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Hitmaker of the Month: Swae Lee on ‘Sunflower,’ Working With Post Malone and Madonna

Presented by BMI

Swae Lee is on another roll. The rapper, singer, songwriter and one half of the duo Rae Sremmurd, first made his mark back in 2015, with catchy, quirky urban smashes such as “No Flex Zone” and “No Type,” that were first underground anthems before eventually exploding onto radio stations nationwide. More recently, Lee, born Khalif Brown, has been on a songwriting and featuring tear: scoring streaming hits with Diplo and Ellie Goulding (“Close To Me”) and his first chart-topper in the U.S .as a solo artist, “Sunflower,” with Post Malone.

“When Sunflower hit No. 1, that was my favorite moment because you never know in the music industry what a song is gonna do [chart-wise],” Brown tells Variety. “I think it got so big because the kids love it so much.”

“Sunflower” was featured on the “Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse” soundtrack and has so far amassed almost 800 million streams on Spotify. But the single almost didn’t happen. Says Brown: “Me and Post were in the studio and we had already done, like, five songs, and then we were just chillin’ but I wanted to do one more. Louis [Bell] played me a couple of beats, and then I ended up just laying ‘Sunflower’ down. … It was like six in the morning by that time.”

As these things are known to happen, the core of the song came together quickly. “The melody came first, then the hook and my verse,” Brown says of the 2018 session at Electric Feel studios in Los Angeles. “I just wrote in my head and then I ended up putting words to it just like five minutes after. … I was fully warmed up [after a full night in the studio] and the most creative energy comes out at 5am amongst us creatives… I wanted to go out with a bang that night, and I got it out of me.”

According to the songwriter, who not only writes his own features, but has also written behind-the-scenes for such artists as Beyoncé (he co-wrote her 2016 track “Formation”), he found lyrical inspiration from “everyday life,” he explains. “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.”

Lately, Brown has been collaborating with female talents, too, releasing new songs with Madonna and Tove Lo. “I was very excited when Madonna approached me,” Brown says of the pop icon. “It was dope to hear that she loved MY music, you know what I’m saying? I jumped to whatever she wanted me to do. We chilled in the studio in L.A. Just me her and Mike Dean just coming up with songs… singing in front of her live, and we would just bounce ideas off each other, it was cool.”

The session yielded the song “Crave,” which appears on Madonna’s forthcoming album, “Madame X.” (Watch the video below.)

But don’t expect Brown to give away too many of his songs this 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 says, “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.”

As for what’s next for Swae Lee? An anticipated collab with Drake is expected sometime this summer. “Me and Drake go way back,” he says. Brown adds that he will be releasing a solo album soon, although he has yet to pick out a title, followed by a new Rae Sremmurd album that he hopes can keep the Swae Lee roll going all year long.

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