Curtis Waters Is Putting An Indie Spin On TikTok Stardom
Curtis Waters is cheesing in a tuxedo. He’s fanning himself with money, and then he’s perched atop a cloud, making it rain. He thrusts his pelvis, flails with the grace of a drunken reveler, does a couple skeet-skeet hand gestures, launches into awkward jump-spins and barely sticks the landing. For now his jewelry is limited to two shiny earrings, but as he boasts repeatedly, “Ice on my neck, that’s incoming/ I’m a pretty boy, I’m stunning.” Eventually his associate Harm Franklin shows up in glitzy shades to breathily rhyme, “I’m a bad boy like Puffy/ She suckin’ on my neck like Buffy.” All this is captured in VHS quality in front of a makeshift green screen, set to woozy synthetic funk like “SexyBack” crossed with “Deadbeat Summer.”
The “Stunnin'” video is basically a very long TikTok, because of course it is. Waters is 20. He understands how this stuff works. Between shifts at Tropical Smoothie and classes at UNC Greensboro, Waters studied the promo methods of viral stars like Lil Nas X and BoyBoy West Coast, the way they teased “Old Town Road” and “U Was At The Club” on the video app for months until demand for the full track was at a fever pitch. That’s exactly what he did with “Stunnin’,” posting numerous clips of himself and his brother dancing to snippets from the song, hustling to build an audience for it before unveiling the finished product. When “Stunnin'” finally dropped in May, it became a hit around the world, charting everywhere from Canada to Ireland to New Zealand. And although the song didn’t quite crack the Hot 100 here in the US, it was buzzy enough that labels had started hitting Waters up back when “Stunnin'” was still just circulating in bits and pieces on TikTok.
But Waters did not seize the opportunity to sign to a major label. He and his manager Chris Anokute — a veteran A&R who helped to break Katy Perry, Iggy Azalea, and Bebe Rexha, and who discovered his latest client this past spring when SoundCloud’s algorithm served him up Waters’ song “Freckles” — weren’t happy with the typical major-label contract. “On average, the deals included multi-million dollar advances and 20-year reversions after the terms on a three-album deal,” Anokute told Rolling Stone. “So if it takes him six years to put out three albums, [the label] would collect for 20 more years after that. They’re also taking anywhere from a 15 to 22 percent distribution fee off the top.”
Like Run The Jewels, Waters and Anokute decided a better option was BMG, which doubles as a record label and publishing company, operating on a tier just beneath the big three of Universal, Sony, and Warner. Per the Rolling Stone feature, BMG offered Waters a 60-40 profit split and full control of his recordings after 10 years. Furthermore, says Anokute, “Nine months after he puts out his album he’s a free agent.” It’s a business arrangement that skirts the divide between major and indie much in the same way Waters’ tunes blur the line between mainstream and underground touchpoints.
Waters has been around the world. Born as Abhinav Bastakoti in Nepal just days before Y2K, he moved with his family to India, Germany, and Canada before settling in Cary, North Carolina at age 17. But like most people in his generation, the guy is first and foremost a child of the internet. Maybe that designation is meaningless because the internet encompasses a near-infinite number of subcultures, but what I mean is that his songs remind me of the corners of online music culture where pop intersects with indie in weird and druggy ways that feel more spiritually in step with early 2010s music blogs than teen-dominated video apps.
Like its predecessors Vine and YouTube, TikTok tends to reward the hokiest, most basic entertainers, and as anyone who’s seen the “Stunnin'” video knows, Waters is willing to make a fool of himself to promote his music. (How depressing that to have a hit now you have to film yourself doing a goofy dance to it?) The guy is also not above dropping lines like “I’m a bad boy, McLovin” into his songs. But Waters does not strike me as your average TikTok cornball; he is neither a squeaky-clean Homecoming-king type like Shawn Mendes nor a frat-house bro like Jake Paul, and his singles aren’t memes transmuted into song form like “Old Town Road.” Even at their most accessible, they have a bleary edge, a depressive tint, and some hint of influences beyond the obvious pop and hip-hop comparisons.
“Freckles,” Waters’ latest endeavor into Auto-Tune singsong, sounds at once like Post Malone and some buzzy act at an Urban Outfitters SXSW party early last decade, around that moment when R&B experimentalists like Frank Ocean and Jai Paul were on the rise and indie rockers were increasingly toying with pop. “System,” the first song Waters released after “Stunnin’,” is like a rudimentary synth-pop version of Death Grips with entry-level revolutionary rhetoric subbed in for whatever noided content MC Ride usually espouses. Another recent Waters single, “The feelings tend to stay the same,” goes from wordless Bad Bunny groans to a whiny hook in thrall to late emo-rap stars Lil Peep and Juice WRLD — but it also maybe sounds like Mac DeMarco covering the Postal Service?
