Russ’s music, to me, thematically falls into three categories: internal reflection, external braggadocio/critique, and interpersonal relationship analysis. When I expressed this to him and asked why he gets fulfillment from each he said, “The internal reflection songs are fulfilling on a deeper level because those are things I’m struggling with or going through in my own life that make that session or song very therapeutic. External braggadocious critique is fulfilling ‘cuz that’s when I really just get to talk shit. I love listening back to it, and it’s just hard as fuck on some rap shit — just a fun listen. Then with the interpersonal relationship songs, those are fulfilling ‘cuz those usually have my best melodies. I get a kick out of a really great melody. There’s something spiritual that happens when you catch a really incredible one.”
I couldn’t help but notice how this initial distinction seemed to inform the rest of our conversation as we talked even more deeply about Russ’s music, life, and philosophies. His musical themes seem to be a true reflection of his humanity and existence.
Russ is someone I’d say is consistently in a state of internal reflection. He even has a song called “Some Time” wherein the hook he sings, “Please don’t call my phone I need some time / just to sit and think about my life.” Right off the bat in our Zoom talk, he expressed how he was currently reassessing his unhealthy food intake and focusing on a new grain-free diet. He says, “I’m six days in right now. Anyone who knows me knows I eat bread probably three meals a day. I’m Italian. I love sandwiches, pasta, and fries. But my brother’s a personal trainer and certified nutritionist so he has me on it. I thought it was gonna be super difficult, but it’s been really easy actually because I feel way better. You notice it in one day even not eating any grains or bread. You just feel lighter. My goal is next summer tour, I’m just doin’ no shirt ever.”
When you move as fast as Russ has over the past five years, bad food habits are easy to turn to because you don’t have to put any thought into it. It was 2016 when Russ says his career “went through the roof,” and from then to now, he says it’s, “just been a blur.” That year, Russ had two breakout singles in “What They Want” and “Losing Control,” which were his first two songs to crack the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at 83 and 62 respectively. These singles eventually led to his first official Columbia Records-released solo album There’s Really a Wolf, which went platinum with no features after he’d been releasing independent mixtapes and singles consistently since 2011.
Fast forward two albums and a plethora of singles later to the beginning of 2020 — pre-pandemic. Russ released Shake the Snow Globe, a project that’s title represented his need to shake up his own world and have a reset. Though he got what he requested almost immediately, Russ told me it took a conversation with his best friend Bugus two nights before ours and a year and a half of the pandemic to find clarity on its message.
“I was pissed ‘cuz I was like, ‘Fuck, why did I have to wait till a year and a half into this pandemic to have this epiphany when now it’s probably about to be over?’” he says. “The epiphany was that I haven’t been really present the past five years. I’ve enjoyed it, but I’ve just always been on to the next shit. So I’m never really inside of the moment. We were sittin’ there talkin’ and I was like, ‘I need to fuckin’ go actually enjoy my life.’ I’ll go to a strip club and throw 40 grand and it’s like, ‘What the fuck was I doin’?’ I’m about to go live in Lake Como for 40 grand for the month. Why have I just been sitting in Atlanta for 15 years going on these tours and just coming back? But I was always worried about leaving family behind even though everyone is taken care of and they all have houses and everyone’s paid. I have a lot of responsibility and a lot of pressure that I put on myself that’s probably unwarranted.”
The pandemic for Russ has not just resulted in reflective thoughts about how he decides to live, but how he is perceived. One of his most recently released tracks “Misunderstood” dives headfirst into his frustration with his intentions being misconstrued. Because of his internal reflection on what connects with his listeners most, he employed an interesting tactic to get his ideas across.
“That song was originally inspired by a media perspective and people on my team’s perspective where it was like, ‘Damn y’all don’t understand who I am and what I’m about,’” he says. “That was the catalyst and then I started singing the hook. I like making things seem like they’re love songs because I feel like they’re more digestible. When you listen, it feels like I’m talking solely about a girl I’m dealin’ with.”
