“Respect My Grind”: Bebe Rexha Steps Up
She’s written hooks for Eminem and Minaj. Timbaland wants in on her LP and Kanye’s a fan. No longer just a featured artist now it’s all about Bebe.
You might not know Bebe Rexha yet, but you'll definitely know some of her hooks. This 26-year-old New Yorker co-wrote Eminem and Rihanna's massive 2013 hit "The Monster," teamed up with G-Eazy for this year's pop-rap smash "Me Myself & I," and co-wrote and sang on David Guetta and Nicki Minaj's trap banger "Hey Mama." She's also co-written for the likes of Tinashe, Selena Gomez, and Iggy Azalea, so it's safe to presume her credit limit is pretty enviable these days.
But now Bebe—whose parents emigrated from Albania during the 80s—is stepping into the spotlight with what she hopes will be her breakthrough solo single, "No Broken Hearts." And at 90 million views on YouTube in just three months we’d say that breakthrough’s assured. It's a super-catchy party-through-the-pain anthem featuring a typically provocative rap from Bebe's old pal Nicki Minaj, who informs us before the final chorus kicks in that "it's going down like M. Lewinsky's." Riiiiight.
Anyway, when we meet Bebe, she's repping her hometown in a loose-fitting New York slogan tee and about to deliver a short acoustic set for a room full of record execs at her label's London office. She tells us she's tired after flying in from the States that morning, but battles through any jet lag (and the slight awkwardness of the set-up) to sing "No Broken Hearts" and "Me Myself & I" with grit and conviction. Sitting down for a chat later on, she's similarly spirited, speaking candidly about her songwriting career and outlining how she's now planning to go from "feat. Bebe Rexha" to simply "Bebe Rexha."
Noisey: You're in an interesting place right now. How do you see yourself transitioning from songwriter/featured artist to full-on solo star?
Bebe Rexha: I need to get people to connect the face to the song. I just got off the Ellie Goulding tour and it was a really amazing experience because people already knew four of my songs without realizing they were by me. When I told the story of "Hey Mama" or whatnot, they would be like, "Whaaat?" They were just shocked—like, "Is this the girl singing that hook?" But I need to show them who I am and where I'm from and I need to tell my story more. Because if you're just a voice and there's nothing people can connect to, they don't care.
OK, so let's start at the beginning. Where do you think your drive comes from?
I think it was really built inside of me as a kid and I think it also comes from, like, a place of fear. As a child I was always so scared. Both my parents had to work and I grew up pretty quickly. I'd have to watch my younger brother and take the bus in New York at a very young age. And I was bullied for a while, so I think it comes from that too. I was just an anxious kid, a kid who was kind of scared of the world.
Do you think New York has shaped who you are as an artist?
Definitely. It's kind of like a tough-loving mother, d'you know what I mean? If you don't shape up, she'll kick you out. New York taught me how to do things the right way—to be respected and not be lazy and wait for someone to come knocking on your door. I always knew I'd have to work really hard and roll up my sleeves because New York teaches you to grind. It's not like in LA where people are like, "I hope I meet someone whose friend is a director and he puts me in a movie." Because come on, that’s not how it happens.
A few years ago, you were in a band called Black Cards with Pete Wentz. Did you used to be a pop punk girl?
No, I was never a pop punk girl. I was a dance girl and an urban-rhythmic girl. I'm from New York City; I listened to Jay Z and hung out in Harlem. My best friends were all, like, mixed Italian or Albanian, or Spanish or Puerto Rican. It was very diverse. When I met Pete, I had to transition because I felt like I needed to fit in with his aesthetic. It was basically an experimental project that didn’t really pan out to what he saw in his head. And I became a chameleon to fit that. I was 18 and I wanted to be accepted and have Pete think I was cool, so I wore a lot of black and ended up becoming this emo kid. It was weird.
Do you look back on that time fondly?
It was a very fun experience but it was also very scary. Imagine throwing a teenager on a plane to Dubai by herself; she'd get a little freaked out, you know? I wish I had more support but it definitely taught me a lot. I still bump into Pete at shows and I said to him recently, "Thank you so much, because I really did learn a lot and it really did get me ready for all of the stuff that was to come." He took a chance on me and believed in me and it was a great start for me in the industry, you know. And now, I feel like I could hit him up any time and he would respond with good advice.
When you go into a songwriting session, do you think, "I'm writing for me today," or "I'm writing for so-and-so artist?" Like, how did "The Monster" end up becoming an Eminem song?
I just write; I never think about who it's for or whatever. People don't believe me when I say this, but when I first wrote "The Monster," I said to the producer, "This would be a perfect Eminem song." And he was like, "Sssh, let's finish writing these verses." And we finished the verses and I said it again. At the time, when we finished the song, I really wanted to keep it for myself. But then the producer told me that someone from Shady Records had walked into the studio and heard it and wanted it for Eminem. I mean, things like that can and do happen. But being a smarter, more experienced writer now, I think what actually happened is he sent the track over to Eminem's people because I had put the idea in his head. But at the time, I probably would have killed the producer if he'd told me that, because it was my song, you know?
The single "No Broken Hearts" with Nicki Minaj is out now. But when we can we expect the album?
It's basically finished. It's just a matter of going to LA and finishing it "officially." But actually, I just went into the studio with Timbaland and played him the album and he was like, "No wait, I really wanna get on this album, and I bet you I can beat these songs." He was like, "I've done it really well before with Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado." You know, he’s worked with a lot of artists who like me touch on pop and rhythmic. But he actually said to me I should keep my record completely urban-rhythmic, which was interesting to hear. And then my manager got to play Kanye some songs, and Kanye kept on saying, "Easy, easy. These songs are easy." But I don't know what that means!"
I guess it's a compliment—like, these songs are effortlessly catchy.
Yeah, one of the songs Kanye heard is the most poppy on the album. It's called "The Way I Are" and it's kind of an FU to the record label—they're gonna kill me for saying that! But I do have a love-hate relationship with that song. I wrote it from a very real place but it ended up coming out very poppy, very radio-sounding, and I tend to run away from those songs.
Let's end by going back to the idea of "connecting." What do you want the name Bebe Rexha to stand for?
I want more than anything for people to respect my grind. Respect is really important for me. For me it's all about doing things the right way, working hard and really being honest. When I met Nicki properly on the ["No Broken Hearts"] video, she gave me a lot of good advice about being strong and knowing what you want, but saying it nicely, and what it’s like to be a woman in this industry. She said I have a good future ahead of me but a lot of work too. It was very inspiring, you know?
Nick Levine is a writer and editor living in London. Follow him on Twitter.