"People criticise us and say we always happy, but why we gotta rap about 'momma couldn't pay the bills,' and shit?"
All photos by Jake Lewis
Slim Jxmmi flops down face-first on a hotel room sofa. Swae Lee, looking a little bewildered, gently swings around a glass bottle of water, eyes half-closed. Rae Sremmurd, the masterminds behind "Black Beatles", the soundtrack of 2016's Mannequin Challenge meme monolith, are behaving as if they've just woken up in a strange flat at 2PM after a fairly hefty bender.
They flew into London from Paris the night before, and are feeling a little worse for wear. "Minor hangover," Jxmmi says. What does a bad one look like then? "Throwing up everywhere – 'somebody help me, I'm dying'. Throwing up on girls, too." For a second, it looks like the pair might be flagging, until I ask about the previous night's Paris show. "It was awesome," Jxmmi exclaims. "Fucking awesome! I saw the Eiffel Tower light up!" And just like that they're back to their normal selves.
The platinum-selling brothers from Tupelo, Mississippi have cause to celebrate after the year they've had. But even without an explicit reason to let loose, they would probably jump on an express train to hedonistic nirvana. Their constant Spring Break-eqsue partying is what makes them who they are, what lends them a limitless, unending buoyancy that seems to grant them the energy to pump out hit after hit. It's all part of the "Sremmlife" ethos.
"We preach the Sremmlifestyle," says Swae, who remains standing for the entire interview, his blonde dreads dangling as he repeatedly looks down to check his phone. "Happiness, a rock-star lifestyle. We on some crazy shit, do whatever you feeling but still being successful at the same time in your own way. It don't matter if you got a 9 to 5, you making $200 a week, as long as you take care of yourself and do what you need to do. Sremmlife."
It's the regular positivity-over-everything, you-can-live-the-dream attitude that many rappers (read: Americans) have, but every sentence is punctuated with the amen of "Sremmlife" so meeting them can feel more akin to a visit by a couple of stoned Jehovah's Witnesses. In 2016, though, people didn't want to hear about positivity and fun. The duo's second album – entitled Sremmlife 2, of course – featured two of the biggest and best tracks of the year in "Black Beatles" and "Look Alive", but was conspicuously missing from basically all year-end lists (including Noisey's). The po-faced top tens weren't interested in Rae Sremmurd's boundless joy and charged club thumpers, it seems. They wanted the contemplative reflection of Solange, Beyoncé and Frank Ocean.
So will they be joining the serious introspection lot any time soon, then? "Not at all," says Jxmmi. "I don't care about that shit. I'm not trying to talk about sad shit. People criticise us and say we always happy, but why we gotta rap about 'momma couldn't pay the bills,' and shit? Some people be lying and saying, 'I hate to admit it but I like this Rae Sremmurd.' I don't even want them to like it if they're saying that, that's lame. When they say, 'I hate to say it', it's like it's good music – why do you hate good music?"
It doesn't help that the pair's biggest hit to date spawned a meme, perhaps the only way to get the soccer mom contingent of the US market to take notice of two wild, scrawny youngsters from the deep south. But this negates that "Black Beatles" was destined to bang before the Mannequin Challenge was even a thing. It's instantly recognisable as a stone-cold hit, blending Swae Lee's shamanic ability to produce the best top line vocal melodies with Mike Will Made It's thunderstorm beat – every part of the song converges in the duo's most convincing way yet. The same thing happened with Baauer's Harlem Shake: a trap face-melter that shook clubs up and down the country in 2013, now to only be remembered as the chorus to bored office workers dancing in their underwear on YouTube. It's not really a fitting way for these songs to be remembered.
But maybe "Black Beatles" won't succumb to the same fate. "There was a group of people saying that but after they stopped doing the challenge they still listened to the song," says Swae, "so I feel like people saying that just didn't want to accept that some people was making fun party music that made it to the number one spot. They want to blame it on something."
One of their most vocal detractors has been Hot 97 and Apple Beats 1 radio host Ebro, famous for hating on young "high school-ass" rappers for not being conscious or skilled enough (and who also takes issue with Lil Yachty). Ebro attributed the success of "Black Beatles" to the meme it spawned, a myopic judgement to make for someone of his age and with his amount of experience. But Rae Sremmurd, like all great rock bands before them, represent the peak of a generational divide.
"It's so weird that they want to deny the new music, like it's not banging. They're like … 'it's gotta have a message behind it'. It's just great music, accept it. It's a new wave," says Swae. "It's the same as back in the day with artists my mom used to listen to. They parents was like, 'turn that bullshit off!' you know what I'm saying? 'All they doing is yelling, all they doing is screaming'. That's what's happening now. Hip-hop is changing. The generation before us, they might not like the way it's evolving, but music is controlled by the young people."
Rae Sremmurd aren't young young. Swae and Jxmmi are 23 and 25 respectively, but you feel there won't be any quarter-life crises hitting them any time soon. The live show later that night, for which they hop onstage an hour late, is an avalanche of youthful exuberance: tearing expensive shirts off; inexplicably smashing pineapples on the stage; roping in the visual aids of bubblegum coloured pixel art and video game references; taking a single sip from a freshly opened champagne bottle and immediately discarding it. The kind of bores who want to ban phones at gigs would be irate at the sight of Slim Jxmmi stood stock still front of stage, staring at his phone screen and updating his Snapchat and Instagram accounts mid-song. The duo's tardiness is easily brushed off – fans can't stay mad at charisma.
There is something refreshing about Rae Sremmurd's refusal to engage in anything other than the basest party vibes. Drinking, smoking weed, having sex, listening to hits – you wonder why there really needs to be anything else. They don't concern themselves with outright political engagement. Many artists latch onto having Something Important to say, and sharing their political engagement in any varying quality of tweeted opinion. The duo shy away from this. That doesn't quite negate a certain responsibility, having the ears of so many young people as they do. If nothing else, they're pro-birth control. "We don't want anyone to be having babies or catching STDs. Sremmlife," says Jxmmi. But what of their sexualised lyrics? Are they concerned about what the teeny boppers – particularly their young female fans – might make of it all? Not so much.
"I ain't thinking about that." says Jxmmi. "When I was little I used to watch BET: Uncut [an early to mid-noughties show that displayed the more salacious music videos, like MTV Base after 11PM], and I know girls did too."
"We have utmost respect for females. Bad bitches. We mean that in a good way… It's just a form of expression," adds Swae. On a personal level, though, they say they maintain a respectful outlook. "I think our young female fans have fun listening to our music. We aren't calling them sluts and bitches," says Jxmmi.
"All my girls like me," Sway says, "because I treat them good. We just having fun and living, at the end of the day."
What perhaps doesn't translate written down is how animated Swae and Jxmmi are. They're always fidgeting, or making gun and laser sounds while throwing their hands around. It would be unfair to liken them to children, but they certainly have the mischievousness of class clowns; the sort who'd drastically lower your prospective GCSE marks, but you wouldn't care because you were laughing too much.
And essentially that is Rae Sremmurd's function: to entertain and nothing else. They're not here to make you think, they're here to let you party with them, for as long as you can hold their attention. But the magic with them is they're not so mindless as to be illegitimate. This isn't LMFAO, or New Boyz, or any number of feckless party rap obscurities. It's unavoidably good songwriting with the walk and talk to match. Rae Sremmurd exist on a pop-meets-rap plane above their contemporaries because they can do what they do so effortlessly. They don't think about things too much, but that doesn't make it thoughtless.
"We dropping bangers," says Swae, holding his hangover water aloft. "Sremmlife bangers. They can stand on their own and make noise on their own. They reach pinnacles on their own."
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