The last time I spoke to Lil Pump for an interview, the teen rapper drifted off to sleep somewhere between anointing himself “the best SoundCloud rapper” and claiming Taylor Swift would feature on his mixtape. We spoke for about ten minutes total — or rather, I spoke at him, while he fed me a series of half-truths and flat-out lies. The Pump I met that day felt as artificial as his social-media feed, where he presents as a walking literalization of all of rap’s gaudiest traditions: drugs, chains, designer this and that, and more money than a newly famous, newly 18-year-old would know what to do with, except more drugs, chains, and luxury trappings.
Last April, the South Florida native upgraded his hometown digs to his very own Richie Rich mansion just off Miami Beach, a purchase he’d later brag about on Instagram. “I just woke up the other day,” he said in a video to his 17 million–plus followers. “I got bored, so you know what I did? I went and dropped $4.5 million on a house.” He has a capitalist’s lust for acquiring for acquiring’s sake, which he sums up in a catchphrase that’s become its own meme: esskeetit. Say it fast enough, the way Pump does when he’s not rapping it, and it falls off the tongue like one harsh-sounding syllable — sket — as if the whole alphabet were jammed into a word. On paper, all it means is “let’s get it,” but to Pump and his impressionable, cult social-media following, it might as well be oxygen.
With more time spent in L.A. these days at his other mansion, he hasn’t gotten around to furnishing the Miami one yet. So when we meet again in early December, it’s at a luxury three-story rental on the Venetian Islands with three Lamborghinis in white, orange, and yellow parked outside, not one of which Pump can legally drive. This mansion’s got a basketball court on the roof, a waterfront deck with direct access to a yacht and jet skis, seemingly imported African decorative accents, and an off-limits library. It’s Airbnb porn for the wealthy, worth an estimated $8 million. Pump — or rather, the small army of adults who have a teenager for a boss — rented it out for one week of Art Basel–adjacent leisure. He’s come home to perform at Miami’s 24-hour nightclub E11EVEN with Young Thug, but otherwise plans to lay low (by Pump standards) after weeks in Europe on tour.
I’ve agreed to reinterview Pump on the one condition that he’ll stay conscious at least most of the time. To date, he has given extensive interviews to only two journalists — myself and Paul Thompson — and sat, mostly idly, for a conversation with J. Cole as his rap elder attempted to figure out what makes him tick. He didn’t succeed. “The more I looked at your videos, I’m like, he knows more than what people might think he does, or that his image portrays,” Cole gushed during the first few minutes of their the video interview, while Pump stared back at him blankly. It’s clear, as he puts it to me later, that he’s “not a good communicator with people.” But he’s also worked hard to keep his star image remarkably literal. It’s made the start of his career more elusive than even the Weeknd and H.E.R. Whereas those artists hid behind a shroud of mystery, Pump’s strategy has been to give the appearance of intimacy, while giving nothing. As Vulture’s Craig Jenkins wrote of his sophomore album, Harverd Dropout, which came out last Friday: “The talking points don’t change. Lil Pump does drugs. Lil Pump hates school. Lil Pump is sleeping with his teacher. Lil Pump is sleeping with your girlfriend. Lil Pump is giving your girlfriend drugs.”
When I arrive at the mansion a little past 1 p.m., Lil Pump is just waking up. He’s in a towel, attempting to lug a suitcase nearly twice the size of his five-foot-seven frame up the staircase. A male associate walks in, one of the many cycling in and out of the house all day with no specified role other than to run Pump’s errands (most pressing is an iPhone screen repair that puts his typically overactive online presence on hold for most of the day). He suggests the service elevator instead. Pump, who can be scatterbrained and prone to making snap decisions, often relies on his dozen-person crew to point him in a direction (he later orchestrates an hour-long Chipotle run just because someone brought it up, leaving his earlier health-food delivery untouched). On Instagram, he stunts in the latest (and, typically, loudest) designer threads and heavy chains. But since we’re mostly lounging all day, he’s opted for a PJs ensemble: slouchy pants decorated with Nickelodeon characters older than himself, a black tee, a simple gold “100” chain, and a Yankees beanie embellished with jewels designed by Gucci, the brand featured prominently in the song that made him a star: 2017’s “Gucci Gang.”
Pump first started rapping three years ago, almost by fluke. He found a beat off YouTube, and at the encouragement of his hometown friend, rapper Smokepurpp (“he was like, ‘Nigga, just say whatever’”), recorded his first track on the spot and uploaded it to SoundCloud. At the time, the streaming platform was a crowded nest of unsigned, raw talent. Pump emerged early among the South Florida pack — which also included XXXTentacion and Kodak Black — and racked up 100,000 streams.
