Saweetie Wants You to See Her Sweat

She’s not yet the rapper she aspires to be. It’s all part of her long fame game.

Photo: Arielle Bobb-Willis for New York Magazine
Photo: Arielle Bobb-Willis for New York Magazine

Saweetie wants to go to boot camp. The rapper has been thinking about it since last year, when she originally planned to release her first album, Pretty Bitch Music. Now that album is finally dropping in a few weeks. Or it’s dropping in a month. Or she needs to go back to the studio to work on it more. Maybe it’s one song away. Saweetie’s not sure yet — but she does know that as she refines it, she needs to refine herself, to do the work she’s been wanting to do since she was signed.

“Vocal lessons, stage presence, body movement,” she begins, listing the skills she’ll try to perfect during a two-week intensive training program this month. She is sitting in a window booth at a restaurant in West Hollywood, wearing round sunglasses, a black tank, and a diamond-encrusted crucifix necklace, her layered bob a shade of mustard. “I’m going to tell you the reason why I don’t have a strong stage presence: It’s because I’m not in tune with my body. I might be very feminine with my style, but I’m actually very masculine. I grew up as a tomboy. I could throw a football. I could smack a volleyball. I could outrun a lot of men. Now” — she says, laughing — “I can walk a mean walk!”

Without audiences to fill out big venues, the pandemic made it clear which musicians can put on a good stage show and which ones can’t. Saweetie has seen the mean tweets about her imperfect spring performance at Triller Fight Club, where the visuals didn’t connect and her movements seemed forced. She wants to be just as good in front of a crowd of strangers as she is in a video — just as comfortable dancing as she is rapping. “I think that’s why people get so let down, because they’re expecting me to be this sensual person onstage, but if I can, I’d rather play a sport in front of you.”

The woman born Diamonté Quiava Valentin Harper is constructing Saweetie as fans are consuming her; one of rap’s biggest stars sees herself as a work in progress. Her career is a paradox: The California rapper’s first single, 2017’s “ICY GRL,” with its “My Neck, My Back” sample, was certified platinum. Her third single, 2019’s “My Type” — this time sampling “Freek-A-Leek” — lapped it at triple platinum. Still, it has taken her four years since “ICY GRL” to drop an album. She has the earworm songs and the ravenous fans and the label support but no real body of work. It’s not an admission that needs to be coaxed out of her. “This is the first time I’m releasing 17-plus songs. It’s a lot to live with. That’s a lot to consume,” she says. “In an era of ‘When’s the last classic album you’ve heard?,’ music is like toilet water: flushed in, flushed out, flushed in, flushed out. It’s either ‘You shittin’?’ or ‘You done shittin’?’” For an artist who has made her name off a trove of hit singles, the question is philosophical (everyone wants to make a hit album, but hit rap albums occur with far less frequency) and deeply personal (but can she make a hit album, can she define her sound?).

Saweetie didn’t start rapping until age 24, after graduating from USC, where she studied communications with a focus on business. She self-released back-seat freestyles and worked odd jobs. She doesn’t regret college, although she wishes she had started on her rap career earlier; she had a “huge learning curve.” Riding the hype hurried her development. Instead of honing her sound, Saweetie had to play festivals, deliver more music. It’s common for musicians to complain of being pushed along too soon, but few are so candid about feeling not just rushed but robbed of something.

“I’m an artistic girl,” Saweetie says. “And I think that in the beginning, that artisticness was suffocated. It was wilted like a flower.” That’s changed now — she is one of the few people who feel recharged after the last year. “In quarantine, I’ve been moisturized. I’ve been watered. I’ve been getting my sleep; I’ve been able to rejuvenate.” (She also broke up with her boyfriend of three years, Migos’ Quavo.) “I know what type of artist I want to be now.”

Saweetie is nervous and unashamed of her nerves, not afraid of letting us see her sweat. “I don’t like arrogance,” she says. “One day, I want to say, ‘I’m the best to ever do it.’ I can’t do that without identifying my weakness. I can’t do that without realizing what’s holding me back.”