Even the self-consciously silly “Stunnin'” — now racking up about 4 million global streams per day — is more stylish than your average TikTok breakthrough hit. In hindsight it feels like a Trojan horse, a playful and self-effacing opening volley designed to gain Waters a foothold in the industry. It plays to TikTok the same way artists used to (and sometimes still do) craft one or two tracks expressly for radio. Waters says he didn’t write “Stunnin'” specifically with TikTok in mind, but that’s hard to believe given how expertly he engineered it for success on the platform. The song, the video, and the resulting record deal are the work of a kid who not only has taste and talent but also the business and promotional savvy to navigate this rapidly changing musical landscape.
It will be interesting to see what trajectory Waters’ career takes next. Due to the pandemic, his day-to-day life hasn’t changed much yet, except that he stopped coming in to his shifts at Tropical Smoothie and has been fielding calls from some of his heroes. “I’m still living at my mom’s house eating baked beans in my underwear,” he told Pigeons & Planes. “It feels imaginary, almost.” When debut album Pity Party drops in October, we’ll see whether he has any more hits in him. If he settles into online cult stardom instead, that would certainly be a fit too.
Because of Labor Day, the Hot 100 chart won’t be published until Tuesday. UPDATE: Here it is, with BTS’ “Dynamite” holding on to #1 for a second straight week. The only significant movement is 24kGoldn and Iann Dior’s rock-rap hit “Mood” rising to #8, becoming the first top-10 hit for both artists.
Over on the Billboard 200 albums chart, Taylor Swift’s Folklore holds onto the #1 spot for the sixth week in a row, surpassing Lil Baby’s My Turn for the most weeks at #1 in 2020 so far. The most recent album to spend more than six weeks on top of the chart was Drake’s Views, which notched 13 nonconsecutive weeks in 2016. This week, Folklore earned 90,000 equivalent album units, down 8% from last week. Swift is now tied with Whitney Houston for the most cumulative weeks on top of the chart by a woman at 46 weeks. Swift is also now only the second artist to have at least five different albums spend at least six weeks at #1. The first is the Beatles, who have had 12 different albums spend 6+ weeks at the top.
Following Folklore are Pop Smoke’s Shoot For The Stars Aim For The Moon at #2 with 77,000 equivalent album units, followed by Juice WRLD’s Legends Never Die with 64,000 units. Metallica debuted at #4 with their San Francisco Symphony-accompanied live album S&M2. Katy Perry’s Smile debuted at #5 with 50,000 units — it’s her first album not to debut in the top spot since her 2008 debut One Of The Boys. Rounding out the top 10 are the Hamilton soundtrack, Lil Baby’s My Turn, Rod Wave’s Pray 4 Love, DaBaby’s Blame It On Baby, and the debut of Internet Money’s B4 The Storm.
Julia Stone – “Unreal” (Prod. St. Vincent)
Was just wishing for new St. Vincent music the other day, but if Annie wants to spend her time producing dark-tinted pop tracks like this, that works too.
Monica & Lil Baby – “Trenches” (Prod. The Neptunes)
Given the players involved, I figured this would be an endorphin rush. Instead, Monica’s post-Verzuz single lays low in the cut and lets you come to it. It didn’t grab me on first listen, but it’s been ingratiating itself with every subsequent listen.
Finneas – “What They’ll Say About Us”
Billie’s brother goes full Coldplay here. Or is it full Fray? “What They’ll Say About Us” is some decent Grey’s Anatomy-core, but it’s wild to think this is the guy collaborating on all those Eilish tracks.
Ava Max – “OMG What’s Happening”
Ava Max stays making sneaky-great big-personality pop tracks this year. I am excited for her album and no longer think of her as Diet Lady Gaga.
CNCO – “Beso”
The reggaeton boy-band bop you didn’t know you needed!
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Ed Sheeran and his wife announced the birth of their daughter Lyra Antarctica Seaborn Sheeran. [Instagram]
- Charli XCX obtained a restraining order against an obsessed fan who broke into her home, and has put the house on the market. [The Daily Mail]
- Rihanna discussed her relationship with Chris Brown on Oprah Winfrey’s podcast: “I truly love him. … He’s in a relationship of his own. I’m single but we have maintained a very close friendship ever since the restraining order has been dropped.” [TMZ]
- “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” rapper Silento was jailed after a bizarre incident involving a hatchet. [TMZ]
- Miranda Lambert and Luke Combs lead the 2020 CMA nominations. [Tennesseean]
- Diplo released his first ambient album, MMXX, which he’ll play at a series of socially distant stargazing events in partnership with Smithsonian’s National Air And Space Museum. [MMXX]
- In loosely related news, Elle King covered “Thunderclouds” by the short-lived Labrinth/Sia/Diplo supergroup LSD. [YouTube]
- Nelly and Backstreet Boys’ A.J. McLean will appear on the new season of Dancing With The Stars along with Carole Baskin, Nev Schulman, Anne Heche, Vernon Davis, and others. [Us]
- Cardi B is the new face of Balenciaga. [Twitter]
- Rihanna got in an electric scooter accident. [People]
- Jojo Siwa went for a drive with Iggy Azalea and Tinashe. [YouTube]