Suddenly, the labels came calling. Pump ended up signing a multimillion-dollar contract with Warner Bros. Records. How he fast-tracked from SoundCloud rapper to rapper without a caveat would seem the stuff of algorithm; it can feel like Pump, and rappers like him, are being regularly produced in a lab bankrolled by a major label. That may actually be true of the new crop of rappers that have come after Pump, but according to those at his label, it wasn’t the case with Pump himself. “You might want to put a formula to it,” Chris Atlas, SVP of Urban Marketing at WBR, says. “But Pump clearly breaks beyond all of that.” Eesean Bolden, senior VP of A&R, credits Pump for having the foresight to bring his following across multiple platforms when previous industry logic was to monopolize just one. “He’s a SoundCloud visionary,” he says. “To start on there and dominate, move over to and dominate YouTube, then move the fan base over to streaming and dominate there too — I don’t see too many artists blazing that type of path.”
It took a while, but the music business has recently begun to monetize social-media personalities by snatching up the likes of Tekashi 6ix9ine and Bhad Bhabie under record deals. In turn, artists like Pump appear willing and eager to play the game, so long as the checks keep coming. But if Pump betrayed anything on our second meeting, it was a weariness with everything that keeping up an image entails.
“It’s cool to want money, but then when you get the fame [with it], it’s like fuuuuuck,” he sighs, seeking some privacy from his entourage on one of the mansion’s five balconies. “It comes with a lot more shit.”
The mansion sits at the far end of a curved driveway tucked behind a large retracting gate that itself is barely visible amid a small jungle of trees. An Uber driver only catches it by the lone street-side mailbox. Though Pump grew up just a 15-minute drive away, it might as well be a different planet to him. Pump was born Gazzy Garcia, to two Colombian parents who divorced when he was a child, and lived in the Miami Gardens area, where he got kicked out of high school before dropping out altogether.
“It was just ghetto,” he says of his old neighborhood, sitting across from me on the balcony. His formerly cotton-candy dreads are now back to natural brown, and a few locs dangle in his face, which is decorated with tattooed doodles — including a sad face with the eyes x-ed out in the middle of his forehead. “It was a huge switch-up for me, going from that to this. But I got used to it.”
Or, he has done a good job pretending to have adjusted. Money, at least, has a practical value — “I got people to take care of: my mom, my dad, my grandma, my aunties” — but fame has been harder to manage. “I don’t care about fame,” he pauses. “Problems, everywhere.”
For as long as Pump has been famous, he’s been under the thumb of the law. He was convicted of firing a weapon in his L.A. home in February 2018, then violated probation in August, just after turning 18, by driving in Miami without a license; he served jail time for it later in the year (his cheerful mug shot went viral). Days before we meet in Miami, Pump and his associates were detained while on tour in Denmark for suspected marijuana possession and allegedly taunting an officer. The incident is still a heated topic of conversation at the mansion, where there are 10 to 20 people at any given point throughout the day.
“That’s racist,” says Pump’s tour opener Desto Dubb, as a rotation of stuffed blunts get passed around the kitchen — the day’s main activity. He points out that they were caught with less than an ounce, picking up a microscopic bud off the table for comparison. “They see us with face tats [and arrest us].”
Pump’s groomer interjects, “So how’d y’all get out of it?”
“We paid the fine, what you think?” Pump shrugs. “We gotta be able to go back.”
Days after our interview, while attempting to fly out of Miami, Pump is arrested at the airport after a flight attendant claimed that his luggage smelled like weed, though no weed is ever found. (Body-cam footage showing Pump in a shouting match with an officer who gets physically aggressive with him is now under internal investigation and the charges have since been dropped; Pump has threatened to sue the department.)
The more Pump’s profile has risen on social media, the more often he’s been arrested; he believes the two are connected. “That shit’s weird. They look at social media now, on top of everything,” he says. There’s evidence to back up his theory. In 2017, Meek Mill was arrested for popping a wheelie on a dirt bike in New York after the NYPD saw the incident on his Instagram. More recently, Tekashi 6ix9ine pleaded guilty to multiple federal crimes that he publicized on social media, including ordering a hit on Chief Keef; he’s facing 47 years to life in prison. After his good friend XXXTentacion’s murder last summer, he started to realize fame does not make him untouchable.
“It kind of fucked my head up. You was just here yesterday and you just died out of nowhere …,” he trails off. “You gotta be safe. After that X shit happened, I knew I couldn’t just be riding around alone no more.” Pump no longer travels anywhere without an entourage. “People are crazy out here,” he says, his voice dropping. “They look at one thing and think it’s more than what it is. They see me with a chain on and that bitch’ll prolly be like 20 bands [$20K], but they look at it and think it’s $100[K] and they want it.”
