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“How’s a Real Gangsta?:” Analyzing RMR and his viral ballad “Rascal”

“People always ask who’s a real gangsta, but never how’s a real gangsta.” – Fluff Snowball, YouTube comment section for RMR’s music video “Rascal”

By: Steve Pulaski

Let’s get one thing straight from the jump: Lil Nas X’s infectious and globally popular hit “Old Town Road” did not start the trend of “country rap.” To say such a thing is to erase the voices and musical catalogs of Bubba Sparxxx, who embraced his country rap style following a brief stint in the mainstream limelight, Colt Ford, who is now a 12-year veteran of the genre, mainstay Cowboy Troy, and a handful of other artists. If Lil Nas X did anything, it’s bring “country trap” into the mainstream, although you could argue (and I would) that Young Thug’s debut album (or mixtape, depending on whatever the hell we’re calling it four years later) Beautiful Thugger Girls truly pioneered the genre with songs like “Family Don’t Matter.”

However, with the ascension of artists fusing hallmarks of country music and hip-hop together, like New York-born Blanco Brown (“The Git Up”), New Jersey-native Breland (“My Truck”), and now the California-based crooner RMR with his viral ballad “Rascal,” one thing cannot be disputed: Lil Nas X kicked off a fun, fascinating trend. But even I didn’t expect a song, let alone an artist, as fascinating as RMR — an escapist bright-spot in a year filled with inconvenience, calamity, death, and a murky path forward — to emerge.

In February, RMR (pronounced “rumor”) debuted with a music video for his song called “Rascal” and immediately became a topic of conversation in the hip-hop community. One glance at the thumbnail for the music video — with the ski-mask-and-Saint-Laurent-bulletproof-vest-clad singer equipped with a rifle big enough to warrant a strap alongside several other intimidating men brandishing firearms — and anyone remotely familiar with hip-hop is expecting a Chief Keef/G Herbo-esque drill song with skittering snares, double-timed rhythms, and lyrics boasting murder and money. But in the first of many surprises, RMR begins by belting a cappella: “I wake up and teardrops, they fall down like rain.”

My deep knowledge and appreciation of country music immediately came in handy and clued me in: he was singing (and slightly tweaking) the chorus of “These Days” by Rascal Flatts, the country pop band that has now seen three decades of tremendous success. After a brief intro, however, there’s another bait-and-switch. “Rascal” proves not only to be a sincere ballad but one that heavily samples the piano melody from the same band’s monstrously popular wedding song “Bless the Broken Road.” I was hooked from the opening lyric: “I’ve been hurt and fucked up too, many years ago.”

“Rascal” is not a parody, and RMR is not trying to be hip-hop’s contemporary “Weird Al” Yankovic. He’s sincere in his subsequent lyrics that touch on drug dealing, coming up in a hostile neighborhood, battling sleepless nights, and finally hitting a big score that allows him to “flex in a Wraith” (a Rolls Royce model vehicle). All while RMR beautifully harmonizes over the soft piano keys. Upon first listen, I kept waiting for the beat to drop, so to speak, but it never happened.

Perhaps the (unintentional) humor people have found in the song comes from the chorus, where RMR subverts Rascal Flatts’ reflective lyric “others that broke my heart, they were like Northern stars” with “bitches that broke my heart, they became hoes I scammed.” What a lyric; delivered with enough pain and passion it’s as if K-Ci and JoJo linked up with Ike and Tina to grant the streets a rough-but-passionate little tune. But RMR doesn’t stop there. He ends the chorus on an inspirational note: “I came up and so could you…and fuck the boys in blue” before harmonizing the slogan “fuck 12,” the more hip way of saying what N.W.A. was saying 32 years ago.

All these bars, keep in mind, while the music video is a tightly-edited, immaculately shot compilation of the aforementioned posse waving guns and mugging for the camera. The concept is enhanced by picture-in-picture clips that feel straight out of a Harmony Korine film. It’s a marvel worthy of an award of some kind.

I must’ve played the song about ten times the day after a friend recommended I listen to it. Too many things struck me. Beyond RMR’s mystique, powerful vocals, and the reworking of a Rascal Flatts song into a “hood ballad” as it’s been labeled, the juxtaposition of the music video’s imagery with the song warrants conversation in itself. The ensuing genre discourse on sites like RateYourMusic too loan themselves to debate. If you want my honest opinion, “Rascal” is a country song. Nothing more, nothing less. Sure, the piano maybe adds some R&B flavor. But to call “Rascal” a hip-hop song is patently false seeing as there is no rap nor rapping technique on display whatsoever; nor any trademarks of the genre from a production standpoint. Conversely, as much as I (still) adore “Old Town Road,” it was never a country song. Lil Nas X even openly admitted to manipulating the country charts knowing full-well it’d be easier to be a hit on the country charts versus the globally popular hip-hop charts.

