Saweetie | No Bright Lights, No Ice, No Sugar After Midnight
Saweetie is struggling to hear over a blow dryer. We’re in a small photography studio in Santa Monica and the 25-year-old rapper is honing her look before the shoot. Everyone was a little late (traffic), but now the space is humming with garment hangers sliding across clothes racks and paper grocery bags shuffling snacks to their designated areas. Saweetie is seated in a sweatshirt, juggling two stylists preparing her for a shoot, interview questions, and FaceTime calls from a teenage sneaker broker and influencer. Last night she hosted the holiday party for her management company, and she’s preparing for a halftime appearance at the Warriors-Kings basketball game in a couple of days. But despite this dizzying to-do list, the Bay Area native is relaxed, almost unbothered. It’s just another day in Saweetie’s world.
Saweetie was born Diamonté Harper in Santa Clara and raised about thirty miles north in Hayward, California. When she wasn’t enjoying the adoba and pancit dishes of her mother’s Filipino culture, she sat on her father’s lap watching him play bones with friends in their apartment off Tennyson Road. During those games she remembers Too Short and tile slamming, Mac Dre and dro. “We get lit in the Bay,” she rightly proclaims, but her music exposure went beyond the locals. Saweetie’s mom made sure to pepper her with Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown and alternative rock.
Rap made the biggest impact though, and she’s known that she wanted to pursue it herself since her early teens. She still went to college, despite some indecisiveness about the venture, migrating south to San Diego State—where she was the first woman to audition for their mascot—and ending her collegiate run at USC. “When I came out to LA for college, I was a tomboy,” she reveals. “I would wear sneakers to parties. But you get to LA and it’s a different world. I was always fly, but LA is a different kinda fly.” It’s a more defeating kind of traffic too. Some use her father’s Mac Dre and dro combo to deal; Saweetie started streaming freestyles to Instagram.
This was partially inspired by her Young Money fandom and the interplanetary mixtape run of Lil Wayne. Her first video was the “So Gone Challenge,” a freestyle challenge over Monica’s velvet 2003 track of the same name. But her fierce flow over Khia’s “My Neck, My Back” instrumental is what kick-started Saweetie’s career. It caught the attention of Island Def Jam’s Max Gousse, who would become her manager, at a Puma event no less. He insisted on releasing it as a single, and the finished product, “ICY GRL,” has cleared sixty million YouTube views. “ICY GRL” is pure flex, uninhibited female bravado. She sighs at her lack of time for these hoes / Speaking on my name like I’m someone that they know, and she claims her place at the top: I’m the big cat bitch, yes these niggas love me / Is that Gucci on my feet? Shit, bitch it might be!
Saweetie majored in communication, and the skills she honed are apparent in her interviews. The same can’t always be said of those interviewing her. While there are obvious examples of casual misogyny—chiefly Hot 97’s Ebro Darden asking “Are you a ‘rapper-rapper’ or just a pretty girl who raps a little bit?” in the first two minutes of his interview—many non-cringey treatments of the self-proclaimed Icy Queen suffer from careless misframing. For instance, her place in the lineage of Bay Area hustlers who picked up a mic is often mentioned as passing biography rather than as essential to who she is as a rapper.
Mac Dre’s 1993 Young Black Brotha doesn’t get the popular recognition of his early aughts music, though it taps the crux of his mystique. As producer Khayree breaks down a coasting beat, the Thizzle luminary says, I’m from the V-A double L-E-J O / and you know hoe / the things that we say are simple and plain / nothing but game. He dictates the name of his hometown in the northeast corner of the San Pablo Bay like it’s the final round of a hustler spelling bee, and the ethos of spitting game that he espouses applies to the whole Bay Area. Saweetie doesn’t record 15-second pro-bono verses anymore, but those freestyles blossomed from twenty-five years of meditating on these Bay Area fundamentals.
The first freestyle that she uploaded to her SoundCloud account uses Juvenile’s “400 Degreez” beat, and she insults the taste of your body fluids like Dre would serve your man papers. Even over a Mobb Deep beat she aligns with her home area’s finesse icons. Saweetie burrowed deeper into the Mac template for her High Maintenance EP, released in March. It’s a quick, twenty-three minute flash of Saweetie’s experience, Bay attitude and Los Angeles glamor, a carousing joyride with shotgun blunts on a clear 101 (“23”). On “B.A.N.” she makes Too Short proud by being “all about her commas” and willing to throw bricks through windows if necessary. She salutes Lil’ Kim by treating men like Pokemon, pulled out of a roster only when a situation calls for them (“Agua”). “My favorite Kim line is, trying to impress me with your five G stones / I’ll give you ten G’s nigga if you leave me alone,” she says. “It’s simple.”
But she’s a bit hesitant to associate herself with personal legends, even when the comparison is positive. In an interview with HardKnockTV she reminds critics that this is her first project, and that it’s unfair to say she’s not as good as ‘x’ rapper who’s been around for decades or to prematurely put her on a pedestal. “I still feel like I’m on the come up,” she insists.
Progression was her focus this year. “I just got comfortable recording in a studio. It used to take me forever to record. I’m comfortable with my voice now and I have an engineer I love. His name is Brian and I’ll fly him anywhere.” Their relationship is “telepathic,” she says. “I remember asking him about the ‘five star dick’ line on ‘High Maintenance,’ she continues. “I omitted the word ‘dick’ and doubted my choice. It’s obvious what I’m saying, but I didn’t want it to seem like a mistake or be corny. He told me to keep it.”
You can hear progression in the frigid delivery on her latest single, the Cronkite-produced “Pissed.” She opens the track sipping rosé and infuriating Republicans (“Making white man money so these white folks pissed”). “I was in first class, wearing this watch, actually,” she tells me while gesturing to her diamond-encrusted Rolex with a similarly jeweled Easter pink nail. “You know just having my drink and the guy across kinda looks at me, makes a face and then notices we have on the same watch. When he realized it, he made an even uglier face.” Begrudging boomers aren’t the only target—there’s a surplus of smoke for Instagram lurkers and guys who act like they didn’t DM her first.
For 2019, Saweetie wants to keep being the “West Coast nigga with a boujee-ass sound” (“Up Now”) in everything she does, whether music, charity, or business. Besides projects with super producers No I.D. and Timbaland waiting in the vault, she’s working on her Icy Girl lip-gloss beauty line and establishing scholarships for underprivileged and underrepresented women in her hometown. “When teachers tell you to go to college, you’re not trying to hear it,” she observes. “When you see somebody that looks like you, speaks like you, that reminds you of you, you’re going to listen to that advice.” She’ll continue to chase a number one album and single—“Trust me, it’s coming”—but there’s room to spread her priorities. For now, there’s a photo shoot to dominate. It’s been a rapid rise, but Saweetie’s comfortable with the pace she’s set and hungry for more. “It’s hard to step outside of what I’m doing to realize my place in all of this. Everybody says I’m growing fast, but because it’s me, I don’t feel that. You always want it to happen now.”
Photographed and Film by: Benjo Arwas at Seen Artists.
Hair: Dimitris Giannetos using L’oréal at Forward Artists.
Makeup: Paul Blanch using Pat Mcgrath at Tomlinson Management Group.
Manicure: Lisa Pena Wong using Dior Vernis at Opus Beauty.
Cinematography by Scott Smith