He seems legitimately shaken by the ways in which fame has complicated his life; then again, his association with shock culture is good for his brand, and fits in with his generation’s interests. So does his drug use. Pump’s dependence on weed, “lean” (a potent cough-syrup cocktail), and, occasionally, Xanax, have brought a sense of authenticity to the excessive drug content in his music. (The one drug Pump doesn’t touch, I learn later in the night, is alcohol.) Lately, he’s used “kicking the cup” (quitting lean) to his advantage, keeping it intentionally unclear whether he’s an active user. At our previous meeting in September, lean was very much still a part of his diet. Since then, a young Australian woman was brought on as Pump’s personal assistant. She arrives at the Miami mansion later that night where she outlines her no-nonsense policy to me in a single sentence: “I don’t tolerate that shit.” There’s no visible trace of the stuff at the house either. Pump’s manager, Dooney Battle, is sober and keeps close watch on him throughout the day and night.
But the lines between Pump’s reality and the one he presents remain blurred. Days before his album’s release, he revives his “I mix lean with my cereal” meme in a No Jumper promo video showing him substituting half a bottle of cough syrup for milk.
“Don’t try this at home, please,” he warns insincerely.
We’re approaching sunset on the roof. Pump starts shooting some hoops on the court until he realizes the ball’s a little deflated.
“Don’t you dare,” Battle says, staring at Pump’s bare feet, already sensing where his mind is going.
Pump smirks, pausing to make sure everyone’s got their phones out and pointed at him. He gets a running start, then launches the ball straight into the river. He stubs his toe in the process and curses. Battle rolls his eyes and gives Pump a big-brother slap on the head.
Pump’s jokester persona is the most authentic part of his nonstop antics online, and a reminder that he’s still just a teenager. It’s also what gives him “clout,” the word he and his generation use most to define his success.
When I ask Pump to define it, he can’t (“clout is everything”). Socially, we’ve come to recognize it as the metric by which influence is measured — a new, internet-specific word for relevance. Pump, like the Paul brothers, is acutely aware that clout means deliberately creating moments for social media, like putting out a diss track called “Fuck J. Cole” in late 2017 for no other reason than it makes for good content; or dressing up as a Fiji bottle to Kanye West’s Perrier for his SNL debut last fall when they performed their viral, graphic hit “I Love It.”
“You could have two followers and write a song and be Grammy-nominated but have no clout,” Pump explains. The rappers with the most clout are internet celebrities first, rappers second. He views clout as essential to Gen Z, and it might explain why older artists like Kanye and Nicki Minaj want in on the hype just as much as the labels do. Or, as Atlas puts it, “He represents youth culture and all that’s exciting about it: change and that rebellious energy.”
If curating your narrative to death is at the heart of Pump’s popularity, he brings the same level of obsessiveness to his music. He prefers to work mostly with one in-house producer, Chris Barnett (known as CB or CBMIX), whom he frequently drops in on upstairs at the mansion to put the finishing touches on Harverd Dropout. Music video treatments are approved by Pump down to every last detail. Hunched over a laptop on the mansion’s patio, he harps on the need for “virtual vixens” in an upcoming shoot, as his all-older colleagues lay out the specs of their impossible body proportions. His team’s eyes fixate on Pump’s facial reactions like a room trained to dread Miranda Priestly’s pursed lips.
It’s an odd thing to watch a teenager command a room full of adults, myself included, and wonder who’s really in control. When Pump first entered the business on a deal with Warner Bros., signed when he was 16, he was too young in the eyes of the law for it to be legitimate. It was later voided. (Eventually, he resigned with WBR under a completely new deal.) “That shit is all bullshit. They just be lyin’ to your face all the time,” he says, of the initial bidding war to sign him. “These people just be wanting money off you. I look at other people now who are signed with different shit and they’re fucked right now. They can’t get out of their deal.” When he comments on others in his position trapped in their present deals, he briefly contemplates going rogue himself. “I’m about to get out mine [contract],” he says, until he seems to remember who’s around. “No, I’m playin.” He revisits the threat on Harverd Dropout’s opener “Drop Out,” where he raps, “Still free agent, I just left the label / CEO do what I say so / If not, I’ma cut his payroll.”
Those at the label maintain that Pump is running the show. Watching him, it seems true. The adults in Pump’s life don’t fully understand him or how to articulate his success; they’re not meant to. But they understand that Pump, and artists like him, are best left to create their own clout.
But clout, alone, is meaningless. How does he want to use it? Outside on the balcony, Pump considers the question thoughtfully for a second, then flashes his classic devilish grin: “My goal is to be the most ignorant, richest rapper I could be.”