When Swae Lee stepped into a Los Angeles studio last year, little did he know the song he laid down vocals for, “Sunflower,” would end up being one of 2019’s major hits. “I wanted to go out with a bang that night, and I got it out of me,” he says of the fateful evening at Electric Feel when he linked up with Post Malone to record the smash, which he co-wrote and for which he shares top billing. More than a billion Spotify streams later, the wistful tune has flowered into a bright, towering example of what a hybrid urban-pop hit sounds like right now.
“I think it got so big because the kids love it so much,” Lee says of the song. Known to his family as Khalif Malik Ibn Shaman Brown, the artist built off the heat “Sunflower” generated, featuring on songs by Madonna (their collaboration “Crave” topped the dance charts) and turning up on Joji & Jackson Wang’s “Walking” alongside Major Lazer.
The rapper, singer and songwriter, also one-half of the duo Rae Sremmurd, made his mark in 2015, with catchy, quirky smashes such as “No Flex Zone” and “No Type” that began as underground anthems before exploding onto radio stations nationwide. More recently, Lee has proven that he has star power beyond the duo that made him famous. While Rae Sremmurd may ride again in 2020, the 26-year-old is, for now, enjoying working solo, featuring on other artists’ tracks and doing more songwriting.
According to the Inglewood-born artist, who not only writes his own features but has also written behind-the-scenes for names like Beyoncé (he co-wrote her 2016 track “Formation”), he finds lyrical inspiration from everyday life. To wit: “I basically do what I think is cool, you know? And I guess I’m a pretty cool guy, so that translates well to the people.”
But don’t expect Lee to give away too many of his songs next year. “Man, I ain’t gonna lie, got so many hits that I could just give to female artists because I’m good at writing love songs,” he deadpans, “but when I make those songs, I don’t wanna give them away. … I end up loving them myself and want to use them for myself. Plus, I feel like my songs are [of a] different caliber. I don’t want to just give them away and have [another artist] not take them seriously.”
See the full list of 2019 Hitmakers here.