By Salvatore DiGioia
“Ele quer colocar alguma música?”
“She’s asking if you want the AUX,” my girlfriend translates from next to me. Her older cousin — a twenty-six year old Brazilian girl from Salvador, Bahia — is up front, guiding an American-made automobile north to the hidden beach town of Praia do Forte. Our destination is more than an hour away and, since I can’t understand even a lick of their conversation, she seems to believe that controlling the radio will help keep me at ease. “Sure,” I respond, downplaying my excitement immensely, pretending to not be absolutely ecstatic about her offer.
To be handed an AUX chord anywhere in the world is to inevitably have a grave responsibility vested upon you. The chord itself is a symbol of control over its environment, the controller eternally at risk of misusing its power. So, to be handed an AUX in a foreign country with its own unique tastes and customs is intimidating (to say the absolute least). I’d already been introduced as a boy who “works in music,” then pigeonholed by my host and told that I look like “a boy who likes hip-hop.” Moreover, I’d already misstepped by admitting my lack of familiarity with local icon Anitta. Now, I felt required to surpass expectations.
The first song I played was “Heartbreak In Encino Hills,” a silky, ambient track built upon achey guitar strums and floating vocals (almost like Frank Ocean’s “Ivy”). I chose it because the sun was shining and the road ahead endlessly being swallowed by our progress, so Swae Lee felt like the only artist fit to score the moment. His debut solo LP, Swaecation, which released just two weeks ago, had been unstoppably looping in my mental since I arrived in Brazil. Naturally, I jumped at the chance to play it somewhere other than through my headphones. (Plus, I wanted to put the driver on to a fresh, new act from America and, well, was afraid to try someone as radical as Playboi Carti).
If you don’t already know, Swae Lee is one half of hip-hop hit factory Rae Sremmurd. Along with his brother, Slim Jxmmi, he is responsible for massive commercial singles “No Flex Zone,” “Black Beatles,” “Swang” and more. The pair’s new album, which is their third, officially titled Sr3mm, arrived in three parts: their joint LP on disc one, followed by each artist’s respective solo debut. For this reason, many fans have been quick to compare its ambition to that of “Speakerboxxx / The Love Below,” an early-2000s classic that historically proved Outkast as more than a rap duo. Amidst such comparisons, Swae Lee hopes to emerge as the Andre 3000 of Sremm — a multi-legged icon moreso than a rapper.
As I stared out my window, intently absorbing the details of both the South American landscape and Swae Lee’s crooning melodies, it dawned on me that there may not have been a better match up achievable in modern pop. Our car power-glided past the Dique de Tororo, the glowing dam’s iconic orixá statues rising from water like African goddesses, and in that moment, only a voice as un-ironically beautiful as that blaring from the stereo could have satisfied me as deeply as it did. We passed the city’s largest arena, Itaipava Arena Fonte Nova, recently renovated for the 2014 Fifa World Cup, followed by miles of sand dunes and aerial bridges that allow for monkeys to cross the highways. I thought of Swae Lee’s pet Capuchin monkey, named Naya, and wondered if the animal had helped inspire his tone.
Regardless of his inspiration, Swae Lee makes music that’s meant to be listened to while sun-kissed and poolside, ideally with a light golden cerveja in hand. His album’s lead single, “Hurt To Look,” made this apparent months ago, its whispery, seductive tone effortlessly luring listeners into paradise. Follow up “Guatemala” was just icing on the cake — an upbeat, rhythmic anthem to act as a necessary sequel to his show-stealing appearance on last summer’s “Unforgettable” (with French Montana). Swaecation surprises by sandwiching these highlights between more challenging deep cuts. “Touchscreen Navigation” patiently drips futuristic neo-soul vibes while “Heat Of The Moment” flairs confidently over grand, excited drums. “Offshore” finds Young Thug co-piloting a moody trip over trap drums and “Lost Angels” is almost only appropriate for watching a hazy sunrise. “Red Wine,” amazingly, manages to be even droopier than the latter.
Yoh Phillips, reviewing Swaecation for DJ Booth, writes: “Swae Lee makes music for people who don’t have kids and can afford fourteen days on island vacations.” More accurately — in my case, at least —, he makes music for youthful lovebirds who have cousins’ couches to crash on in Brazilian beach towns, just graduated from college and said, ‘Fuck it!’ It’s not that the album isn’t soothing and beautiful no matter the setting (confirmed: it is). It’s just that if you happen to be in the right place at the right time, listening to Swaecation, then the music sounds that much more beautiful.
Closing track “What’s In Your Heart?” finds Swae Lee pondering upon the plastic nature of people, repeating the title and wondering what his counterpart actually feels inside. Metaphorically (probably), it seems that he’s been drugged by a girl and is now struggling to decipher her intentions. It can feel a bit cliche, but it also seems to be the only appropriate way for this rapper-turned-singer to conclude his official turn towards moody R&B. Singing, it seems, is what’s inside of Swae Lee’s heart, for real. He only hopes to guide his listeners that much closer to their own equivalents.