I’m a firm believer genre discourse still matters in some respects, especially in today’s ever-changing landscape of music. Sounds and stylings should obviously advance, but preservation of genre should still continue to exist. One of the reasons I’m so bullish on the matter is that country music as a whole has been bastardized in recent years, flooded by wannabe pop-stars presenting their image and music as just “country-sounding” enough to be acceptable on country radio despite having the production and makeup of pop music (see Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant to Be,” Russell Dickerson’s “Every Little Thing,” and Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Backroad” for prominent examples).

The center, so to speak, of mainstream country music has shifted so seismically to sound like pop that once staple instruments, such as the fiddle, sound neotraditional by default insofar that they’re not commonly heard anymore. It too explains why modern country artists such as Luke Combs, Jon Pardi, and Eric Church are so highly regarded by listeners and fans following country music’s decade-long slog through the bro-country era when nearly every hit song on country radio was either a pop or quasi-hip-hop song playing dressup as a country tune. Not all without their minor merits, but most boasting a sound that was far too ubiquitous at the time.

RMR’s “Rascal” is absolutely a country song despite including words like “bitches,” “hoes,” and a direct denunciation of police not necessarily fitting within the lexicon of the genre. The production and style of crooning displayed by RMR is a tentpole of country music. Despite the presence of auto-tune, you can’t necessarily bill it as contemporary pop music because it’s so minimalistic and free of the electronic gloss that permeates that landscape. At this time, RateYourMusic users have curiously tried to hamfist the genre of outlaw country onto the song as a possible secondary genre, but its lack of traditional country instrumentation ala the late Waylon Jennings or the active (and terrific) “underground” superstar Sturgill Simpson makes me want to dismiss that idea. 

However, there is a real image factor that comes into play with outlaw country music that makes me second guess. The video unto itself could be considered a manifestation of outlaw country music. But the song itself is tried and true country.

Let’s talk RMR as an artist. So little is known about him that this discourse shouldn’t be as long as I shall make it. At this point in time, he remains professionally anonymous and almost nothing is known about his background. He’s reportedly from Atlanta. He now resides in Los Angeles. One of the oddities about his rise is that he’s an up-and-coming artist amidst a time when touring isn’t possible. With that, there’s no real way for him to interact with fans on a relatively macro-scale. He’s granted more anonymity and inaccessibility than he’d ostensibly be able to manage if the world were its usual self. I’d go out on a limb and say he likes it that way.

RMR has only given a handful of interviews at this time, which, quite frankly, is more than I was initially expecting him to give upon reading his stub of a Wikipedia page. He can be candid or elusive, sometimes simultaneously, depending on what mood in which you find him. One of the first items that consistently comes up in these interviews is the mask he has made an integral part of his image. He’s never been seen without it. In a fabulous piece from NPR, RMR addresses the mask by saying:

“The mask is just a mirror. For society and whatnot. You wearing a mask right now, Mano [the interviewer]. I don’t know who you are. You don’t know who I am. When we talking, when we get out in the public, we always put on masks until we go home. Some people actually keep their mask on when they at home.”

In effort to keep the momentum of “Rascal” going — or perhaps motivated by his prompt label deal with Warner to show he wasn’t a one-trick pony — RMR swiftly released his song/music video “Dealer,” a more trap-centric cut with alternative R&B flavor. “Dealer,” while initially a touch underwhelming after hearing something as subversive as his debut single, still grows more intoxicating upon repeated listens. The curious part of this was what followed “Dealer” not a month after its release was a remix featuring Future and Lil Baby, two of the biggest hip-hop artists in the game.

Because RMR doesn’t divulge details about his background, it’s led people to speculate he’s an “industry plant.” In so many words, an industry plant is a popular term in the lexicon of hip-hop, concerning an artist whose rise was not entirely the work of his or her own doing, but aided greatly by the backing of a major label or high-level executives to begin their career.

