R.LUM.R has a lot to say. No seriously, a lot. From the moment the singer, songwriter and instrumentalist walks into the airy conference room reserved for our sit-down, clad in a simple cuffed yellow tee and khaki joggers with work boots, the words begin tumbling out. His mid-answer tangents, spot-on impressions, animated anecdotes and sporadic bursts of encyclopedic karaoke disarm any nerves or awkward conversations that may have preceded the interview. Like how he got misty-eyed over a viral video on his Twitter timeline, for instance.
In Birmingham, U.K., a seven-year-old girl donning a canary yellow jumper and bright pink sneakers strode up to her gaggle of classmates on the playground, noticeably different from the last time they’d seen her. In place of her right leg was a fancy pink prosthetic, curved at the bottom to give way to the naturally athletic ways of a child. They crowded around her, awestruck and curious at her new life accessory, and threw their little arms around her in a group embrace before leading her around the concrete square to play.
He’d shed a thug tear that day, but his sappy feelings are the kind he knows people like him aren’t always free to release. “There’s a lot of toxic male machismo, especially with black men, where you can’t do that. You’re not supposed to do that. You’re soft or whatever,” he says. “But nah, f**k that. I’m a grown a** man. I feel that way, and I want other people to feel comfortable feeling that way as well.”
That’s R.LUM.R’s job, essentially: to be up front with who he is and wear his truth on his sleeve. “It’s hard enough escaping my reflection/And thinking what he’s thinking bout too/I know that all you wanted was affection/Something I could never do,” he sings wistfully on the “Love Less.” His lyrics straddle the line between comfort and discomfort, and he writes and sings from and for the intricacies of in-betweenness. Being bounced around as a child due to turbulence at home (his parents divorced when he was around five years old and, although it missed him, alcoholism ran through the blood of his father and grandfather). Being “too white for the black kids and too black for the whites,” a phrase he borrows from Earl Sweatshirt. Being more than broke but less than rich, not quite sad but just shy of content. Much of art is created in extremes, but there’s substance in the normal midpoints and feelings to be explored. “We always talk about that 9-to-5 or that cubicle worker as this bastion, this monolith of what you never want to be, but there’s a lot of people like that. Who talks to them? Who speaks for those people?” he says.
The Brandenton, Fl. native—born Reginald Lamar Williams Jr.—makes the sort of woozy music that triggers free-falls into feelings, regardless of whether or not the listener directly relates to the song’s inspiration. The song that launched him into the buzzy pocket he occupies now is 2016’s “Frustrated,” a soaring number that will fool first-time listeners into wanting to console him for heartbreak. “A lot of people think that song is about a relationship, and I never want to rob someone of their story that they attached to the song because you become very tied to a thing. Everybody’s free to interpret it however they do.” In actuality, the breakout song—which has amassed more than 20 million combined Spotify streams—was born from a choice hanging over his head at the end of his lease. He could either stay in his inexpensive “broom closet” Orlando apartment, getting by singing covers at bars five times a month for $150 a set, or he could honor the strong call he felt to go 687 miles away to Nashville to chase music professionally.
“[In NYC], there’s the great Boom Bap tradition,” R.LUM.R says, addressing why he didn’t flock to more popular career-boosting music destinations. “You got JAY-Z, Nas, and everybody under the sun. Out in L.A., there’s the G-Funk, the whole Long Beach sound, the portamento synth. Chicago has their great sound as well—Chance [The Rapper], Vic Mensa, Kanye. Those places already have a celebrated tradition, and I just felt like in Nashville there wasn’t that. So I could go and roll the dice to create my own lane there.”
The move proved to be more than fruitful. To build up momentum for his debut EP AFTERIMAGE, set to release August 11 via PRMD, he’s been on the road touching the ears of old and new fans. The trek (which started June 23) takes him from a smattering of West Coast cities to Denmark and Korea before ending on Oct. 7 at Austin City Limits in Texas. To say he’s excited is an understatement. “I’m too pumped,” he says. “Like, why the f**k am I here? Because I wrote some songs y’all liked? Great. Let’s get it.”
As effortless as his music now feels as it leaves him, making it was something he stumbled into. “I didn’t really think about seriously playing music myself because I always imagined the John Mayers and people of the world [on] Mt. Olympus, and they are this special thing and you can’t make that transition at all, ever,” he says, prefacing his fragmented forays into music.
No one in his immediate bloodline was a musician, but he was a child brought up on hodgepodge tastes. His young ears became accustomed to the voices of George Benson, Dave Brubeck, Anita Baker and Sade, his mother’s soul, jazz and blues favorites. His older sister hipped him to the aggressive corners of Tupac’s catalogue, like All Eyez On Me. Middle school introduced him to progressive rock and emo bands like Linkin Park, King Crimson, YES, Dream Theater, Liquid Tension Experiment, The Mars Volta, My Chemical Romance and Coheed and Cambria. All the while taking in vibes from Christina Aguilera, Alicia Keys, John Mayer and whoever else snaked across radio waves at the time.
During this exploratory period he’d dove into classical guitar, and spent his high school years plucking away at strings in his own world, never really sharing his gift. That is, until a friend persuaded him to perform an original song during a talent show. R.LUM.R, a natural introvert, did so with his head down and a cap pulled snugly over his brow. The ballad was written for a close friend he watched get sucked into the murky “fun” of drinking and other damaging vices (he seldom partook in the partying, and consequently became the straight-laced guy they no longer invited).
“I sang that song called ‘Stay,’ because it essentially was just like, ‘I want you to take care of yourself, but I know there’s nothing I can do.’ I was up there on the stage crying, pouring my heart out and I finish the song. Place is silent, and then they just like clapped for a long time. I got up, just so nerdy and weird and sh*t, and left.” Mr. Kaiser, the music teacher he cites as one of his most important mentors, forced him to go back on stage and bask in it. “’Go back out there, and just stand there,’” he recalls of the advice. “’Don’t do anything. Just stand there.’”
