Photography Mark Peaced

Masked musician RMR doesn't give a fuck about ego

The new artist behind a "trap-country" Rascal Flatts cover has much more to offer than just viral success. Now, he's ready to show you the rest.

by Douglas Greenwood
|
Jun 10 2020, 5:00pm

Photography Mark Peaced

In the video for RMR’s debut track “Rascal”, five men bearing firearms flank the masked, anonymous artist as he croons the chorus to a country ballad from 2002. Soon, sentimental piano chords kick in. He transitions into his own lyrics: “I came up and so could you / And fuck the boys in blue.” What you’re witnessing is not satire, but subversion: an artist hellbent on showing you one thing while slipping something else under your skin.

Everybody is living in a strange suspended moment; one that is shaping our futures and making us yearn for the familiarity of the past. But the musician known as RMR (pronounced ‘Rumour’) is in a more precarious situation: he didn't exist before this. “I’m starting to forget what it was like to be in clubs and just be that other guy,” he says. “RMR was born in the pandemic. RMR don’t know shit else.”

For those who are yet to encounter the artist that the whole internet seems to be talking about, RMR is music’s new face of amalgamation. Perpetually hidden behind a mask embroidered with a cross (he takes a few moments when we first join our Zoom call to turn his camera on, presumably to make sure his disguise is in place), he’s dodging the conventions of the hip-hop genre people are quick to frame him within.

The ‘genreless’ cliche thrown around all too frivolously sort of makes sense here. Country overlaps with trap, which segues into early 00s R&B, before making way for emotional balladry. “I’m not gonna stay in a box,” RMR says. “Society can go ahead and call it what they want, whether it’s trap-country or variety music or this or that, it can be whatever -- I’m just gonna make it. If I think it’s good, that’s the only thing that matters.”

His debut EP, titled Drug Dealing is a Lost Art, supports that boundless outlook (“Drug dealing for the longest time was really taboo, but now it’s corporate. It’s a lost art,” he says of its title). It’s not so much a rumination on the culture of dealing and the hustle that comes with it: there’s a vast, sweeping romance record buried within the project. The tracklist exposes different sides of him. There’s the fear of fame (“Now I got the life I wanted / Hoping I don’t fuck it up and make mistakes, I’m just a human,” he raps on “Nouveau Riche”. There are traditional rap flexes in tracks like “Dealer”. Then there are songs like “Silence”. Overwhelming and cinematic, it was written by RMR in the middle of the night. It sounds like the sun setting on an empty, dystopian Los Angeles as someone’s life flashes before their eyes; a sports car careering into a wall in slow motion.

RMR portrait

It’s a debut project that feels far more illustrious than one might expect from an artist who was unheard of a few months ago. The collaborations are insane: Future and Lil Baby have already jumped on a remix of “Dealer”; R&B legend Timbaland is the man behind the production on “I’m Not Over You”, which could be a Loose-era Nelly Furtado track if you adjusted the pitch slightly. “I didn’t know what to expect,” RMR says of walking into the studio to meet the super-producer. “Everybody’s got preconceived notions so I can’t speak for him… We just went in there and created. He threw something on and I started writing right away. He liked it…” He pauses. “But I didn’t expect shit! Cause I didn’t know what he was going to throw at me.” He’s been hitting the studio with Mike Dean, famed producer of Kanye West’s greatest records, too. RMR doesn’t say too much about the experience, perhaps to preserve the sacredness of the studio: “We just caught a vibe,” he shrugs, before grinning down the lens of his front camera to signal he’s said everything he needs to say.

We usually have trajectories and come ups to chronicle with new artists, but RMR does not discuss that in detail. His birthplace and upbringing remain mysterious: “I’m from the world,” he says. Prying any deeper proves fruitless. The mask is not so much a disguise as it is a desire for RMR to deflect attention from himself, his aesthetics, and towards his music instead. “Putting on the mask was just something I felt was needed, because the types of music I make are very different from each other,” he says, “and I want people to listen to it. The whole thing.”

In a time when relatability seems to be an anchor for artists to their audiences, RMR is relying less on how he looks and more on what he says. His lyrics aren’t pure fantasy: they’re rooted in what’s going on around him right now; an experience shared by Black people around the world. So why does he think people are still so keen to see beneath the mask? “Because they’re looking for themselves in me,” he says.

After we speak, RMR, like many others, took to the streets of Los Angeles to join Black Lives Matter protests. “I’m disgusted, angry and shocked but the shock always wears off quickly because we continue to see these situations happen over and over again,” he tells us in an email exchange a few weeks after our first conversation. Change, it seems, relies not only on Black voices, but on those afforded privilege through their wealth, fame and skin colour to come together too: “The first and easiest step is always to listen,” is what he says to those people. “Listen to what is being said by the communities that are experiencing systemic oppression.”

While other musicians have stayed silent, exercising their privilege and feigning ignorance, RMR went out there. In our initial conversation, we discussed deities in music, and whether or not anybody, famous or not, was worthy of that level of respect. “I don’t feel like anybody should be worshipped,” he says. “Ego has a lot to do with it. Ego moves man. So a lot of people have super big egos and are trying to justify to themselves what they are.”

What we are witnessing now is a new musical era imbued with the potential to be revelatory. Black voices have led popular music for decades, either behind the scenes or up front, winning Grammys. But what we’ve failed to recognise is the struggle in the come-up for Black artists, and the fight they have to fight to earn as much of the limelight, in those early years, as their white, privileged counterparts. What we can hope for -- what RMR is advocating for -- is a long overdue levelling of power, and the raising of consciousness. “I don’t think no man is an idol,” he insists, “because you bleed just like I bleed.”

Drug Dealing is a Lost Art is released 12 June

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