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For Saweetie, a Grammy nomination is just the beginning

Saweetie has been nominated for Best New Artist and Best Rap Song at this year's Grammy Awards.
Jessica Pons for NPR
Saweetie has been nominated for Best New Artist and Best Rap Song at this year's Grammy Awards.

This is part of a series of features from All Things Considered on first-time Grammy nominees, ahead of the April 3 awards. You can read and listen to the profile on Arooj Aftab, Jimmie Allen and Barlow & Bear.

The saying goes that you have your whole life to make your first album, but Saweetie would like to know where everyone else is finding the time.

The 28-year-old rapper is nominated for two awards at this year's Grammys: Best New Artist, and Best Rap Song for her Doja Cat collaboration "Best Friend." And much like last year's winner in both of those categories, hip-hop star Megan Thee Stallion, it's all before releasing her debut album, the persistently-delayed Pretty B**** Music, now scheduled to drop this summer.

At this tone-setting moment in the scant few months before her debut, Saweetie is going back to basics to rekindle her creative spirit.

Sitting down at the Pendry hotel in West Hollywood recently, Saweetie says that for the first time in her professional career, she finally has some time scheduled to shut out the world and work on her album with no distractions.

"Because everything else was spot recorded — in between photo shoots, in different cities, during a hectic schedule," she says. "The reason why I wrote so well during those freestyle days, I mean, yeah, I wasn't making that much money, but I had all this free time on my hands."

Born Diamonté Quiava Valentin Harper, Saweetie grew up moving around the Bay Area: Union City, Hayward, San Jose, Sunnyvale, Palo Alto. Always the new kid in class, she was lonely at school where she says she got used to "just not connecting with people." But at home, it was different.

"I come from two big families: My Filipino Chinese side and then my Black side," she says. "Lots of aunties and uncles, lots of cousins." As a child of young working parents, she says her grandmothers and mother instilled in her the value of hard work and self-sufficiency as a woman. You can hear that influence when she talks about falling in love with rap as a teenager, and the research she then put into it, writing her own verses to songs like Lil Wayne's "A Milli" and Slick Rick's "Children's Story."

"I remember staying up in my room and just writing in my pink notebook," she says. "I used to sit in the corner of my room on my bed and just write all night."

But the notion of the hardworking woman that her grandmothers taught her is also central to the high-rolling brand Saweetie first established six years ago when she went viral freestyling over Khia's "My Neck, My Back" in her car, in the song that eventually became "Icy Grl."

"When I wrote 'Icy Grl,' it was basically a rap full of affirmations that eventually came true," Saweetie says. For her, icy describes not only the physical trappings of wealth — nails, cars, jewelry — but more so the mentality of a woman who knows what she wants. "She's a hustler. She's ambitious. She's smart. She's just an independent woman."

Although Saweetie's sound hasn't solidified into any one thing yet, her icy ethos has created a distinct persona for the rapper, one that redefines longstanding stereotypes of powerful, business-oriented women and challenges the notion that frigid means sexless.

No other song in her catalog builds on this more than "Best Friend," which will compete with tracks by DMX, Baby Keem, Kanye West and J. Cole for Best Rap Song at the Grammys. (A rap fan might be side-eyeing the Recording Academy for thinking that the best and most exciting rap today is still coming from the likes of Kanye, Nas, or even Jay-Z, who all appear on one of the nominated songs.) Together, Saweetie and Doja Cat are the only women among the nominees in a category that has been historically male — astonishingly so, given how vital women have been to hip-hop's ascendency to the dominant genre in the United States over the last five years.

"Best Friend" — a song that takes the debris left over from Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion shattering the glass ceiling with "WAP", refires it into a champagne glass, and asks us to toast the number woman in our lives — feels especially audacious sitting alongside the rest. To put it another way: It's a rap song that passes the Bechdel test.

Saweetie's rap name is a twist on her grandmother's term of endearment for her, with a spelling she coined to make her name stand out on MySpace.
/ Jessica Pons for NPR
Jessica Pons for NPR
Saweetie's rap name is a twist on her grandmother's term of endearment for her, with a spelling she coined to make her name stand out on MySpace.