“Once you’re on stage, it’s not as much about you in a sense,” he says now, having developed a comfortable stage presence. “It’s about creating this moment for an audience; you’re just kind of a conduit for the moment. It’s for them to enjoy.”
After that performance, passersby in his high school hallways would chime in every now and then, encouraging him to continue creating music and performing. He wound up at Florida State University on scholarship for classical guitar and music therapy after transferring from Manatee Community College (now the State College of Florida). Very serendipitously, FSU had a commercial music program where students were tasked with writing and recording their own music. A friend encouraged him as a sophomore to try out for the junior and senior level program. Naturally, he aced the audition, built up a collection of modest LPs and soon became a “hook guy” for local artists in the Tallahassee, Fl. area.
“Show Me,” a pulsing, silicon-kissed fusion song that simultaneously teased the gleam of his R&B falsetto, became his first big music splash on the ‘Net after it got picked up on Spotify’s then-New Music Tuesday. “That picked up, got all this attention and people are like, ‘What’s next? What’s happening? Are you playing shows?’” he recalls. “Yo, this was a side project. I literally planned to just put it out on SoundCloud and let it do whatever, just as an expression.”
His humble expression left, and still leaves, quite the impression. The way he hoists his mid-range singing voice to the upper rungs of notes without notice, leveled and piercing, is a treasure. Up until he did some “opera sh*t” in college, R.LUM.R’s voice had remained untrained, his attraction to falsetto something like a natural gravity. “Being young, I always sang in my falsetto,” he says. “I wanted to sound like Anthony Green, Claudio Sanchez and all these male singers with a really high tessitura, but I obviously talk like a baritone, low tenor-ish.” Like Lil Yachty did to a fired-up Joe Budden on Everyday Struggle, he initially deflects from identifying his “contemporaries,” but he’s aware that his voice has been gathered with those of Frank Ocean, Gallant, The Weeknd (flexers of their upper registers) and Khalid, PartyNextDoor and A.CHAL (singers beneath the hazy, alt-R&B umbrella).
What sets him apart from the aforementioned, then, is his immersive approach to the making of each song. His creative process is steeped in normalcy and in still, simplistic observation. “Last night I just couldn’t sleep. I got really hungry late at night for some reason, so I just got up and walked around Times Square and just seeing all the people’s tiny little stories happening,” he says. It’s a practice he does in airports, too: Using moments stranded in layover cities to wander between terminals, looking at people and making beats thinking about what those people might be like. “I take most inspiration from a lot of places, but I think I take most inspiration from talking to people, trying to be empathetic to them and trying to figure out what they’re like. I think I can figure myself out a lot of the time in the context of other people.”
Even the way he consumes music has a poetic methodology. When Frank Ocean’s Blonde came out, he (a dedicated fan just like you and I) took a stroll across a paved walking bridge near Nashville’s Ascend Amphitheatre and found a peaceful place to properly absorb the album. “I sat at the water,” he says, “and if you sit at one of the picnic tables there, you can just see the city and people’s lights flickering on and off in windows, people’s days stopping, people’s days ending, people walking out to the balcony, stuff like that. That just felt like an appropriate area to sit and listen.”
Much like he did with Blonde, the point of R.LUM.R’s music is to make listeners connect on a purely human level, prompting them to think outside of their personal boundaries. “Being intentional works for me,” he says. “I want people to think about themselves and think about other people and where they sit in the world. Empathy.” The conversation then veers to the spiraling plight of navigating the world as someone with brown skin; as male, female, or nonconforming; as anything that could be considered “other.”
“I’m not just a man, I’m a black man in America. I am so many things. Being a woman has a thing. Being a black woman has a thing. Being a tall black woman has a thing. Instead of asking someone to get into the deep history of all of these things, get into the habit of thinking about a person as an individual,” he says, making it clear not to align his intersectional thought process with “all lives matter” rhetoric.
R.LUM.R’s casual charm has a way of poking through as he speaks. When he shakes his head recounting the quirks of his nerdy black youth, the freeform locs sprouting from his head shake this way and that, moving as free as his spirit. He’s undoubtedly himself, and his melodic platform creates a safe space for his audience—or his “framily,” as he calls them—to exist as they are, especially the ones who would relate to adolescent Reggie. In his eyes, it’s kind of cool to be black and nerdy in 2017.
“Young, black 12-year-olds get more exposure to that stuff being normalized now than they did when I was a kid,” he says, envisioning a Lil Uzi Vert fan Milly rocking in a Naruto Uzumaki shirt. “Because those kids beat the sh*t out of me and stole my skateboard, you know what I’m saying? I bought the Linkin Park Hybrid Theory CD like three times because kids would scratch it.”
Music finding him provided him with a thing. In this profession, he could belong without question and find the safety to grow as himself. “I’m not the buffest dude, I’m not the tallest guy, I’m not like the most good-looking dude. I’m not walking up in here looking like f**king Taye Diggs or some sh*t, but I feel like all that stuff has definitely made me stronger because I’ve gotten over it,” he says, pushing back against societal impositions of “cool.” “I feel like I can be an example to people who feel that, but don’t exactly subscribe to the whole Odd Future thing and don’t exactly want to be like, ‘kill people, burn sh*t, f**k school.’ That’s too violent. I’d rather shuffle my Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, you feel me?”
Growing up, those projections were damaging and hindering, but he considers himself past it all. Well, mostly. “I mean, it rears its ugly head in new ways at all times,” he says, pausing, “but if it didn’t, I wouldn’t have anything to talk about.”