While on the song Russ explores the resulting feelings of being misunderstood, when I asked what people most commonly get wrong about him, he talked about how his critique is viewed as “complaining” when in reality he means it differently. “I’m trying to help,” he clarifies. “I try to point out certain pitfalls in the industry. I try to point out things I think are important for an artist to know. Do I get redundant with my messaging? Sure, but so do rappers with Pateks. That’s when I get confused and I’m like, ‘Which message would y’all rather have jammed down your throat, Pateks and Gucci, or own your masters?’”
Naturally, this was a point in our conversation where when talking about Russ’s internal reflection we crossed over into the territory of external critique. One Russ song, “Stockholm Syndrome,” featuring KXNG Crooked, from his 2020 release Chomp EP, taps into this intersection while including some of his signature braggadocious raps. On the track he spits, “The critical thought is / the industry is run by invisible bosses / Through the midst of the fog / I can see what’s true / only way to beat the game is don’t play it / fuck you.” As he reflects on the information he has received about the deception involved in the music industry, he also critiques the idea that you must commit to the machine to be successful. In our conversation, he outlined the pitfalls of artists signing to a label early through the concept of this song’s title.
“I think most of what labels sell an artist they can’t guarantee,” Russ explains. “Is it a lie? I don’t know. Is it the truth? I don’t know, but they can’t guarantee it. If you’re signing early then you really have no leverage. What ends up happening is ‘Stockholm Syndrome,’ that’s why I made that song on Chomp. You fall in love with your kidnapper. Let’s say you’re an artist who signs really early to a label. Then let’s say you experience success on the label. But then let’s say two or three albums later you feel like they’re bullshitting and you have a problem with them. The reason you’re gonna stomp your feet and complain on Twitter but not actually try to leave the label is because deep down there’s a part of you that credits them for your success. Then you don’t really know if the success is yours or if it’s theirs. You’re attached emotionally and spiritually to this label that you feel like is doing you wrong. You’re not gonna leave because you’re like, ‘Shit, I don’t know if I go independent if I’m gonna be successful because all of my success has come off of the label. So as much as I hate them, I love them.’ Mentally, they own you.”
On another Chomp track “Inside Job,” Russ employs a double meaning with the bar, “So fuck y’all, most of y’all been died off / I promise that success is an inside job.” At first glance — or listen — Russ is flexing his self-gained accomplishments. Yet, at the same time, based on his public critiques, he seems to also be referencing the questionable digital success of artists. In our talk we traded thoughts about his “Real life>the internet” idea, which simply means internet numbers don’t always reflect real-life fan engagement. Russ dwelled upon why it’s become tougher to truly call out false stats in the pandemic with no live shows.
“There is no more real life, it’s just the internet as far as the industry and digital shit is concerned,” he says. “When you see streams, views, followers — fuck all that. Show me a crowd of real people in real life. Now what’s made it tricky and kind of a gross landscape is there’s no shows to balance out internet perception. So now in the past year and a half, the internet and numbers are king. There’s no checks and balances. People think that whoever’s doing streams,’ even though most of them are fucking fake, they’re the hottest out and they’re the biggest out.”
A recent Rolling Stone article by Elias Leight revealed an underworld of “black market” deals where labels are paying for fake streams. Russ tweeted that the article wasn’t getting enough coverage, so I asked him about it. He says, “That story not being bigger just lets you know who’s really running the show. That lets you know, and I’ve already known it, but labels have the blogs and certain Instagram and media outlets in their pocket. So these outlets that would normally pick up any other story, they’re not gonna post that one and let it get too much traction because guess what, it’s gonna piss off their employer.”
From his conviction-filled rap tracks to his life philosophies, external braggadocio and critique are at the core of Russ’s soul. It seems he has an unrelenting need to dissect for further understanding and self-assuredness.