The term “industry plant” is nebulous to the extent that there are desperately few concrete examples of such artists. However, how could RMR release a song like “Rascal,” which features such a blatant sample that obviously needed to be cleared by Rascal Flatts’ management, without the help of some higher-ups with the right contacts? To the point, there had to be some kind of assistance on part of a major label in order for Future and Lil Baby (and later Young Thug on a disappointing remix of “Rascal”) to appear on a track for an artist who, at the time, had two songs available to stream.

My opinion remains the same since the first few days when I began diving deep into RMR’s music and persona: industry plant, government plant, bamboo plant, I really couldn’t give a shit. I just want more music.

Thankfully, RMR obliged his fledgling fan-base with one of the best hip-hop releases of 2020. His debut EP, Drug Dealing is a Lost Art, is a slight eight tracks, but it’s packed with subtleties, a cornucopia of different sounds, and gives us a taste of the rapper with no name and no face. It starts with a full-fledged banger in “Welfare,” aided with a Westside Gunn feature that compliments RMR’s style well. It’s so good I forgive RMR for essentially copying the flow (and even some of the lines) of Roddy Ricch’s song “Nascar.” Following that up is “Nouveau Riche,” that has him expounding upon a new life, new money, and the fun and tribulations it brings, while “I’m Not Over You,” ostensibly is about a breakup, but close-listening suggests it’s about cocaine addiction (a later track, “Best Friend,” more-or-less confirms cocaine as the substance in question). The home-stretch of the EP brings that song, the entrancing “Silence” that yet again shows off RMR’s vocal range, and ends with revisiting the viral hit that started it all, “Rascal.”

My favorite interview RMR gave thus far was with Eric Skelton of Complex, where he brings up “consciousness” a lot; as in, raising one’s consciousness about musical hybridization and visual imagery. He gets a kick out of subverting people’s expectations, which was evident from his desire to mask up, grab some heavy artillery, and flash it before a (hopefully well-compensated) camera-man while delivering one of the year’s most memorable songs. When Skelton asks about RMR’s ultimate goal as an artist, he states:

“To raise consciousness. You take a very urban kid, I don’t care what color he is—shit, let’s say he’s from Detroit—and he’s listening to my EP, and his favorite song is ‘Welfare,’ because that relates to him. And then the next song up is ‘Silence.’ He’s like, ‘What the fuck?’ But then he starts liking ‘Silence.’ And then he starts looking for different sounds that kind of remind him of ‘Silence.’ Like Billie Eilish, or something like that. And then he starts liking them. Now he’s growing. It’s growth. It’s change.”

People occasionally chuckle when I tell them my two favorite genres of music are country and hip-hop. The dichotomy of the two is hard to ignore, sure, but I find them complementary to binary frames of mind in which I often find myself: humble and reflective at times, confident and exuberant at others. During an average, relaxing evening when I’m in my element, I can segway from Future to George Jones to the Eagles to Toby Keith to Lil Wayne with ease. Hell, I’ll throw some new wave or mid-2000s pop in for good measure.

“I love music. I love entertainment. I love art. [….] So when you’re an artist who likes to expand your mind, you’re an artist who loves growth, and you’re an artist who is not afraid to change, that’s just how it’s going to come out. You’re going to [holds up quotation marks in the air with his fingers] “genre-bend.” But to you, you’re just making music.” – RMR responding to Skelton’s inquiry

What’s next for RMR is anybody’s bet. With a record deal under his belt, he’s on his way to a fruitful career where he will hopefully receive more recognition with each new song, providing he continues to subscribe to bending genres and trying different sounds. He managed to drop some merch via Warner’s website and has predicated his use of social media to the kind of mystery and unpredictability you’d expect from an artist whose album has everything from trap, country, R&B, and pop rap influence. I was half-tempted to splurge on a replica ski-mask for those brutal Illinois winters, but they sold out far too quickly.

Music is such a fun, engrossing medium to discuss. I’ve been had many conversations with friends or dates where myself and others spend over an hour discussing our tastes, songs/artists that influence us, and where we learned to appreciate the kind of art we consume. Similar to movies, my specialty, there are often elements so deeply personal and affecting that most of us have unique connections to the songs we frequent. One can hope RMR continues dropping songs that motivate me to do another deep-dive on the how/why they are so memorable. It, too, appears that this idea of raising consciousness and defying expectations will continue to be a part of his mindset going forward.

“I love Rascal Flatts. My whole thing is I don’t listen to just one genre of music. I want to open up people’s consciousness to go out and discover new music and new genres.” – RMR responding to Skelton’s inquiry

Keep on keeping on, RMR.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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