High Maintenance is the title of California rapper Saweetie’s first EP. She looks it, with her floor-length pink leather coat, Louis Vuitton boots, green bejewelled fingernails and eyelashes that could be put to good use as helicopter landing pads.
The 25-year-old is on a flying visit to the UK to perform two songs at Mayfair nightclub Tape London, record a track with 2016 X Factor girl group Four of Diamonds and promote her imminent new single, Up Now. In her record label’s lounge, someone has brought her a wrap for lunch. She doesn’t like it, and sends her manager in search of something better. I’m worried about taking too long with her. “Charging by the minute ‘cause my time is very pricey,” she raps on her breakthrough single, ICY GRL. How much will this hour set me back?
“Let me think about that! It depends,” says the woman born Diamonte Harper, known to everyone including her family as Sweetie, a childhood nickname from her grandmother (the extra ‘a’ in her stage name makes her more Googleable).
Once she warms up a bit she’s nowhere near as intimidating as her imagery suggests. Her 1.1 million Instagram followers get the high gloss of her LA lifestyle as the physically striking daughter of an African-American father and a mother of Filipino and Chinese descent. The video for ICY GRL, watched more than 54 million times on YouTube, is all palm trees, waist-length platinum hair and giant fur coats. But there’s a small clue in the line, “Looking in the mirror I thank God for what I’m about to be.” Until very recently, this has been a case of faking it til you make it.
“When I made that video my life wasn’t like that at all,” she says of her situation in the autumn of last year. “I was renting a room in LA off Craigslist. After the shoot I went back to my room. I didn’t get to keep the clothes. They were brought in by a stylist.”
It was her first music video. Until then all she’d been making were Instagram “car raps”, where she filmed herself in her vehicle doing her own verses over other people’s beats. Think of it as a cooler, more unusual version of all those YouTubers doing cover versions with acoustic guitars in their bedrooms. “I was one of the first to get my music out that way,” she tells me. “On Instagram you could do 15-second videos, then 30-seconds, and then a minute. Once it was a minute I thought, ‘I need to take advantage of this,’ and I did.”
ICY GRL began life as one such car rap, over the backing music of female rapper Khia’s sexually explicit 2002 hit My Neck, My Back (Lick It). Saweetie’s social media following was already large enough to get her a role as a “brand ambassador” for Rihanna’s “Fenty slides” – USD100 sandals with faux-fur on them made by Puma. At the LA launch event she met the man who would become her manager, Max Gousse, a former A&R executive at Def Jam who had worked with Beyonce on her I Am… Sasha Fierce and B’Day albums. “I have to give him credit for being the one to say I needed to record it in a studio,” says Saweetie.
The end result has been a major hit, certified gold this month for half a million sales in the US, despite the finished product still being less than two minutes long. Her High Maintenance EP, released in March, confirms that statement about the priciness of her time. It races through nine tracks in 22 minutes. Fans seem to be impressed by her main theme of self-suffiency – materialistic, yes, but with no need of man as provider. “My wishlist is too big for your paper, it don’t fit/
That’s why I get my own gifts,” she raps on Agua in her clear, unhurried style.
At a time when Cardi B can hit number one in the US and Nicki Minaj has just released her latest blockbuster album, female rappers are prominent. She shouldn’t struggle to be taken seriously. Yet she’s still very much in the minority and her looks haven’t always been a positive. She told the website Genius: “When you’re normally networking, it’s with men. And they claim they want to help you and work with you, but when it comes down to it, they want to go on dates.” On her song Too Many, she complains of “Too many snakes”.
“Being a woman in a male-dominated industry, it is difficult at times,” she tells me. “I’ve had people offer to help me, but it’s hard to know who to trust. They have motives.”
But being a rapper has been the dream since she was 14, spinning lines she had written in front of her Algebra classmates in the Bay Area of California and realising she might be good. She perhaps could have got somewhere in sport, having been offered volleyball scholarships by a few minor universities, but feeling that, at 5’6, she was too short to go far. Her grandfather played American football for the San Francisco 49ers alongside Joe Montana, so she has good genes. While studying for a Communications degree at USC, the University of Southern California in LA, she competed in a less violent, female version of the game patronisingly known as powderpuff football.
She pleased her parents by putting music slightly to one side to finish her degree two years ago – some feat given that at the same time she was also working three jobs, as a receptionist, as a coder for one of her professors and as a waitress in a sports bar. Mum and dad, who had her as teenagers and have long since separated, didn’t disapprove of the rapping though. Her mum was once an aspiring actress who appeared in music videos for songs by LL Cool J and R Kelly. Her dad rapped for fun and is a close friend of MC Hammer. She grew up great pals with Hammer’s daughter, calling the U Can’t Touch This star “uncle”.
Now that Communications career is forgotten as she makes fresh assaults on the charts. As well as the new single, a collaboration with Atlanta producer London on da Track, she’ll make an appearance on the next album from superstar DJ David Guetta, coming in a few weeks, and her own debut album is scheduled for November. “It feels different, a bit more serious,” she says. “I want it to be timeless.”
She’s close to living the lifestyle she aspired to in her early verses, but that doesn’t merely mean days flitting from one salon to the next. “Of course I like my hair and my nails done, the finer things in life. But when I say ‘high maintenance’ I mean my soul is high maintenance because I pray a lot, my body is high maintenance because I eat good, and I really care about my friends and family. High maintenance means a lot of care.” She keeps putting the effort in, so why shouldn’t she reap the rewards?
Saweetie & London On Da Track – Up Now (feat. G-Eazy & Rich The Kid) is released on Aug 22 on 2TE/Warner Bros. The High Maintenance EP is out now.