The cross-section between Russ’s critique and interpersonal relationship analysis exists in his ideas about starting a label of his own. His DIEMON imprint, which he started with his best friend Bugus, stands for “Do It Everyday Music Or Nothing.” It has thus far just been used for branding, but we discussed his future prospects to use the title to create his own version of a record label that works for all parties involved. While he heavily criticizes the major label system’s current functionality, Russ thinks the core of the issue is labels don’t view their artists as people.
“DIEMON is there and ready to be turned into a label even though we haven’t quite pulled the trigger on it yet,” he explains. “But if and when we start that label, the way you do it is, it’s an artist label. You (artists) own your masters and you make your money. We take a fair split, but we don’t own any of your shit and if you wanna leave, dip. You just don’t be a dickhead weirdo about the shit. It’s not that complicated, it’s just a business and there’s old white people in suits who are greedy. When you’re not in the business of trying to get over on someone, it’s not that complex.”
Russ thinks you can still make money in the music industry with human decency as long as greed doesn’t drive you. The harmful divide between fruitful interpersonal relationships and monetary gain in the business, he seems to think stems from that.
Russ has made a name for himself doing everything DIY to the point he has a song called “Do It Myself” with the hook lyrics, “I don’t need her, I don’t need him / Fuck it, I’ll do it myself.” However, in recent history, some of his most standout tracks have come as a result of organic collaborations. It became clear to me in all the songs we discussed that wholesome interpersonal relationships were at the core of them. Russ and Boi1da have a hot streak of hit singles in “Civil War” and the smash Rihanna-promoted track “BEST ON EARTH” featuring Bia.
“1da just has a really great ear and really elite taste that aligns with mine,” Russ shares of his relationship with the artist. “I also think 1da’s just a great person and great energy. He’s in very tight with whoever is running this shit up above. God, universe, whatever you wanna call it.”
1da also produced one of Russ’s latest successful bangers “Ugly” featuring Lil Baby. I told him that Lil Baby in the video for the single looked maybe the happiest I’d seen him and asked if they had compatible energy. “I think we’re both turnt individuals,” he says. “I think he’s the same way, and once we were at the video shoot it was like, ‘Oh, of course we did this song.’ That beat sounded like something just went down.”
We also spoke about his recent release, which was a feature on the song “Fck Boys” by LA-bred R&B crooner Blxst. The interpersonal relationship Russ describes with him, though, was much more sonic centered.
“When I first heard Blxst, I could tell that he was in such a fuckin’ pocket with the shit ‘cuz he was making the beats and mixing all of it,” Russ says. “I know all about when it’s a different pocket ‘cuz it’s over your production. Sometimes when I hear people’s music, I appreciate it from afar just as a listener. Then sometimes when I hear people’s music, I’m like, ‘This overlaps in the Venn diagram of my shit.’ It just feels like every song he makes I’m like, ‘I would make this, I wanna make this, this sounds incredible.’”
Unfortunately, not all of Russ’s interpersonal relationships are fruitful and unproblematic. These more difficult escapades, however, often result in some of Russ’s most melodic masterpieces. When I shared a list of my favorite of his songs with him, the majority of which fall into this category, he asks if I’ve just gone through a breakup.,
“There’s a lot of pain in that playlist,” he says. “What I also notice from a musicality standpoint is it’s a lot of melody stuff that you chose. Big choruses.”
On recent cut “Hard For Me,” Russ explores the feelings of resentment spurred from sensing that your well-intentioned effort isn’t being reciprocated. For the wildly catchy hook, he sings, “Tired of goin’ hard for people who don’t go hard for me / And when you love somebody, the truth gets hard to see / They gon’ knock the wind out, make it hard to breathe / If I go hard for you, please go hard for me.”
When I ask him about that theme in his life he says, “There’s been times with women I’ve dealt with that felt a little lopsided. Not just women, though. Like I said before, in my music, I’ll personify the industry or my career as a woman so I can make a love song. That was also kind of talking about going so hard for the industry, respect, and the culture, but it feeling like I’m not really getting the same amount of love back.”
