The Week In Pop

RMR Has It

It was the giddiest kind of what the fuck: a black man in gold fronts, a ski mask, and a bulletproof vest, surrounded by peers wielding all manner of guns, passionately crooning about hating police and getting revenge on ex-lovers, to the sound of… Rascal Flatts? The artist’s name was RMR, pronounced “rumor” — fitting for an anonymous singer with obvious music-biz connections but no apparent online breadcrumb trail. The song was called “Rascal,” a nod to its musical source material: “Bless The Broken Road,” best known as a #1 country hit for Rascal Flatts in 2005. “Rascal” presented a piano-led, drum-free arrangement that kept the twangy “Bless The Broken Road” melody intact. But lyrically it diverged sharply: “Others who broke my heart, they were like Northern stars” morphed into “Bitches that broke my heart/ They became hoes I scam.” This gloriously perverse exercise climaxed with RMR belting out, “Fuck the boys in blue,” his voice fluttering ever higher into cries of “Fuck 12, fuck 12!”

Even before the recent push toward racial justice sparked by Minneapolis police killing George Floyd, a black man reframing a mushy, romantic country ballad as an outcry against cops was a stunning gesture. Some three months later, the day after a veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council announced its intention to disband the city’s police department, it sounds no stranger but more ecstatically defiant than ever. If the bizarre spectacle of the “Rascal” video were the only artifact RMR ever contributed to our shared cultural consciousness, he would have already reserved his spot in the annals of weird internet history. But RMR’s subsequent output has affirmed him as a talent with the potential for longevity.

After “Rascal” came “Dealer,” an emotive minor-key lament about the perils of abusing drugs while dealing them. RMR glided across the track with agility, as if updating the sound and substance of old gospel-inflected R&B ballads like R. Kelly’s “I Wish” and TQ’s “Westside” for the trap era. Two of that era’s biggest stars, Future and Lil Baby, soon turned up on a remix of “Dealer,” further underlining the fact that RMR was not just some charismatic outsider who’d hit it big online through random chance or Lil Nas X-like hustle (speaking of artists who intriguingly collided country music with the realm of hip-hop and R&B). That perception was cemented even further with “I’m Not Over You,” a banjo-laden, synth-gurgling addiction meditation on which none other than Timbaland revisited the countrified hip-hop production he once explored with Bubba Sparxxx. Who the hell was this RMR guy, and how did he get so many powerful people in his corner?

That much remains unclear. “Rascal” initially premiered in a sponsored post on Elevator Mag. Days after it went viral, Rolling Stone published a feature on the song, explaining that RMR — a nearly 24-year-old who split his childhood between music meccas of Atlanta and Los Angeles — was signed to CMNTY RCRDS, an imprint founded by Bruno Mars collaborator Philip Lawrence and Malik Rasheed, a former A&R VP for Epic Records and Scooter Braun Projects. It has since been revealed that CMNTY, or at least RMR, is affiliated with Warner Records, which is co-releasing his debut EP Drug Dealing Is A Lost Art this Friday.

As for RMR’s own identity, he and his entourage insist his name isn’t Sage Clark despite “Rascal” initially hitting Spotify with a writing credit under that name. “As I grow, obviously I’m gonna open up, and they gonna know the story a lot more,” he told Desus & Mero — because RMR also has the pull to be interviewed on late-night prestige cable — “but it’s cool where it is right now.” He allegedly didn’t even take off the mask when hitting the studio with Timbaland or visiting his record label’s executive office. He’s making no secret about the strategic role of secrecy in his operation.

Whenever a musical artist attracts widespread attention with the support of a well-oiled promotional apparatus and no apparent grassroots buildup, some inevitably dismiss them as an “industry plant” — someone lifted to success by invisible forces regardless of merit. A decade after well-connected artists began emerging through campaigns orchestrated to create the illusion of out-of-nowhere success, it’s natural to be suspicious of artists leaning on mystery as promo tactic. Still, although some formidable industry muscle helped thrust RMR into the spotlight, he’s clearly not some generic mid-brow non-personality. Every one of his singles so far has presented him as a deft singer, a gifted stylist, and an occasionally inspired lyricist — an artist with a grasp on many genres and a distinct creative vision. Like the Weeknd, who leveraged anonymity into hype a decade ago, he is clearly more than a gimmick. Few could or would do what RMR has done with these resources.

Drug Dealing Is A Lost Art confirms his potential. Nothing else on the EP matches the euphoric eureka effect of “Rascal,” but RMR remains a consistently magnetic presence throughout, able to inject pathos into the usual narrative tics about newfound success. Early on, when he sings, “Money tall just like the Eiffel Tower/ Too much flexin’, I cannot slow down,” it doesn’t come off like boilerplate copy. On “Nouveau Riche,” when he brags about moving to Calabasas and worries he’ll screw up his good fortune, he communicates genuine wide-eyed excitement and fear. Like his clear forebear Ty Dolla $ign, another voice capable of adapting churchy, soulful singing to a modern context, he’s able to conjure gravitas in many settings, be it beaming across the airy synthetic hall of mirrors “Silence” or nimbly sing-rapping over a hard-hitting trap beat on “Best Friend.”

