Latto’s Weaponized Pop-Rap
On Thursday night, the great FX show Atlanta finally returned from a four-year break, and the first two episodes of its third season were vivid, surreal, atmosphere-drunk mini-masterpieces. Atlanta is so far beyond every other show on TV that it doesn’t even feel fair to compare them. It’s like we all got used to enjoying Atlanta bites like Dave, and the real Atlanta had to clear its throat and remind the world how it feels to really get lost in a TV show. Then, a couple of hours after that first episode popped up on Hulu, show creator Donald Glover dropped his first rap verse in what feels like years, talking about sliding off gummies and still looking bummy on “Sunshine,” an album track from the Atlanta rapper Latto. Donald Glover’s whole rap-and-bullshit side hustle as Childish Gambino is a decidedly mixed bag, but his verse on “Sunshine” is sharp and assured. He sounds like a star, probably because he is a star. But the most interesting thing about “Sunshine” is the fact that it exists at all — that Glover would make his triumphant return to rap on this particular record.
A lot went into “Sunshine,” a soft and catchy track that plays around with gospel in a Chance The Rapper-esque way. The song has four different producers, including longtime Kanye West secret weapon Mike Dean, and it’s also got a fully locked-in Lil Wayne threatening to Will Smith somebody. (“Sunshine” came out two days before the Oscars. Did Wayne know? Or does he just associate Will Smith characters with beating people up?) It’s a real statement for a relatively new rapper like Latto to have Wayne and Glover on the same song, especially when that song isn’t even a single. It’s a clear sign that the music industry believes in Latto. Someone hears money in her. Someone might not be wrong.
Latto is the Columbus-born, Atlanta-raised Alyssa Stephens, who says she’s been rapping since she was eight years old. When she first started, Latto made one of the all-time great unforced errors, taking the rap name Mulatto. She finally changed that name less than a year ago. Miraculously enough, the rebranding stuck, and it doesn’t seem like she’s taken that much shit for it. As a teenager, Latto got her start when she won the first season of The Rap Game, a Lifetime rap-competition reality show that I’ve never watched in my life, and turned down the So So Def contract that was supposed to be the show’s big prize.
Latto started putting out mixtapes in 2016, the same year that she won The Rap Game. She really started to take off in 2019, when she released the online hit “Bitch From Da Souf” and then the remix with Saweetie and Trina. That song, released independently, cracked the Hot 100 and got Latto a deal with RCA. Latto’s debut album Queen Of Da Souf, released in 2020, wasn’t a huge success, but a couple of its singles went platinum. Latto went into the featured-rapper roundtable and became a XXL Freshman — the standard come-up for young rappers who are starting to make industry noise.
As a rapper, Latto isn’t tremendously distinct. She sounds a little bit like a lot of previously established rappers, and she gets over on raunch and attitude. But she’s also got strong pop instincts, and she knows how to play the game. Her songs are often under two minutes — just quick and efficient little delivery systems for hooks and snarl. She’s especially good with nostalgia. One of the hits from Queen Of Da Souf was “Muwop,” which featured Gucci Mane and which used the beat from Gucci’s 2007 hit “Freaky Gurl.” That’s an increasingly common tactic — new singles that don’t just sample old hits but effectively remake those hits, drafting on whatever nostalgia those old hits conjure.
Last year, Latto hypercharged that strategy. “Big Energy,” released in September, is Latto’s biggest hit by far, and one of the most cynical and obvious hit-chasing attempts that I’ve heard in a long time. “Big Energy” samples the Tom Tom Club’s dance classic “Genius Of Love,” the same track that Mariah Carey famously used on her 1995 smash “Fantasy,” and it also quotes heavily from “Fantasy.” (As in: “Bad bitch, I could be your fantasy.”) The song is built on the phrase “big dick energy,” and you can practically hear a whole boardroom deciding that a viral catchphrase from three years ago should be the basis of a hit song right now. On top of that, one of the three producers of “Big Energy” is disgraced hitmaker Dr. Luke, who apparently makes too much money for too many people to be chased out of the business. From its glitzy video to its gleaming hooks, Latto’s “Big Energy” is pure product, and I should probably hate it. I don’t. (Admittedly, I do hate it a little more now that I know Dr. Luke was involved.)
