blackbear Is Extremely Famous, Even If You Don't Know Who He Is
The prolific songwriter—who co-wrote Justin Bieber's "Boyfriend"—looks to turn his internet fame into a reality. With his upcoming album 'Cybersex' and singles featuring Gucci Mane and 2 Chainz, can he do it?
Photo by Wassim Farah
“I want my head frozen. Samantha, will you tell the financial advisor to set aside a quarter million?” blackbear directs this request into the gaggle of friends and employees, both full-time and hired-for-the-day, gathered around his pool table, where a tattoo artist is setting up a traveling station. It’s a rare day off in Los Angeles, and his three-story house is abuzz: there’s a gangly photographer documenting Bear’s life, a couple artists he’s developing, friends zoning out to a Kardashian marathon, a publicist in chaperone mode, a vet who’s popped in to tend to Pocky, his Shinbu Inu puppy, a few people no one I ask really knows. Den mother slash day-to-day manager Samantha seems to have a lot on her hands.
Over the din, a voice asserts that Walt Disney’s entire body was cryogenically frozen after his death. There’s a brief moment of silence while blackbear considers this.
“Oh. I guess that makes sense,” he agrees. “I don’t need to get decapitated.”
These are the conversations you have when you are famous, and blackbear is very famous. The 26-year-old singer, songwriter and producer is so famous that when you google “blackbear,” he—not the actual animal—is the first result. He’s so famous that hiring a private chef to whip up “grownup kid food” like the buffet of tater tots, grilled peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and “dirt” pie with gummy “worms” warming on the kitchen island is nowhere close to the most famous-person thing he does all day.
blackbear is so famous that he has to move because both TMZ and teen girls found out that he lives in this unassuming neighborhood. Now, they’re parked across the street taking photos of him and pitching stuff across his gate, respectively. Both, he says, are “borderline stalking” him.
“Groupies don’t want my babies. They want my blood,” he says, moving onto his balcony to indulge his pack-a-day cigarette habit. He has a way of locking eyes with you, ducking his head and granting you this little closed-mouth smile that is boyish and endearing, and I understand why one of his former girlfriends is having, according to him, a hard time letting go.
Neon pink cargo shorts and a black sweatshirt emblazoned with the word “Ketamine” swim on his slight frame. The sun glints off his rose-glitter Gucci Ace sneakers, which match his pink Gucci cap. Lots of tattoos, some self-inked, snake across his body, but only one is currently visible, a Cubism-inspired face with the caption, “sry i suck.” He’s gazing across the street with a faraway look in his eye, scanning the horizon for a TMZ van and wondering if photos of him and me will surface on the blog tomorrow. Okay, I’m the one doing that.
“Fame is weird,” he says finally, with a sigh.
It is. One of the weirdest things about fame in 2017 is the sheer amount of people who are simultaneously famous and yet completely unknown (just browse Instagram’s “Public Figures” category). In this distinctly American era of being famous for nothing—as long as you’re ultimately making money for a large corporation, long live the entrepreneur!—there have never been so many famed, unrecognizable faces.
Which is why blackbear’s fame is impressive. When girls were fainting over Elvis, it was due in large part to his bump-n-grind hips, blue-black waves and sultry baritone. But the supply couldn’t keep up with their squealing demand. Now, an artist like blackbear has a huge array of competition—like Justin Bieber, for whom he co-wrote “Boyfriend,” the 2012 song that secured his retirement when he was just 21 years old. Having grown up an artist, however, blackbear wasn’t content to stay in songwriting rooms, and the same year, he released his debut EP Foreplay and mixtape Sex, a pair of earnest, overprocessed, pop-tinged projects. There was magic in his first full-length, Deadroses. Released on Valentine’s Day 2015, it spawned two blockbuster singles, the sparse, twinkling “idfc,” which has racked up almost 30 million plays on Soundcloud, and the rock-lite, G-Eazy-featuring “90210,” which has nearly 15 million plays.