Even as she raps about confident women, the kind who know their best friend's opinion is worth more than 100 men trying to make a move, Saweetie herself is still building up to that place. She says when she woke up to the news that she had been nominated in November, she didn't know how to feel, especially after reading the reactions from people online who thought, with her chart history and without a debut album out, she didn't have the resumé to substantiate a nod for Best New Artist. "I felt like the music industry, the internet, has a way of making you feel like you don't deserve anything," Saweetie says.

Part of the struggle to accept her successes also comes from the gap between where she is now and where she wants to be, and just how steep the learning curve has been as she's built her professional career over the last three and a half years since her signing.

In sports, Saweetie explains, "If you make the team, there is a whole infrastructure and experienced professional team that's going to guide a rookie to becoming a mature, grown athlete." But in music, an artist is on their own, with success depending on their business savvy and how well they hire people who can help them execute their ideas, put them in touch with the right opportunities, and leverage their careers. "The artist's business is what the artist makes it," she says.

Saweetie returns to the topic of her team often, and just how much of her momentum going forward relies on building it up to a point where she has both undisturbed time to work on her music and a schedule planned out far enough in advance to get hands-on with creative treatments for music videos months before their release, instead of just a few weeks.

But Saweetie is also learning to find an equilibrium between the hustle and her health.

"I had a really crazy, chaotic schedule last year, like no breaks, not sleeping, very dehydrated, very draining," she says. While on a trip to Turks and Caicos at the end of 2021, during which she practiced the time-honored spiritual cleanse of cutting off her hair, Saweetie says three important words came to her: breaks, boundaries and balance.

She started practicing meditation and reiki and being more mindful of the energy she expends. "I need to fill my cup back up, because if it's empty, then I'm running on E and that's not good for my soul, my body or my mental health," she says.

Saweetie is on a mission to redefine what "pretty" means.
/ Jessica Pons for NPR
Jessica Pons for NPR
Saweetie is on a mission to redefine what "pretty" means.

Much in the same way that Saweetie is recentering herself by filtering out negative energies and focusing on the positive, she says the title of her upcoming debut album, Pretty B**** Music, comes from a desire to transform two words with negative connotations for women into something meaningful and empowering.

"Pretty is often associated with shallowness," she says. "When I mean pretty, I mean like someone's self-esteem, their confidence. The women who I feel like are the most beautiful are the women who have great energy." And in a nod to Tupac's "Thug Life", b**** is an acronym: boss, independent, tough, CEO, hyphy.

There's the classic Saweetie, candid about sex on songs like "Closer", explaining: "I'm really vocal with how Saweetie dates. I'm all about the experience. If I'm not subject to being in a relationship, if I'm out there having a good time, I'm going to speak to whoever I want to. It's my right as a woman and I feel like every woman should feel like that." But Pretty B**** Music will also unveil a softer side.

"In the album," she says, "You can expect not just fun Saweetie, but what is Saweetie like when she's feeling down? What is Saweetie like when she's going through this?"

She's not too concerned with measuring up to the ideal of a rapper, one who postures past insecurity, and if that takes her outside the genre, then so be it. "I think I'm just going to sound like an artist," she says. After all, Saweetie thinks cultural figures — whether they're musicians, painters, actors or athletes — achieve greatness through vulnerability.

"I feel like when you act like life is perfect or when you struggle with expressing your emotions and when you bottle it all up, it can backfire. And it's backfired for me." She says it's been a conscious effort to let go of that idea of outward perfection, especially growing up with it coming from both sides of her family: "In the Asian culture, save face; in the Black culture, it's don't show no weakness."

But for the Saweetie preparing to launch her next era? She's ready to melt the ice.

Saweetie says there has been a steep the learning curve in the music industry.
/ Jessica Pons for NPR
Jessica Pons for NPR
Saweetie says there has been a steep the learning curve in the music industry.

The audio for this story was produced by Jonaki Mehta and edited by Christopher Intagliata. The article was written by Cyrena Touros.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.

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