“Big Energy” has been gaining steam for months, and it’s still rising up the Hot 100. Right now, the song is sitting at #11, and it’s absolutely guaranteed to break into the top 10 next week — not just because Latto’s album is out now but also because of the remix that arrived on Monday. Mariah Carey herself showed up on the “Big Energy” remix, singing a bit of “Fantasy” and hitting a few whistle-register notes. (DJ Khaled is on there, too. I don’t know why anyone would think Khaled would add anything to a remix on 2022, but we’re apparently still doing that.)
Mariah Carey has a vested interest here. Right now, Carey has 19 #1 hits — one less than all-time champs the Beatles. If the “Big Energy” remix somehow muscles its way to the top of the Hot 100 — and a whole lot of record-label types are most assuredly trying to push the song there — then Mariah will finally catch the Beatles. That’s what she very clearly wants. Maybe singing her old song on a remix guest-spot would only technically give Mariah Carey her 20th chart-topper, but that chart feat is still in play.
Is Latto an actual star? The success of “Big Energy” would support the idea that she is, but I’m not sure. She’s definitely an engaging presence. She can rap, and she can put together a song, but I don’t hear a ton of personality in her music. Maybe she doesn’t need that much personality. Her new album 777 is a sharp and canny piece of pop-rap. It’s commendably short, getting through 13 songs in barely half an hour, and every song is catchy. The production is sharp and clean, even though every track has multiple credited producers. (Mike Dean is involved in almost every song.) There are a ton of big-name guests on the album, too — not just Childish Gambino and Lil Wayne but also Lil Durk, Kodak Black, Nardo Wick, 21 Savage.
As with “Big Energy,” Latto makes constant callbacks to older hits — a quote from Crime Mob’s crunk classic “Stilettos (Pumps)” on one track, a sample from Vanessa Carlton’s enduring pop standby “A Thousand Miles” on another. Latto’s favorite subjects are slapping the shit out of inferior rappers and being really good at sex, and she gets in funnier lines on the latter topic. (“Slurp me like I’m soup” is vivid, but I’ve heard tens of thousands of equally nasty punchlines about blowjobs, so fair play.) None of the tracks on the album are revelations, but all of them sound like potential singles. That’s the whole idea here. Latto is trying to make hits, and she’s not above relying on the most conventional wisdom to get those hits.
More than most major-label rap albums, 777 is total major-label product. In every moment, you can see the gears turning. Latto’s not trying to hide those gears, either; she’s already talking about the album’s inevitable deluxe edition in interviews. Nobody’s encouraging us to think of 777 as a work of art, and there’s something oddly endearing about that. It’s the Marvel movie corollary: A piece of loathsome corporate entertainment stops being loathsome if it succeeds at actually entertaining. I think 777 is pretty entertaining, in its low-stakes, low-commitment kind of way. Maybe I’m an easy mark.
1. 42 Dugg & EST Gee – “Free The Shiners”
Dugg and Gee have two of the best voices in rap, and they make perfect sense together. Everything that Dugg says sounds like a hook, and everything Gee says has gravity. Sometimes, that’s all you need.
2. Open Mike Eagle – “Multi-Game Arcade Cabinet” (Feat. R.A.P. Ferreira, Still Rift., & Video Dave)
I love an indie-rap group-effort throwdown, where you can tell that all these people were in the same place at the same time while recording the song, where they were all trying to impress and outdo one another. But nobody’s going to outdo Open Mike Eagle anytime soon: “Put dough up, I watch when my coins fail/ I think I’m Orson Welles avoiding voicemail.”
3. Trapland Pat – “Hellcat” (Feat. Eli Fross)
Rap has no shortage of characters right now, but Trapland Pat is a character, and there’s always room for a guy like that.
4. Sauce Walka, Voochie P, & 44 Mike Deezy – “Basquiat”
Every time Sauce Walka comes out with a new track, I wish I could’ve been in the room when it was recorded. Recording studios are insanely boring places, so that’s some kind of skill.
5. Russ Millions, Buni, & YV – “Reggae & Calypso (Remix)” (Feat. CH, SwitchOTR, Gazo, & Rose Real)
Once upon a time, every rap song that blew up would get a remix with at least five different rappers on it. I miss that, and I would like to commend UK drill for keeping the tradition alive. In a context like that, a great rapper can really stand out and make a name. “Reggae & Calypso” was already a great song, but the remix turns it into a showcase for a bunch of rappers who I don’t already know. My favorite is Gazo, a French star who raps in his own language and who has an insanely cool and authoritative voice.