Calling him prolific is an understatement. In the two years since Deadroses, he’s formed the alt-R&B duo Mansionz with frequent collaborator Mike Posner and a production collective called Bear Trap Records, dropped a handful of projects, and received spins on Kylie Jenner’s Snapchat. This summer, he signed a ten million dollar distribution deal with Interscope Records and announced both an opening slot on Fall Out Boy’s autumn tour and his fourth full-length album as blackbear, Cybersex, which arrives on his birthday, November 27. “do re mi,” a clever, icy breakup single from his last studio album, this spring’s Digital Druglord, reached number 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is in radio rotation, finally giving him mainstream exposure. But he’s not too concerned with that sort of thing: The earworm has more than 113 million streams on Spotify, while its video with Gucci Mane has over 35 million views (go ahead, try shaking “Do, re, mi, fa, so fuckin’ done with you” out of your head). Speaking of numbers, good luck finding a song on his Soundcloud with less than a million plays.
It’s surprising, then, that he says music is not his primary means of making money. “Music’s a hobby to me. I have stocks and bitcoins, I consult for things and whatever, I dress girls for Coachella. I only wanna put out a couple more albums,” he says. “My goal is to make the world feel something, whether it’s happy or sad or anything, it’s all really the emotions of the world, and I feel like a true troll. My goal in life is to be the ultimate troll.”
Like many 26-year-olds who spend an inordinate amount trawling the internet, trolling is one of blackbear’s skills. “Playboy Shit,” a single from the upcoming album, was released on Pornhub. He recorded a song with a 14-year-old Oklahoma kid named Jacob Sartorius just because Jacob was the most googled person of 2016. The cover art of Digital Druglord is a woman with pill bottles taped across her chest in a makeshift bikini top.
Actually, there is an explanation for that last stunt, and it’s not to glorify the abuse of pharmaceuticals. “That’s not what it’s about,” he protests. “It’s about having to take pills to stay alive, ‘cause I was in the hospital while I wrote that album.”
Last year, he woke up with what he assumed was a bout of acid reflux. But as the day wore on, his stomach cramps worsened until he was lying down on the floor of his merch warehouse. By the time he got to the ER, he was throwing up blood. A doctor diagnosed him with necrotizing pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas that’s often due to excessive alcohol consumption. Since then, he’s had a handful of surgeries to drain cysts on his pancreas, which keep coming back even though he gave up drinking.
“I’ve learned my lesson. I tried to do the whole, ‘I can have one glass of champagne,’ and that sent me to the hospital,” he says. “I have to watch it. Scary.”
Perhaps that’s why he’s getting the Serenity Prayer (“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change”) tattooed on his back, albeit in the serial-killer-scratch style of his artist.
Also, the word “God” is crossed out.
Born Matthew Musto to a teen mom and a heroin addict in Daytona Beach, Florida, blackbear felt more like the family’s black sheep. His biological dad ditched the family, and his mom married an “awesome” guy who adopted Bear and his brother. His stepdad owned a business that scraped barnacles off boats, a physically unforgiving and sometimes financially lean gig. His mom, who Bear calls his “professional cheerleader,” worked as a secretary and used food stamps to fill in the gaps, but his father, an Italian Catholic, balked at the idea of a handout.
When Bear was little, a friend of his dad’s brought him a snare drum and he remembers banging on it for hours. At the age of six, he was given his first guitar, and by 11, he was playing birthday parties and starting punk bands. Punk meshed with his personality, which he describes as a “wild child, troublemaker, rebel and class clown, show off.”
“Anything for attention. I would dress crazy. I was the only real punk rock kid in my school, with like the plaid pants and the Rancid t-shirt. And I’m talking 4th grade. People would be like, ‘You don’t have an older brother or anything?’ No,” he says.
What he did have was a babysitter named Danny who introduced him to bands like New Found Glory and Catch 22. “I was already a fan of Blink 182 and he’s like, ‘If you like Blink you’ll love all this.’ I fucking just fell in love with Alkaline Trio and just got deeper and deeper into the subculture,” he says.
In 9th grade, his band Polaroid got signed and he promptly dropped out of high school. They played festivals and gained a bit of a following, but then Bear decided to go solo under his given name after a few years. In 2008, he posted his first project as Mat Musto, an EP titled Brightness, and glimpsed his power—it clocked a million plays.
