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Russ put out his first album on SoundCloud in 2011 when he was 19 years old. He settled into a schedule of releasing a song a week, three albums a year. By August of 2014, he had 11 albums and 87 songs together under his belt. He signed a partnership deal with Columbia Records in 2016 after his buzz began to crystallize. His single “What They Want” peaked at No. 83 on the US Billboard Hot 100 that year, a second, “Losin Control,” making it to No. 62. Since then, blog coverage for his work has been largely absent even as his following grows, save for controversial hits.
Some could argue that the industry plant conspiracies surrounding his father and his entrance into the game take away from his prestige. Screenshots on KanyeToThe theorize that his father owned an advertising company that works with Columbia Records, leading to his deal. But one look at his long, storied SoundCloud proves these wrong.
He’s been at it for a while, and the fruits of his labor show. While rap usually loves a good self-made narrative, there’s an odd disconnect with Russ. Fans love him while a majority of prominent figures in rap culture despise him. He’s outspoken, as per standard in rap. But, for one reason or another, he’s been culturally blacklisted. It usually involves his mouth, but when you look into it, it’s not that much different than what his peers are saying. There’s a racial factor as well.
Russ is Sicilian. With long, curling, flowing hair, orange skin, and two different colored eyes because of a condition known as heterochromia, he looks much different than your average rapper. It’s no secret that aside from Eminem and Mac Miller, modern white rappers seldom get the same respect as their black counterparts. Since, more than often, their commercial success comes much easier, and for other reasons, they’re judged by a different set of rules. They must be appreciative of the culture since acceptance comes easier. Being cocky in this circle is tasteless. To win the approval of peers, white rappers must be authentic and respectful.
If there’s one thing that makes Russ, well, Russ, it’s his unwavering commitment to being the most outspoken rapper on the planet. His forthright nature nearly always comes from matters involving himself or the state of rap music. He attends interview after interview, gets irate at a question that he perceives as a challenge to his character, and responds with words that’ll nearly always come back to haunt him. He even went very meta in a closing response to a question in his 2016 interview with Billboard: “I’m really questioning if I want to do any more interviews because people always fucking twist my words and they end up pushing the wrong narrative and people end up taking my shit wrong,” he said. The question that was asked was: “Looking ahead to 2017, what else do you have in store?”
His outspokenness comes at the worst of times as well. In September 2017, Russ posted a picture on Twitter of himself after a show wearing a shirt emblazoned with the question: “How much Xans and Lean do you have to do before you realize you’re a fucking loser,” with the caption being “After show. Message.” The responding fury came swiftly. While many of his fans commended him for the shirt, rappers banded together to explain to him that besides being glorified, they serve as coping mechanisms for traumatic experiences. “Until I can stop thinking bout my dead homies an the trauma that I been thru in my life that’s when I’ll stop,” responded Fredo Santana in a tweet. Russ went on to say that if he could stop one child from using drugs or getting addicted to them, then his mission was accomplished.
Two months later, Lil Peep died from a fatal mix of Xanax and Fentanyl. Russ’ tweets came roaring back into the spotlight and a new wave of hatred for the rapper’s holier-than-thou attitude began to surface. He doubled down on his earlier sentiment with a fresh attack on drug users. “Abusing Xanax and other pills drugs etc in private cuz your depressed/other mental issues is one thing(still not good),” he tweeted. “Constantly recording yourself doing drugs and putting up pics and videos of doing it is when you start CHOOSING to publicly glorify it and make it an image.” Rapper SmokePurpp responded angrily almost immediately, causing a firestorm of white hot rage erupting from the deepest crevices of the internet. The new-age movement that had enveloped Peep was especially offended from his statements.
Then, in mid-April of 2018, Russ ruffled feathers again. The whirlwind of trouble came when comments about producers made in a January 2017 interview with DJ Vlad resurfaced. In the dialogue, Russ blamed producers on the current state of hip-hop. He insinuated that their work is terrible and he’s been making do with what he’s been given. “If a producer sends me a pack of 20 beats and they’re all wack and sound the same, I’m just fucked. I just have to pick the best of the worst. It’s not the rapper’s fault,” Russ said. “The people responsible for making the music are the ones to blame.” As you could imagine, by his last lash-out at hip-hop, his comments caused an uproar. Cardo, Southside, and Metro Boomin were but three of many producers that responded with hilarious anecdotes; Metro’s 5×10 business card emblazoned with “RUSS IS WHACK” took the cake. (He later stated that his comments were directed at Russ’ spirit, being that he never listened to his music.) Southside, the Atlanta producer that recently collaborated with G Herbo on the joint project Swervo, warned Russ from speaking on black producers, period.
Since then, Russ has become something of a villain in hip-hop circles. Those who appreciate his music reside far from the reaches of social media; his detractors and naysayers reign supreme in the realm of influence. Rising rappers Lucki Eck$, Yung Bans, and Lil Pump have all pulled their fanbases against him; Pump even recently directed his attention to Russ after making amends with J. Cole. With much of new-age rap against him and much of current and older rap circles tired of his arrogance, the composition of his fanbase is hard to determine. But he’s doing something right; his debut There’s Really A Wolf is platinum and, according to Herald Extra, he’s amassed more than 676 million cumulative views on YouTube.
His most recent round of controversy came on August 6, in a freestyle for Funk Flex on HOT 97, with the latest in a line of stray shots sent towards the next generation: “Can’t even tell y’all apart / Lil who? Young what? / Another dick-riding clout chaser screaming, ‘Fuck Russ!”‘/ How original.” Of course, who he’s referring to is the rising herd of rappers with the name “Lil” in their moniker. Most of the time, they also tend to be the group that hates him the most. While the response has been swept more under the rug compared to his previous outbursts, it seems to be a conscious effort to tune him out.
What’s odd about Russ’ disposition is that, often times, what he’s saying isn’t that much different than what his peers say. A$AP Rocky, most recently in “Potato Salad,” said that due to mumble rapping, there’s a lack of true talent in the industry. The difference between Rocky’s belief and Russ’ comments about producers is, besides experience, their racial composition. Look to Post Malone for further proof that when you’re not black in hip-hop, you should probably keep your mouth shut. Post Malone said that hip-hop lacks lyrical complexity in the modern game and was immediately slandered for it. What he said is no new train of thought; older rappers have been saying the same thing for years. But being that he’s outside of the dominant race in the field, he was crucified, having to come back later for a sincere apology.
At the same time, Russ’ unsociable attitude fuels the fires of hate from those looking for a reason to disagree with him. His interviews typically feature short responses or passively aggressive comebacks that, from a rapper receiving tremendous amounts of money for his achievements, come off as especially poor. When he returned to Complex’s daily show Everyday Struggle in mid-July after a heated argument erupted the first time that he went there, he calmly let everyone know that he was over the situation whilst they attempted to extract more understanding of what went down. His arrogant demeanor continued throughout the interview that, once again, will give fuel to the fire to people looking to cast dirt upon his name.
The case of Russ is a curious one. Race undoubtedly plays a part in the continued critical analysis of every critique he makes, as well as the social blacklisting from many of the genre’s gatekeepers and paragons but, at the same time, his arrogant personality gives people more of a reason not to like him. How this ultimately impacts the ceiling of his career will be interesting to see because, according to his streaming numbers, he’s doing just fine. But the subtle contempt that manifests in his freestyles and interviews is usually aimed at those that aren’t fans of him. Judging by just how much he references his detractors, I’d be willing to bet that it’s really bothering him, too.
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