Roddy Ricch Is Variety’s Breakthrough Artist of 2020
Under normal circumstances, 2020 should have been a nonstop victory lap for Roddy Ricch, who has enjoyed as good a past 12 months as any 22-year-old rapper could imagine. He won his first Grammy in January, for his appearance on Nipsey Hussle’s “Racks in the Middle,” and he just racked up six nominations for next year’s ceremony. His major-label debut, “Please Excuse Me for Being Antisocial,” bowed at No. 1 last December and quickly gave him his first No. 1 single, “The Box.” More hits followed, none bigger than his featured appearance on DaBaby’s song-of-the-summer candidate, “Rockstar.”
And yet, Ricch has been forced to spend what should have been the giddy first blush of superstardom neither touring the world nor basking in his new recognition at award shows and parties at nightclubs, but rather, cooped up at home like the rest of us.
Frankly, that seems to suit him just fine. “It really ain’t been bad for me,” he says of the past months spent in lockdown. “It’s definitely been a time of reflection, a time to plan little trips to where I can go and get peace of mind. We train ourselves to think on the go, and this time has given us a chance to have a really clear thought process.” Besides, “I don’t even go to the clubs [normally], so that’s been easy for me.”
In conversation, Ricch seems like exactly the kind of guy who would be perfectly content just having time to breathe — on the day we speak, he says his plans include taking his clothes to the cleaner and reorganizing his shoe closet. He is unfailingly polite, proud of his successes but never overly boastful about them, and speaks with an understated stoicism that belies his age. Yet he’s reticent to psychoanalyze his lyrics, or even dissect too much about his process.
“I feel like my style — to me, it ain’t no style,” he says. “Other people may see these consistencies, obviously. But I have a progressive sound: It changes with my experiences, and the music changes with it. So I never like to put myself in any category. I take my life experiences and put it on a different beat. I’m not an overthinker when it comes to music.”
Intentionally or not, Ricch has developed a style that is entirely his own. Born and raised in Compton, Calif., he spent time in Atlanta in his youth, and the influence of both cities’ storied musical traditions aren’t hard to spot. When hip-hop writers first started noticing him, quick comparisons were made to Young Thug and, to a lesser extent, Future, two Atlanta MCs with whom Ricch shares a knack for effortless hook writing and a rapping style that eases in and out of singing without the MC ever seeming to make a conscious decision one way or the other. One key element that distinguishes Ricch from those two forebears, however, is the infectious sense of improvisatory joy that pervades his music. Even when — as on his early single “Down Below” — Ricch spends the entire track in song, it never feels premeditated.
Mustard, the kingmaking L.A. producer responsible for two of Ricch’s bigger hits — “Ballin’” and “High Fashion” — hails the young rapper’s instinctive approach to music making.
“I was already a fan of Roddy before we got together,” Mustard says, “and once we got in the studio we just clicked. Every time we get in the studio we push ourselves to be a little better than the last time. We’ve just got a great chemistry when it comes to music, and even outside — we really are friends outside of music, so it makes it easier to work.”
Mustard was hardly the only major name to give the young rapper a key co-sign. Philadelphia star Meek Mill also spotted his talent early, bringing him onstage for performances before most of the crowd likely knew who he was. Post Malone took him on tour. And then there was Nipsey Hussle. Establishment hip-hop figures helping give up-and-comers a leg up through features is hardly new or novel, but watching the “Racks in the Middle” video, it’s striking how generously Hussle works to steer attention toward his young collaborator.
Ricch nonetheless takes issue with the idea of his rise as some overnight phenomenon, or one bestowed upon him.
“To the world it might have seemed fast, but it was not fast,” he says. “From [his first mixtape, 2017’s] ‘Feed Tha Streets,’ every year I dropped a project. That first project connected with who it was supposed to connect with, which was the streets. I campaigned a lot for that and did a lot of legwork in my surrounding areas: Compton, Watts, South Central, all the projects that started supporting me. And I feel like once the world caught wind, it just spread and spread. My second project, ‘Feed Tha Streets II,’ was 60-something on Billboard [200 albums chart]. With ‘Racks in the Middle,’ we had shot the video the night before I went out with Post Malone on a European tour. I had never been on tour before; I’d never been out of the country before that. So a lot of people probably didn’t even know the moves I was making to set up that success. I was always grinding to get to where I needed to go.”
On that note, Ricch says he’s taking his time to plan his next moves, weighing opportunities, making sure everyone in his circle is on the same page, and simply “always giving myself different tasks for the day” to avoid pandemic-induced inertia. Ask him if he has anyone on whom he hopes to model his burgeoning career going forward, however, and he rejects the idea wholesale.
“Someone can inspire you musically because music is a sound, but trying to mimic somebody’s career, that’s almost impossible,” he says. “I could never say that I want my career to be like, let’s just say, Jay-Z. Because Jay-Z at 22 … did we even know Jay-Z at 22? I think Jay-Z put his first album out at, what, 27? Even Drake was, what, 24, 23? I don’t even know. I’m 22 coming off two No. 1s. It’s just a different time. It’s like thinking about Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant — you can’t compare them, because they came up at three different points in time, they had to play against different people, people’s mentality was different. So I just do my own thing, honestly. I can’t say, ‘I want this man’s life,’ or ‘I want this man’s career,’ because that’s envy, and envy is a sin.”
Ricch is equally circumspect about his next moves. He does say he’s been working on music, and this time he’s been producing more for himself, as well as studying music theory. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s planning on releasing anything imminently.
“I feel like pressure is self-imposed,” he says of expectations to equal the success of “Excuse Me,” “so I ain’t under no pressure. I’m in a good place — whenever my momma turns on the car I’m still on the radio. So for me to drop a whole other album right now, it’s just overkill. At least let me wait until, instead of five songs on the radio, let me wait till I’ve got two. I don’t wanna be just putting songs on the radio all the time. We ain’t making mixtape music no more. You’ve gotta give it space and time for people to digest it.”
And like many of us, space and time are two things that Roddy Ricch seems to have plenty of. In a genre that often fetishizes hustle and constant content production, he’s taking advantage of the gaps and the pauses, willing to let life dictate what happens afterward.
“I feel like the problem with us nowadays is we want everything right now,” he says. “But the music isn’t gonna be progressive when you’re putting something out every three months, because you ain’t been through nothing; you still feel like how you felt when you [last] dropped the music. To me, stuff doesn’t happen in my life every single day. Maybe for some people it does, but my life don’t happen that fast. I have to give myself time to actually go through things so I can speak on it, and have a new understanding of life. It’s not like I make music that’s not my life, so I feel like I need to give my life time to inspire me.”
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