Linking with a devoted former manager, they sent his EP around the industry, sniffing out opinions. Ne-Yo was into it, and Bear moved to Atlanta. He stayed two years, enduring studio boot camp and churning out two or three songs a day. When Ne-Yo offered him a deal that seemed suspect, however, he moved back in with his mom. “For a year, I was just wondering, what am I gonna do? I have all this training and all these demos,” he says.
Then Mike Caren, the highly influential Warner Music executive, called. He’d heard Bear’s music and wanted to fly him to California.
“I did, and I did 21 records in a week. Mike Posner heard and was like, ‘I need to do everything with blackbear.’ Our first session, we wrote ‘Boyfriend,’” he continues. “By that time, I’d already started tattooing my neck and stuff so I’d never have a real job, and basically, well, that’s pretty much my upbringing.”
He pauses and shrugs. “The rest of it’s on Wikipedia.”
blackbear felt uneasy. He’s not religious, but he is agnostic, and … something was not happy with “God” being left out of his Serenity Prayer tattoo.
“I had really bad luck. I found out that I had more cysts,” he tells me a week and a half after our first interview. The house is quieter today—a couple of songwriter friends are hanging out in the studio level of the house; otherwise, it’s still. Pocky isn’t even around. “The ‘God’ was scratched out. All this bad shit started happening in my life. So I had him come back over and do the God part.”
After the year he had, he’s not taking any chances. In addition to his physical malady, he lost his best friend in July when Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington committed suicide.
“When Chester died, people didn’t know he was my only friend that also has pancreatitis and had surgeries like mine and he was the only person I could really call and ask where are the specialists. Or: ‘I feel like drinking, what do I do?’” he says. “I worked on their last album. I took it really, really hard.”
Complicating his grieving process was the paparazzi. When he found out about Chester, he called another friend, Bella Thorne, to offer some comfort. She’d been rumored to be his girlfriend, so the paps interpreted their hugs a decidedly different way.
“When your best friend dies and you’re crying on the balcony and TMZ is taking pictures of somebody comforting you saying, ‘Ooooo, scandalous’—that’s the worst part of fame,” he says.
He rarely speaks to press, but he’s not naïve. More than once, he follows up a juicy bit with “That’s off the record” and he has no qualms firing even longtime employees if they break their NDAs. Still, he dangles enough “wait, what?” statements into conversation—“I’m most proud that I have never shot any drugs in my arm”—to make spending the day with him interesting.
I get the sense that he’s a little hounded by what seems to hang over many songwriters—the need to succeed as blackbear the artist, not blackbear the songwriter. Hence the tattoo redo. Cybersex is important to him, and he’s more visible, thus more vulnerable, than ever. Still, the rollout, led by the momentum of “do, re, mi” has been going well. Superstitious or not, the last thing he needs is for the whole thing to fizzle because he removed God from the Serenity Prayer.
Feeding his fear, he irrationally frets that the album won’t fit within the framework of current music. “Nowadays, people just sit around and say the same five words over and over and over again,” he says, a slight edge creeping into his voice. He catches himself before I can side-eye him. “I can’t say I don’t do the same thing, I just put out a song with the same four words over and over again.”
Then again, he’s been in the music industry since he was a kid. He’s seen how quickly the tide can turn against a trend. It can be so fickle, and when you really care about your music (“It’s sad that my album is the same price as some albums that there was no thought or heart put into, and mine has so much humanity”), its rejection is more heartbreaking than that of all the starlets on Raya. On the other hand, so much emphasis is placed on career success in our culture that it usually out-prioritizes happiness in any other area of our lives. You may come home to an empty house and eat cheddar popcorn for dinner, but if your career is poppin’, you’re fulfilled, right?
Yet for all his consternation over the cost of doing business, he can’t give it up. He says he won’t record and release music much longer. When I make a passing remark about packing it all up and retiring to an island, however, he smiles a little feebly and says if that’s what he wanted, he would’ve done so after “Boyfriend.”
“Trying to stay alive is more important than like, ‘Oh, I hope my album goes double platinum.’ You can’t bring a plaque six feet under,” he says.
He pauses for a second, thinking... “I mean, you can, but it’ll just sit there.”
Rebecca Haithcoat is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter.