L has been making a lot of noise lately. Rising through the ranks of Brooklyn’s exploding drill scene with viral hits like “New Apollos,” which put a melodic twist on the subgenre’s signature sound, the 19-year-old rapper was rewarded in January 2020 with an Interscope Records deal. Backed by a major label, he’s emboldened to keep pushing the limits of New York drill music.
Born Lefty Frizzell Sanders Jr. in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, Smoove’L has always approached life differently than his peers. When his friends in Brooklyn were constantly switching from one sport to the next, Smoove always knew he was born to perform on a stage.
On first encounter, though, he doesn’t give off the stereotypical impression of a kid who was born for show business. In the hotel room, he comes off as reticent when strangers walk in. He surveys the room without saying a word, seemingly feeling out my vibe before agreeing to speak any further. It isn’t until he’s surrounded by friends and family that he lets his guard down and flashes the natural confidence he’ll later replicate on stage.
This afternoon, Smoove’L is making an impromptu stop at his mother’s quaint basement apartment in Bed-Stuy. She’s visibly frazzled by the last-minute visit, searching the residence for a jacket. But after settling on a fur coat that Smoove’L recently purchased for her, she calmly joins him on the edge of a chair in the bedroom for a quick mother-son photoshoot. As they adjust angles with every camera flash, she reminisces on her son’s music dreams as a child.
“He was born a star,” she insists, stealing a look at her son. “He’s always been special. He always said he was going to be a star ever since he was a little kid.”
Smoove’L credits his early enthusiasm for music to studying Michael Jackson and The Notorious B.I.G as a child. Then he discovered YouTube, which switched on a lightbulb in his head. “Once I started to notice anybody could make it, I knew I could do it, too,” he recalls. “At that point, I was just seeing weird rappers. But I had a story to tell, so it’s different. The storytellers last longer. I got a story to tell, so I’m going to start writing about my life.”
“New York’s sound is drill, but I was like, ‘I’m going to bring something new to it.’”
He made his first songs at 13 years old, but suspended his rap dreams a year later due to other interests. “I stopped around 14. I was in the streets and playing basketball,” he remembers. “Then, at the end of 10th grade, going into 11th, I started again. That's the moment I noticed I want to rap for real, for real. Anybody was just getting on. I was like, ‘Fuck it, I'm about to rap.’”
Over the past year, Smoove’L has been closely associated with the Brooklyn drill sound, but he doesn’t see himself as a product of drill music. “I’m not a drill rapper,” he told Complex in January, after inking his deal with Interscope. “I would never want to be labeled that. I’m an artist. Before I jumped on a drill beat, I made other types of songs.”
He says he didn’t experiment with the drill sound until October of 2019. Before that, he describes his music as having a more “raw rap” sound, but he decided to join the drill wave in order to build an audience. “It was more attention-catching,” he explains. “If you want to be great, then you’ve got to study. You’ve got to get the people to pay attention if you want to be lit.”
Smoove’L’s plan to build a passionate core following seems to have worked. His concert at S.O.B.’s is packed with day-one fans who sing his early hits—even if many are singing off key—as he sways from side to side with the rhythm of his bass-heavy songs. He later claims that, although the show went well, the crowd was mild compared to what he’s used to.
While he initially drew fans in by hopping on drill beats that feature the scene’s signature gliding bass sounds, Smoove’L makes a concerted effort to approach each record differently than any other rapper in his neighborhood. “New York’s sound is drill, but I was like, ‘I’m going to bring something new to it,’” he says.
In September 2019, he dropped “BIG MAD,” which introduced melody in a way that’s uncommon for drill. Months later, he dropped “Ouu Ahh (3 Wordz),” a song that built on this approach, with an even saucier delivery. The melodies, he says, were inspired by A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, who he’d been a fan of since 2016’s Artist mixtape. “I used to listen, and be singing to myself,” he remembers. “I'm just catching on and the melodies kept coming. So I hit the studio.”
Smoove’L’s subject matter also defies the conventions of Brooklyn drill. He sprinkles a little bit of his street and celebrity lifestyle into his records, but the central theme of his work is relationships. “I make love songs,” he confirms. Smoove’L’s version of a love song isn’t of the R&B ballad variety, though. There’s no baby-making or candle-lighting in his songs. Instead, Smoove’L’s version is a more vulgar and honest reflection of what relationships are like for Gen-Z. Smoove also addresses his trust issues on tracks including “Palm Angels,” where he raps, “Claimin’ she innocent, but I witnessed this/A bitch in love, but she doin’ me/Know how these bitches be.”