RMR’s tenor is elastic enough that he can sometimes sound like more than one artist on the same song. “Dealer” in particular finds him rapidly tiptoeing across the beat one moment and heartily bellowing the next. Like Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” follow-up “Panini,” which showed off a different side of his skill set and also became a hit, it was a well-chosen single to maintain public interest in RMR beyond the initial jolt of “Rascal.” This guy hasn’t yet risen to the stratospheric fame Lil Nas X attained last year. Given the way social media has reduced 15 minutes of fame to 15 seconds, he may still end up being remembered only for the eccentric Rascal Flatts rework that briefly set the internet on fire. Novelty often gives way to homogeny, and lightning strikes like “Rascal” are hard to come by. But this first EP suggests RMR could remain an electric presence even when we have all the facts.

CREDIT: TM/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

CHART WATCH

For the sixth time in six weeks America has a new #1 song, as DaBaby and Roddy Ricch’s “Rockstar” ascends to the top on the Hot 100 this week. It’s DaBaby’s first #1 hit and Ricch’s second following this year’s dominant “The Box,” which remains at #9 months after ending its 11-week run as chart champion. As Billboard points out, Ricch is the first artist to score his first two #1s in the same year since Ed Sheeran did it with “Shape Of You” and “Perfect” in 2017. “Rockstar” shares a title with Post Malone and 21 Savage’s 2017 chart-topper, the 16th pairing of identically titled #1 hits in Hot 100 history. Notably, the six most recent #1s were all collaborations, breaking the record of five straight collabs at #1 set in 2016 and 2017.

One of those recent #1 collabs, Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé’s “Savage,” is at #2 this week, followed by several other recent chart-toppers: the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” at #3, Doja Cat’s “Say So” at #4, Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s “Rain On Me” at #5, and Drake’s “Toosie Slide” at #6. After Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now,” Justin Bieber and Quavo’s “Intentions,” and Ricch’s aforementioned “The Box” comes SAINt JHN’s slow-build smash “Roses” at a new #10 peak. Originally released way back in 2016, it now becomes the artist’s first top 10 hit.

Lady Gaga scores her sixth #1 album this week, as Chromatica debuts atop the Billboard 200 with 274,000 equivalent album units and 205,000 in sales, strongly bolstered by the usual assortment of bundles. According to Billboard, those totals represent the biggest debut of 2020 by a woman and the year’s fifth largest debut overall. Gaga is one of only eight women with six #1 albums, a list that also includes her A Star Is Born predecessor Barbra Streisand (11), key inspiration Madonna (9), Janet Jackson (7), Beyoncé (6), Mariah Carey (6), Britney Spears (6), and Taylor Swift (6). Among them, Gaga is the fastest to accumulate six #1 albums, achieving the milestone in a span of nine years and two days. Swift previously did it in 10 years and nine months.

Jimmy Buffett debuts at #2 with 75,000 units for Life On The Flip Side, 74,000 of them via sales — Buffett’s whopping 40th album on the chart and 12th in the top 10. Buffett also benefitted from bundled sales. After Lil Baby, Gunna, Future, Drake, and Polo G comes a #8 debut for Anuel AA’s Emmanuel with 39,000 units, 36,000 of them via streaming. It’s the third Latin album to hit the top 10 this year following two from Bad Bunny. DaBaby is at #9, and then Run The Jewels’ RTJ4 closes out the top 10 with a #10 debut, having racked up 38,000 units and 30,000 in sales on just two days of tracking. It’s the duo’s first top 10 album, surpassing the #13-peaking Run The Jewels 3 as their career chart high point — and these totals don’t even count all the free downloads Killer Mike and El-P served up, which were not reported to Nielsen Music/MRC Data.

POP FIVE

Trey Songz – “2020 Riots: How Many Times”
“How many mothers have to cry? How many brothers gotta die? How many more times? How many more marches? How many more lives? How many more times?” In times like these there is great power in such blunt questions, particularly when sung with such preacherly authority.

JK – “Still With You”
Jungkook from BTS is an undeniable singer, but this song strikes me as the same sort of airy nothingness that served Justin Bieber so poorly on Changes.

Kane Brown – “Worldwide Beautiful”
Normally I have no time for this sort of overtly corny country ballad, and any attempt at bothsidesism deserves a certain scrutiny. Still, I appreciate how Kane Brown uses the phrase “black and white” to critique an unmovable heart.

Astrid S – “Dance Dance Dance”
This sounds like an AI-generated Carly Rae Jepsen song in the best way.

TWICE – “More & More”
Few girl groups are doing high-gloss maximalist K-pop better.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • “Sometimes I dress like a boy. Sometimes I dress like a swaggy girl. And sometimes I feel trapped by this persona that I have created, because sometimes I think people view me not as a woman,” Billie Eilish told British GQ. [GQ]
  • In a message on Instagram, Justin Bieber acknowledged he has benefitted from black culture and committed to using his platform “to speak up about racial injustice and system oppression.” [Instagram]
  • King Princess blasted J.K. Rowling after the Harry Potter author made a series of transphobic tweets. [Instagram]
  • BTS released a rare political statement, writing “We stand against racial discrimination. We condemn violence. You, I and we all have the right to be respected. We will stand together. #BlackLivesMatter.” [Twitter]
  • BTS also donated $1M to Black Lives Matter. [Reuters]
  • Virgin Fest and WME are fighting over whether Lizzo gets her $4-5M headline fee even though the festival was cancelled due to coronavirus. [Billboard]
  • Clean Bandit remixed the Killers’ latest single “Caution.” [Spotify]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME