Rae Sremmurd on New Album ‘Sremm 4 Life’ and Young Thug

What’s five years, anyway? Well, five years ago, Donald Trump was in only his second year in office, A Quiet Place had just debuted as the number one movie in America, Drake’s “God’s Plan” was winding down an 11-week run as the top song in the country, and Rae Sremmurd were readying the release of their acclaimed third album Sr3mm. A half-decade later–an eternity for today’s attention-deficit hip-hop fans, who impatiently flood comments sections with “Drop that shit!” when asked to wait even weeks–Rae Sremmurd’s Sremm 4 Life is finally here. Even better: The long-postponed LP is, start to finish, the brothers’ best yet.


On Swae Lee: Sunglasses by Lanvin; shirt by Paper Planes, jewelry, his own. On Slim Jxmmi: sunglasses by Ferragamo; hat and shirt by Sneakerstuff; earrings, his own.

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Slim Jxmmi (birth name Aaquil Brown) and Swae Lee (birth name Khalif Brown) are on either side of the big 3-0–Jxmmi turned 31 in December and Swae reaches the milestone in June. But on this cloudy April day in Manhattan, they hardly look a day older than they did in 2014, when their rowdy first single “No Flex Zone” broke them. Their success only grew from there: The following year their debut album SremmLife (which would eventually be certified platinum) bowed, and in 2016 came “Black Beatles”–the number one megahit whose success was fueled, pre-TikTok, by the viral Mannequin Challenge. It’s been a long day—a flight, plus a photo and video shoot—but they’re eager to talk about the long-gestating new LP and all the life that’s happened since the world last heard from them. “I’m excited,” declares Swae Lee, ever the more excitable of the brothers. “There’s no other album like this that we’ve put out…with this feeling. You know, of course it’s gonna be high-energy, turnt-up songs, with good melodies and perfect production—but it’s also, the storyline of it. Everything we went through.” Slim Jxmmi is more reserved. “I don’t know how to describe the feeling, you know what I’m saying?” he offers.

Their chemistry, on stage and on record is remarkable. In conversation, they’re a study in contrast: Swae is an animated talker whose thoughts burble like water out of a fountain. Jxmmi is more measured and deliberate with his words, but also blunt and not one to sugarcoat. The difference is no doubt personality, but just as likely a function of that near five-year gap, which in many ways has been A Tale of Two Brothers. When Jxmmi says, matter of factly, that he and his brother “probably have different feelings” around the new project finally coming out, it’s because, since 2018, the two have often been on separate and seemingly unequal paths.

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Sunglasses by Lanvin; shirt by Paper Planes; pants by Honor The Gift; jewelry, his own.

Mamadi Doumbouya

A global pandemic, a wrenching family tragedy, and newfound fatherhood (Jxmmi’s kids are five and two; Swae’s are two and six months) all contributed to the time between albums. But another factor was also surely that, right around the release of Sr3mm, Swae Lee’s own career as a collaborator and featured soloist took off. Since Rae Sremmurd’s second LP, Swae had increasingly leaned into singing, and suddenly he was one of the most in-demand guest artists in the business. From 2017 through 2021, he teamed on singles with a dazzling list of artists across multiple genres, including Drake, French Montana, Madonna, Skrillex, Kane Brown, Jhené Aiko, Wiz Khalifa, Camila Cabello, XXXTentacion, Alicia Keys, and Post Malone (for the ubiquitous 2018 collab, “Sunflower”).

Swae was on a roll, and the opportunities only fed his workaholic tendencies. “I don’t ever wanna go back to the hood, you feel me?” he explains. “I don’t want to go back to being broke. And I know what got me outta the hood. This right here. This music. So I’m in the studio as much as I can be.” But riding that wave left Rae Sremmurd on dry land. Speculation had already begun that the brothers might be parting ways when Sr3mm’s release was accompanied by two solo albums, Jxmmi’s Jxmtro and Swae’s Swaecation, and it only grew in the fall of 2019, when Swae went on tour as a solo artist supporting Post Malone, playing a set that was at least half Rae Sremmurd songs. In 2020, Swae reminded fans in a tweet that he and his brother were “two individuals” and “different types of artists.” “Can brothers ever really break up?” some wondered. (See: Gallagher, Noel and Liam) Jxmmi pushes back on the idea that the duo was ever at risk of ending. “There wasn’t never no split in the group,” he asserts. “I just wanted to work on myself. I felt like there was ways that I could be a better entertainer. That’s what I took the time to work on, and I feel really that’s what’s brought us to this fourth album, for real.”

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Sunglasses by Ferragamo; hat and shirt by Sneakerstuff; pants by Romeo Hunte, boots by Giuseppe Zanotti; jewelry, his own.

Mamadi Doumbouya

And yet. The Sremm 4 Life track “Royal Flush” opens with the line, “Leave me on read / You must be out of your head.” The lyric refers to a relationship, but it begs the question of whether for a while Jxmmi didn’t feel, himself, left on read. “There was a long time where I was thinking like, ‘What the hell’s going on?’’’ he concedes. “But I ain’t complain, I ain’t trip, I didn’t fall into depression. I just used that time to work on myself, because definitely there was a time when I could have fallen off. I could have fallen into drugs and depression—’cause nobody was for me. Phone wasn’t ringing, wasn’t nobody booking me no gigs, nobody looking out for me in that way. I spent a lot of time by myself, and I got myself together.” That included getting sober, taking up boxing, and hitting the gym, “every day.”

He adds, “I did feel like I was left on read. I just wasn’t in the forefront of people’s minds, ’cause I didn’t have music out, and I didn’t have people facilitate dropping music. I was in a bad mental place, but I didn’t let it destroy me.”

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For his part, Swae says that despite his flurry of high-profile gigs, Rae Sremmurd’s future was never remotely in doubt. “I was still in the studio every night, running around L.A.,” he recalls. “Meeting celebrities, working. Boom! We meet each other, we make a song, comes out, it’s the biggest song in the world? Let’s do it again! So when somebody is like, ‘What are we doing with Rae Sremmurd?’ It’s a whole collective! We all gotta be on the same page! But I still can’t stop though. I’m not the type of nigga that can stop, ’cause I get antsy.”

Eventually, a pause came in the form of COVID, though Swae found ways to both shelter and stay busy-in-place. “I appreciated corona just because it gave me so much time to be in the studio,” he says. “I just made so many songs, I’d stay locked in. Those situations charge me up. Even when I lost my father, I was in the studio, and I was sick, just like pissed off, angry. But I know that there’s gonna be a time when you gotta pick back up and start moving again, so I channeled that energy. That night I even made a song and dedicated it to my dad.”

The January 2020 killing of their stepfather, Floyd Sullivan, who’d raised them since their teens, and the arrest of their younger brother, Michael, for the murder, devastated the whole family. Jxmmi refers to it in one of Sremm 4 Life’s most thoughtful tracks, “Something I’m Not.” “It just felt like the type of song where I could express that type of pain,” he says. “And then I remembered my little brother, he’s always checking for us. When I talk to him on the phone, he always heard our newest record. And you know, I don’t ever want him to think we’re mad at him or nothing, when he get out [of prison]. He gonna be locked up for a long time. So I just always be thinking about him.”

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On Slim Jxmmi: Sunglasses by Ferragamo; shirt by Karl Lagerfeld Paris; pants by Toussaint Rosefort; earrings, his own. On Swae Lee: Sunglasses by Victoria Beckham; jacket by Pierre-Louis Mascia; pants by Michael Kors Collection; jewelry, his own.

Mamadi Doumbouya

The Rae Sremmurd sweet spot, where Swae’s irresistible melodies meet Jxmmi’s clever, pointed bars and Atlanta icon Mike Will Made-It’s essential production previously reached its zenith on the raunchy, rollicking 2018 gem “Powerglide,” but it’s more fully realized on Sremm 4 Life. The album looked like it would drop last summer–the brothers spent the early months of 2022 teasing it–but it was pushed back due to, in Swae’s words, “politics” with features, clearances, and “situations changing” that he can’t elaborate on. That delay may have made for a better record. While it’s first and foremost a turnt-up, good-time album, there is variety. Even in a time in which rager sounds dominate rap, Rae Sremmurd have long done their own thing, and catchy melodies are a part of their signature. “We have so many styles, and we gotta cater to each one,” says Swae. “I might go in the studio one day and make all turnt-up records, one soft song. Next day, I might go and make eight soft songs, two turnt-up. It’s like bro, they’re not even really fully understanding us yet. They’re getting a glimpse of Rae Sremmurd right now, but we know what we’re capable of.”

The clubbiest tracks are already getting their shine. Danceable “Tanisha,” with a writing credit from Pharrell, is an obvious crowd-pleaser. A thirsty “Bend Ya Knees” serves staccato-synth trap, and, from “designer socks” to a Lamborghini (how many Lambs have figured into RS songs? I’ve lost count), the flex is strong on “Flaunt It/Cheap”–a Jxmmi song and a Sway song mashed into one. And nowhere does Jxmmi shine more than on the over-the-top “Sexy”–a hilarious, in-character romp over a throwback backing: “I know I think I’m sexy,” he crows. “And average things just don’t impress me.” “I’m actually a very goofy person,” he explains. “I asked for an old school beat, and that’s the first thing that came to mind! I did that voice and everybody in the studio started laughing, so I just kept going. That’s one of my favorite songs ever. That shit’s super fun.”

Look hard enough and a wisdom borne of ten years in the game comes through on Sremm 4 Life. Leveling up and not having to be like everyone else is at the heart of “Activate,” on which Swae declares, “I’m not normal no more / I’m not human no more.” On opener “Origami” he tells the “hotties” that “getting wasted ain’t a hobby” and on “YMCA,” delivers the snappy side-eyed line, “DTF? Thanks for informin’ me.” Has all the hedonism grown a little stale for one of hip-hop’s players? “I mean…it’s a good life,” Swae concedes. “Remember, you could be sitting in a fucking basement making T-shirt buttons for two cents an hour. So, can we recognize things for what they are? Yes. But I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. We’ve been in that other lifestyle.”

mamadi doumbouya

Sunglasses by Lanvin; shirt by Paper Planes; pants by Honor The Gift; jewelry, his own.

Mamadi Doumbouya

Jaws will truly drop at the most moving track, album closer “ADHD Anthem,” whose plaintive hook “I feel too many emotions” finds Swae in rare emo mode, soaring with a vulnerability reminiscent of the late Juice WRLD. “Some days you’re just going through it, and you be so over shit that you want to leave the planet,” he says now. “There’s all type of perspectives on that song but it’s definitely for the rockstar rap kids, the ragers. That’s the one we want to have people screaming at the concerts. I call it the ‘Black Beatles’ of this album.” Jxmmi used his verse, which references liquor late at night and “demons talking” to offer hope to others. “We all have negative thoughts,” he says. “And I know that somebody out there that’s gonna be listening to the song is gonna be feeling the way I once did. Like, ‘I can’t do whatever.’ I’ve felt that way too, and like the line, ‘sometimes I mute my emotions’–sometimes I have to quiet the noise, and do whatever you gotta do, because you’ve got to get through the day. I always tell myself, whenever I start feeling bad, ‘No matter what, the sun come up every day.’”

Two Atlanta titans make guest appearances on Sremm 4 Life: Future on “Activate” and Young Thug on “Royal Flush.” The latter got special attention when the track list was announced in late March, because Thugger, along with other members of the YSL collective, has been incarcerated since last year, awaiting trial in a multiple-count RICO case. Rae Sremmurd have known the rapper since their early come up, and the featured verse dates back a ways. “He just killed the verse, so fast! Like, twenty minutes,” Swae recalls. “He’s so talented, bruh. I’ve always been a fan of his wordplay, his energy, his cadence. But his people came back to us with the clearance, and it meant a lot, ’cause his lyrics are basically being used against him. So he might not even want to put out no more music, but he gave us that clearance, gave us that green light. It meant a lot.” He adds, “Free Slime!”

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Sunglasses by Lanvin; shirt by Paper Planes; jewelry, his own.

Mamadi Doumbouya

The Brothers Brown have themselves largely steered clear of serious legal jeopardy over the years, something they attribute to both growing up in the small town of Tupelo, Mississippi, which allowed them to avoid some of the potential pitfalls of big city life, and to their late pops. “RIP Big Floyd,” says Jxmmi, who explains that while their dad was in and out of prison as they were growing up, providing the boys with “a good example of what not to do,” he and their mother Bernadette also instilled in them the right values. “[They] tried to steer us towards school, and keep us busy in extracurricular activities. My dad always would tell us to work hard. Cut the grass, go around and make some type of money, always keep a job, be on time. That always kept us out of trouble.” Swae adds that he learned early on that life is a long game: “It’s not gonna be no ten-year thing, it’s a hundred-year thing! One-hundred twenty-year thing! So if you end it early on some dead-end shit…If you murder somebody, you’re going to jail, if you do this, do that, you’re going to jail. I didn’t want to take those risks for myself because I wanted so much from life.”