Photo: Arielle Bobb-Willis for New York Magazine

Saweetie was born in the Bay Area and grew up in Sacramento playing sports with her family, a Filipina Chinese Black entertainment legacy: Her mother danced in LL Cool J and R. Kelly videos; her father played football for San José State. Her grandfather played for the 49ers with Joe Montana. Her play cousin is the producer Zaytoven. (Oh, and Gabrielle Union is her dad’s cousin.) Saweetie released her songs on SoundCloud before the music video for “ICY GRL” went viral.

“Before I’m the content queen, before I’m the beauty fashionista, before I’m business-college girl,” she says — she loves to remind you that she’s a constantly posting, constantly glam, detail-obsessed brainiac — “my ultimate love and the reason why these doors have opened for me is because of music.”

The first time we spoke was last summer, mid-pandemic. Back then, she had just moved into a new house. The drop of Pretty Bitch Music seemed imminent. GQ had published a glossy spread of her and Quavo nuzzling and talking about the DM — a snowflake emoji — that started their relationship. The internet was basking in the glow of their vulnerability with each other. At the time, she seemed to like having a partner to brainstorm with, even while she felt the need to clarify that Quavo was not coaching her. “I love working with him,” she told me then. “But I love when I’m able to come back and he’s impressed. I don’t really allow him to come to my studio sessions. I’d rather just record a slap and then bring it back to him, and he’s like, ‘Wow.’”

Then, in March, she announced on Twitter that the relationship was done: “I’m single. I’ve endured too much betrayal and hurt behind the scenes for a false narrative to be circulating that degrades my character.” Quavo tweeted his own take, saying he was disappointed Saweetie “did all that,” and soon after, TMZ obtained a video of a physical altercation between the two in an elevator from 2020, when they were still together. (Rumors were later reported that the Migos rapper took back the personalized Bentley Continental he had gifted her last Christmas; recently, it may have been spotted for sale.)

Now Saweetie seems eager for something new. Before she goes to boot camp, she wants to have a party to celebrate her birthday. “I’m really campaigning for pretty-bitch summer,” she announces shortly after we sit down at the restaurant. To her that’s “not only about turning up, getting lit; it’s about handling your business at the same time, because my business never stops working.” She orders sea bass, and for 20 excruciating minutes, her assistant, her publicist, and I watch the rapper repeatedly pause mid-sentence to use her set of inch-long acrylics to pluck out tiny bones — bones the server promised wouldn’t be there — from the fish.

She does not want to talk about her breakup. After Saweetie agrees to answer one question about Quavo, her publicist intervenes, and she ends up answering none. “I think as a woman, it’s important for me to make a name for myself, and that can often be overshadowed,” Saweetie says finally. “As a Black rapper, I already internally struggled with my subindustry, meaning the urban world. So I think I’d like to focus on myself, and I’d like to focus on this million dollars that I’d like to make.”

She says it was a conversation with Cher that clarified Pretty Bitch Music’s future. The two are collaborating on a project she can’t talk about, and Saweetie says they had a deep discussion on set. “She gave me so much wisdom, and it made me really want to reflect and go back to my album and figure out what type of artist I’m going to be. She inspired me,” she says.

Even though she’s buzzy and a chart darling, Saweetie operates as an underdog, convinced that she is, in some ways, unproven: “I do think that there was an urge and a push for me to get a hit without defining what the Saweetie sound was — is. I want to be that artist to where you play a beat and you’d be like, Oh, that’s a Saweetie beat. Like, it needs to be distinct. And that’s why I really want to be careful with this release.”

“What’s fortunate and fascinating, but also so scary, about my brand is that people see the crossover,” she says, sipping her jazzed-up margarita. “Oftentimes, they want me to rush and hurry up and be a global superstar. But hip-hop is my base. I have to stay true to myself before I start experimenting with too many sounds.” In March, she released “Slow Clap,” a collaboration with Gwen Stefani that Twitter called, among other things, Old Navy back-to-school-commercial music. At one point, a list of collabs for Pretty Bitch Music included Miley Cyrus, Lizzo, Cardi B, Justin Bieber, Chance the Rapper, and Kirk Franklin, the last three all on the same “gospel” track.

