Every so often you stumble upon a music video and ask yourself, “Why isn’t everyone talking about this song, about this artist?” Enter: 20-year-old rapper Melii and the music video for her explosive single, “Icey.” On camera, Melii appears indomitable. Her confidence is chilling and empowering, and her delivery is shattering. Over blown-out bass, Melii situates herself on top of the world, and with the world in her hands.
Clocking in at a brisk two minutes and 30 seconds, “Icey” is more than pure aggression; it is a tactful and nuanced offering. Aside from showcasing her technical chops, Melii gives us a taste of her heritage, spitting in Spanish with a tempered bravado. With “Icey,” Melii sinks her teeth into prospective fans. But a deeper look into her catalog of viral remixes reveals her arresting versatility.
Here we have a young woman from New York with more range than most rappers on their third studio album, with no project to her name, and only one big single. Melii may be the most exciting young artist the city has seen this year, but when we finally get on the phone for what I learn is her first-ever interview, her tone is sweet and skittering, and enveloped in humility. Melii’s music exudes power, but she herself has yet to process just how much potential she possesses.
A native of Harlem, Melii grew up in a musical environment, with her father in a band and constantly singing around her. Her hip-hop education came by way of Nicki Minaj’s greatest hits and a grip of Spanish music that wafted through her home. In middle school, though, is when she really began her artistic tenure. “We used to go to nursing homes and sing for the old people there,” Melii tells me over the phone.
Soon after, Melii met, what she believed to be, her first do-or-die moment with music, choosing to drop out of high school to pursue a full-time career. As far as come-ups go, the recent Interscope signee found her first inkling of success with a cover of Cardi B’s 2017 song of the summer, “Bodak Yellow.” On YouTube, the cover has close to two million views, with subsequent video release “Ballin” approaching 300,000 views. “Ballin” is a skulking single, an evolution from the earlier “No Simple Chick,” and a prelude to the breakout hit that is “Icey.”
“That’s actually dope,” Melii says in regards to blowing up off remixes. “I have my own music, but just remixing and showing people like, ‘Hey, I can take this song and turn it into my own,’ that was always a good trait that I had. It’s definitely cool that people could relate to the remixes, and then they’re like, ‘Okay, let’s check her music,’ and they get to see the originality that I have.”
As a marketing plan, this concept sounds so-so, but in practice, Melii’s tactics have worked wonders. Her remixes and singles funnel into themselves, giving us a sense of Melii’s approachable and endearing personality. In one way, then, the remixes exist as a companion to Melii’s solo work, as if to say she is more than the sum of her material.
With that, the fiery woman in the “Icey” video all but melts away on the phone as she explains that before hip-hop, she had her poetry. “The poetry helps me to express myself and actual things going on,” she says. Before songwriting, Melii would come home and scrawl stanzas about herself. Beyond sharpening her pen, this became a necessary exercise in vulnerability as her forthcoming debut album, Phases, has its watershed moments when Melii is at her most open.
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“Every song on the project, or that I put out [separately], is actually a true story,” she continues. “It’s me telling my story through my music, and people are gonna learn more about me.”
Part of that story involves Melii bringing Spanish into a majority of her music—both remixes and solo work. “I feel like it was important because, just in general, I grew up in Harlem so that made it big,” she tells me. “Usually the English music is remixed a lot in trap. So it’s important to do both because I know these people and I know what they like, and me myself, I listen to both Spanish trap and English.”
“I mean, the project is called Phases for a reason,” she reminds me when I ask her how she moves so seamlessly between intimate and vulnerable ballads and more cutting tracks like her newest single, “Charlie’s Line,” premiering exclusively on DJBooth. “It’s not a back-and-forth for me, it’s just venting on a beat. It’s me speaking to my fans through music.”
“I talk about getting mobbed or getting trolled, or the past experience where I was going through depression,” she continues. “I thought, ‘These are all phases of my life,’ and I’ll keep going through phases, but they made me who I am today. I’m just telling my fans that these are phases of life that you have to go through to be who you will be.”
When Melii mentions her fans and mental health, she unfurls into an altruist. “It’s very important [to discuss mental health],” she attests. “I usually do discuss it a lot on my Instagram, and I make sure that my supporters know that they could hit me up and just vent to me. A lot of people don’t have someone that they could talk to growing up.”
For Melii, making music is about being both the voice and the ear for a generation that feels unheard and silenced.
“I still struggle with mental health, I’m still pushing forward,” she admits. “I want to make it a point of, ‘Don’t be so quick to take your life, there’s other alternatives.’ The sun always comes out when it pours.”
Melii admits that there are moments on Phases that are particularly difficult for her to relive, but says she's keeping her mind squarely on her impact when she approaches a dark space. “If me doing that is going to help someone else, then I’m willing to do that to share my story,” she promises.
With that, Melii doesn’t need external validation to know that she’s a true artist. “I feel like my music is my music and whoever relates to it, that’s the purpose: for people to relate to it and for whoever likes it to just rock with me,” she reasons. “I’m just gonna keep grinding because I feel like every day there’s a story to be shared,” and if anyone should have the platform to share their story, it’s Melii.