His biggest song to date, though, is the promiscuous anthem “New Apollos,” which was later added to streaming services with updated production as “Apollo.” He was reportedly forced to take the song down one month after its release, when Travis Scott and Pop Smoke dropped “GATTI” using the same beat. The issues stirred online tensions between Smoove’L and Pop, but he doesn’t want to rehash those memories, especially in the wake of the Canarsie rapper’s tragic death on February 19.
Despite online rumors, Smoove’L is deeply upset about Pop’s death. He addressed it on Instagram days after the tragedy, writing, “I feel dis shit in a weird way cus the whole New York know me a Pop Smoke was suppose to make a track n shake the whole NY. Shit ain’t right.” Discussing whether he wants to clear anything up about the situation, he says, “Up above, he know. I ain’t got nothing to explain for the fans. I really let people think what they want to think.”
Smoove’L says New York culture is built on people talking shit, and only those bred in the five boroughs can handle an environment like this. The drill scene, which is deeply rooted in gang culture, is no different. Smoove’L suggests it wouldn’t be true to New York if there weren’t any confrontations.
“Rappers diss each other in New York,” he explains matter-of-factly. “They diss each other on drill beats. That's what shows who stands out and who doesn't.” He says his take on drill is more palatable to a wider audience, though. “The beefing part wouldn’t spread in other states and cities. That’s what me and Pop Smoke were doing. We brought it worldwide.”
There’s still concern that feuds will turn violent, especially with Pop Smoke’s unsolved murder sitting in the back of everyone’s minds. This is a sore topic for all involved, but it’s clear everyone is feeling it, even Smoove. He recently got a new place in Los Angeles, and there’s been plenty of chatter in the community as of late that alludes to the fate of Brooklyn artists who step on West Coast soil, but Smoove seems to be adjusting well. “It’s the same way people say you can take somebody out the hood, but you can’t take the hood out of them,” he says. Smoove’L claims there’s no big difference between Brooklyn and Los Angeles for him. “It’s like what I’m used to, no matter where I go.”
Smoove’L says he might release a mixtape dedicated to life in California. “I try to put out music for everybody,” he says. “I’m an adapting person, so I try to adapt to my environment. If you’re throwing me a beat, I’m going to try to adapt to it no matter what. If it’s from the West Coast—from anywhere—I’m going to try to adapt to it.”
Right now, he’s working on a new project called Boy From Brooklyn, which will highlight this versatility. “It’s going to sound crazy,” he promises. “I got some raw rapping, and I got the melodic side. I try to put them both together. It’s great music.” On the project, which includes the pre-released singles “2020” and “New Apollos,” he switches from melodic, sentimental songs like “All Alone” and “Ghetto Gospel” to more hardcore, ruthless records like “New Hottest Thing” and the aptly titled “Very Aggressive.” It’s a strong introduction to who Smoove’L is as an artist, with a handful of singles that demonstrate his appeal outside of the Brooklyn drill scene.
He has big plans for his future. Like most young rappers, he wants Billboard hits and collaborations with artists like Roddy Ricch and Polo G. But he’s also looking much further down the road. He’s focused intently on becoming an “icon and a legend.”
“I think about my career every day,” he reveals. “That’s why I watched people like Michael Jackson. Icons. Kobe was just on. If you want to do something, you always want to be great at it.”
At the moment, Smoove’L finds himself squarely in the middle of the Brooklyn drill scene, pumping out tracks that resonate in his city. He makes it clear he has no plans of ever abandoning the sound, but he says if the industry moves past the trend, he’ll be making music people will remember for decades.
“When you listen to ‘New Apollos,’ you remember that in your head. You remember anything I do.” Comparing himself to the Brooklyn scene he emerged from, he adds, “Drill is in its own category. It’s a wave. But I don’t try to make things a wave.”
See below for the rest of the stories in our Brooklyn drill series:
We also put together a playlist of essential Brooklyn drill songs, which you can follow on Spotify.