The female personification of a separate life reality isn’t Russ’s only type of love or relationship expression in his songs. When I ask him about a lyric from his track “Momentum” featuring Black Thought and Benny The Butcher — “I’m honest with my women that’s probably why they all hate me” — he says, “I’ve had numerous women where I tell them what my intentions are with the situation we’re in and what I think about it, and that it’s not a relationship and that’s not what I’m looking for, and they freak the fuck out.”
On a recent more melodic track “Give Up,” Russ expands even more on the emotional reaction to this conundrum with the hook lyrics, “I did all I could. I think I did everything I should / Ain’t no way I’d give up, what you would.” This proves commitment for Russ is potentially a consistent dilemma.
A deep cut track from Russ “Inbetween,” has a chorus that also speaks for itself, “Inbetween high inbetween drunk / inbetween love and I don’t give a fuck.” As opposed to his normal relationship tracks, he approached this one differently. “I really love when I make songs with a song concept already in my head,” he explains. “‘Inbetween’ was like that. That’s very fun for me because it’s coming in the songwriting process a bit backwards. Now I have to go make the music to fit the concept, which is actually kind of easier than the other way.”
The track “Missin’ You Crazy” and its interpersonal chorus was done by Russ through his usual process. On the hook he sings, “Sometimes I start missing you crazy / ain’t nothing quite like you / Love like this keeps going and going / I cannot forget you.” That one, Russ says, was done beat first, lyrics and melody second. He explains how this process provides a different satisfaction for him by saying, “It’s also completely liberating when you completely let go and you’re just making a beat that you feel like making, then letting the inspiration from that beat tell me what to make. It’s really fun when you have those moments when you get outta your own way, when you’re just receiving information from the source. It’s a really tricky thing to do as you get more visibility. There’s more chatter in your head and you know people are watching and listening. So it’s harder to tune everything out. But when you catch those moments man, it’s magic.”
Russ speaks of wanting to be able to zone in and leave all of the disarray off to the side and also spoke about his unending desire to “level up.”
“I can’t help it, I’m just an ambitious person,” he says when I ask why he couldn’t be satisfied with the solid income streams he’s already developed or the fanbase he’s already secured. But when I mentioned a lyric, “Been addicted to the chaos since early on,” from some of my favorite raps of his on his track “Congrats Freestyle,” his response got to the core of the impetus for his relentless drive.
“The addicted to chaos thing just resonated with me when I saw this psychologist post about it,” he says. “I think that probably stems from seeing arguments in the house growing up a lot. All the time. Then just moving around a lot, which was chaotic. Then probably just my natural personality. That’s why I said, ‘The sound of shit hittin’ the fan turns me on’ type of shit.”
He pauses, then continues, “Fuck, man, why are all my interviews like a therapy session? You know what bizarre quality I have? I could meet you for the first time like we are right now and I’ll literally talk to you like you’re an old friend. I don’t know why I’ve always been so comfortable with everyone. I remember when I was taking classes downtown there was this homeless guy and me and him used to just talk after class. If someone was walking by on the street and you saw us talking, you would have thought we knew each other for years. That’s how I’ve always been with people. Sometimes I tend to overshare I guess because of that, but I don’t know, bro, I just don’t give a fuck. I don’t know what that says about me, but I’m lookin’ for a therapist. I’ll keep you posted.”
This, to me at least, indicates that maybe Russ has reached a point where the music that’s acted as his therapy through all the chaos isn’t having the same effect. Now that the world has slowed down, the three themes we discussed throughout our talk, put into sonic form, aren’t easing the anxiety like they used to. But at the same time, to end our conversation he says, “I’m making the best music of my life, in my opinion. This year I’m only dropping my favorite shit. It’s gonna be fun.”