What’s certain to stay on the record are Saweetie’s collaborations with the producer Dr. Luke, whom the musician Kesha has accused of rape. (He has denied the allegations.) The first time we talked, he had produced and co-written Saweetie’s single “Tap In” — part of his career reboot that has included songs made with Juice WRLD and Doja Cat, who is signed to the label he ran, Kemosabe Records. Last summer, Saweetie told me that the allegations against Dr. Luke were only brought to her attention after the song was recorded. “I’m so green,” she said then. “Maybe that’s a double-edged sword because I’m coming into the studio and I’m not knowing who these people are. I was able to learn about all of his achievements, and all of the allegations as well, after a couple of sessions.”

A year and another Dr. Luke–produced hit (“Best Friend,” featuring Doja) later, I ask Saweetie why she keeps working with him. There is first a long pause, then a clarification of sorts. “When I was put in the position to work with him, it was a bundle deal,” she says. “I had those songs for over two years. So what do you think? Do I compromise my artistry, do I keep them in the vault, or do I release them?” Both songs performed well for her.

Would she work with Dr. Luke again outside that deal, knowing everything she knows now? An even longer pause.

“What do you think?” she asks.

“I’m asking you,” I say.

“I’m asking you back,” she says firmly. “I think you have a good sense of my character by now.” I allow that it’s a tricky question for someone with a nascent career and high expectations.

“Hopefully,” says Saweetie, “we keep ourselves out of any controversial situation in the future.”

Photo: Arielle Bobb-Willis for New York Magazine

No matter what the finished product sounds like, the singles off Pretty Bitch Music have already earned Saweetie some wins: the playful “Tap In,” high-octane “Fast (Motion),” slinky-smooth “Back to the Streets,” and certified “bestie in a Tessie” banger “Best Friend.” The rapper has put in the work. Some of the album’s wannabe hits feel flat, particularly “Pretty Girl Mosh Pit”; sometimes her lyrics fall short of the cleverness she’s capable of. But the earnest “Dreams,” which is about having big goals that keep her busy, offers a fitting thesis for her career: “I’m just learning as I go.”

When I ask what she likes about the album she has made, it’s another question she turns back to me. This time, it seems less like a deflection, more like a litmus test. “When I put on ‘Love to Love You Baby,’ by Donna Summer, it immediately makes me feel sexy. It immediately makes me want to get naked. It immediately makes me want to pour glitter all over my body,” she says. “The challenge that I’m setting for myself is that I want every song to make someone do something. That’s why I’m regrouping. I’m going to put every song under a microscope. When it comes through your speakers and when it enters into your soul and into your system and into your ears, I want you to feel something. I don’t want you to just want to twerk and hit a one-two step and do a TikTok challenge.”

The bar she’s setting for herself is, perhaps, impossibly high. She wants to be the best rapper. She wants to be the best businessperson. Since “ICY GRL,” she has added so much to the Saweetie brand: three collections with the clothing company PrettyLittleThing, a makeup collection with Morphe, an edge-control hair product with Kiss Colors, a partnership with Postmates, and a nonprofit called the Icy Baby Foundation, which she has said will donate money to support Black Lives Matter and Asian American activism. “The goal is to have my brand supersede Saweetie,” she says. “I want to have old money, long money, prestigious money — money that when my grandkids want to do whatever they want to do, they’re not worried about being broke.”

Saweetie is savoring a plate of oysters, planning her empire, when a man finds it in his heart to interrupt us. He’s older and square — nice suit, no discernible personality other than white and libidinous — with a younger woman tugging at his sleeve when he shows up at our table. “You are the most exciting person I’ve ever seen in L.A.,” the suit says to Saweetie. “I mean, the hair, the nails, the lashes — the whole thing. You guys going downstairs, or …?”

Saweetie seems nonchalant-to-tickled, like the way Chris Rock imagined Rihanna receiving his flirtations; this guy’s about as subtle as Jack Harlow. She politely thanks him, and when he asks her name, she purrs, “Diamonté.” He presses. She deflects. “It’s okay,” she says. “I’ll see you downstairs.” Eventually, he stumbles away. I laugh. Her publicist laughs. Her assistant laughs. But Saweetie doesn’t spend another second on the guy. She returns her attention to her oysters. “Wow,” she says. “I can eat these every morning. I can eat these for the rest of my life.”

Saweetie Wants You to See Her Sweat