Tabloid headlines that swirled around both brothers last year, as well the mothers of two of their children, brought to mind Rae Sremmurd’s 2015 track “My X.” In Swae’s case, it was reported in September that he had filed for joint custody of his first child with his ex, a Brazilian model. Swae insists that the situation is “under control.” “We chilling, I got all the resources just to make shit smooth,” he says. “The kid needs a mom and a dad, so that’s how we gonna keep it rocking.” The stories around Slim Jxmmi were more serious. In January of last year, the rapper was arrested in Miami on misdemeanor battery charges after an alleged domestic dispute with the mother of his second child. The charges were later dropped, but the pair’s relationship was back in the spotlight last June—just prior to the initial anticipated release of Sremm 4 Life–following a public fight in Miami International Airport, after which the woman posted an allegation of “years” of emotional and physical abuse online. At the time, Jxmmi posted that there are “two sides to every story” on social media. Where do things stand between the two of you today? I ask. His answer: “I love both my kids’ mothers, and me and my second child’s mother, we’re in a great place.” He adds that he’s “not trying to win public opinion…I know that me and my baby mother, we love each other, we good. My kids are good, and now I just want to do what I need to do to take care of everybody.”

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On Swae Lee: Sunglasses by Victoria Beckham; jacket by Pierre-Louis Mascia; pants by Michael Kors Collection; jewelry, his own. On Slim Jxmmi: Sunglasses by Ferragamo; shirt by Karl Lagerfeld Paris; pants by Toussaint Rosefort; earrings, his own.

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They may both be fathers of two, but neither brother is in a hurry to get married. “Never!” says Jxmmi to the idea, before softening his stance. “I don’t see the importance of marriage right now,” he says. “But that might change as I get older. Right now I’m just new to fatherhood and I just want to enjoy this part.” Swae is sporting a diamond-encrusted ring, and seems genuinely surprised when I inform him that it’s on his wedding finger–“Is it really?”—but he’s just as opposed to walking down the aisle. “I just don’t see the importance in signing something where somebody can just leave you and take half your money,” he explains, eye forever on the bag.

For the moment, anyway, they’re married to the grind, and happy to finally be getting the group back on the road–first at this month’s Coachella, then in Europe with Post Malone, and later in the year on their own long-overdue headlining tour of the States, armed with a sparkling new album’s worth of songs. “There’s so much more to SremmLife, and we’re gonna start putting out more,” says Swae. “We just want [the fans] to enjoy this album, make them feel good, make ‘em dance, make ’em feel different ways, and we hope that they enjoy it, top to bottom.”

Do we dare finish with the million-dollar question? Can we say with certainty that eventually there will be a fifth Rae Sremmurd album? Swae says yes, while his brother hedges.

“I can’t make any promises,” Jxmmi begins, “but I would hope there will be a SremmLife that we will speak on in the future. If it comes it comes.”

Swae swoops in with a valuable reminder: “There’s definitely a 5, ’cause we contracted!”

“I think we done,” Jxmmi retorts.

“Nah,” teases his brother, laughing.

Jxmmi gets the final word: “Based on my past experience with this shit, I’m not gonna be hopeful about nothing, I’m just gonna keep rolling with the punches.”

We’ll let them work this out.

Story by John Norris
Photos by Mamadi Doumbouya
Styling by Avon Dorsey
Grooming by Sandrine Van Slee
Visual Direction by Alix Campbell, Justin O’Neill, and Kelly Sherin
Video Direction by Dorenna Newton
Video Production by Elyssa Aquino, Janie Booth

Headshot of John Norris

John Norris is a veteran music journalist, who began his career as a writer, editor, correspondent and anchor at MTV News. Following MTV, he served as Managing Editor and Host of the music discovery site Noisevox, and as Supervising Producer of News at Fuse. His freelance work includes music and culture writing for Billboard, GQ, The Daily Beast, VICE, SPIN, Pigeons & Planes, VMAN and Lyrical Lemonade, and hosting and writing for Sirius XM, The Recording Academy, South By Southwest, and the Bonnaroo and Sasquatch music festivals.  

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