There are few artists who embody the spirit of R&B as much as Summer Walker. Beyond the beats and the killer vocals, there’s something in the way that the Atlanta star carries herself through each day and every line she sings; there’s love and tenderness, but also pain and honesty. They’re the qualities that her listeners most identify with and indicate a level of staying power for decades to come, should she desire it.
When NME speaks to Walker the day after the release of her second album ‘Still Over It’, it feels like a considerable sea change is approaching. A week later, she’ll land at Number One on the Billboard 200 Chart, impressively holding off the strong challenge of ABBA’s comeback album ‘Voyage’ and registering the first chart-topping R&B LP by a woman in the US since Solange’s ‘A Seat At The Table’ in 2016. Walker’s first-week album sales even outstripped those of Ed Sheeran’s recent album ‘=’. This success shouldn’t be seen as an introduction to a new R&B powerhouse – that’s been known for some time – but it could be the start of something even bigger.
‘Still Over It’ is darker than her last record, full of break-up anthems which detail Walker’s inner monologue and the pitfall of relationship breakdowns. “A certain darkness has descended on the once-pink fluffiness that memorably featured on ‘Over It’ album cover, instead displaying a whirlwind of emotions,” NME said in a five-star review. “Walker has a song here for every feeling following a crushing break-up, from confusion to anger to outright pettiness – and it’s the kind of unwavering quality that we all love her for.”
When we speak via Zoom from her Atlanta home, Walker opts to keep her camera off for the chat. She’s spoken before about her social anxiety, but also about her privacy, which is something she wants to defend fiercely. Walker now explains that while last year’s lockdown was “a lot”, it mostly provided a much-needed break, and, besides, she likes the fact that she “can work from home now”. It does mean, however, that an average day in Summer Walker’s life is hard to determine, even for her. “I can’t even have a schedule if I wanted to. It’s irritating. I wish that I could just wake up and be like, ‘Monday, I get this. On Tuesday, I got this’, and it’s always like that.”
Even the fact that NME wants to talk to her for a cover feature – Walker grants few interviews – perplexes her somewhat: “There is no routine, you know? Like, right now, somebody called to do this interview, and then I just hopped on the phone.”
Her desire for organisation and time-planning no doubt comes from the mindset she developed when she was working several jobs before fame came along. Five years ago, Walker was operating her own cleaning company and working in one of Atlanta’s strip clubs. She was also uploading videos of herself singing on Instagram and YouTube, showing off her vocal chops both for her own satisfaction and to hopefully follow in the footsteps of stars like Justin Bieber, Madison Beer, Shawn Mendes and more who struck gold after uploading covers to the internet.
“I have to be extremely independent every day in my life”
It was her medley of songs by Drake, Rae Sremmurd and more – the type of artists she’d one day topple in the charts – that eventually came to the attention of the alternative-favouring record label Love Renaissance, home to alt-R&B star 6lack. But Walker wasn’t exactly dreaming of achieving fame through her music – she simply saw her talent as a quick way to make money. When “someone hit me up and said, ‘Do you want to get signed?’”, she said, ‘Sure’ – not quite anticipating that, in a matter of months, she would become the leading lady in the modern-day R&B scene.
Walker’s 2018 mixtape ‘Last Day of Summer’ housed her breakthrough track ‘Girls Need Love’, where she sang bluntly about her romantic emotions and candidly vents about love from the average girl’s point of view. Such honesty is Walker’s USP, and one of the key reasons for her success. Walker’s mixtape also featured songs that, over sombre, ’00s-esque guitar melodies, highlighted the emotional spectrum of love: good, bad, happy and all the messy parts in the middle.
Her follow-up, 2019’s ‘Over It’, was the body of work that took Summer Walker from budding prospect to breakout star, debuting at Number Two on the Billboard Charts. NME described it in a five-star review as the “sucker-punch” that “R&B fans have been waiting for” which dealt with “relatable, mixed emotions”.
But while this mix of sudden popularity and hype can be a blessing for many new artists, for Walker it feels more like a curse. The demands that usually come with being plucked from normality and becoming a celebrity that everyone wants a piece of were, however, lessened due to the pandemic. Her terse response to our question about how it feels to now suddenly be in the public eye perhaps says it all: “Weird.”
She describes people’s obsession with wanting to know everything about her one-year-old daughter, known to the world by the alias Princess Bubbles, as “irritating”, and though she “never thought I’d have kids”, the joy she now gets from her daughter “makes it all worth it”.
Away from the fans, Walker’s social anxiety is something that she continues to live with each day. When accepting the award for Best New Artist at the Soul Train Awards in 2019, her short speech, in which she thanked her label LVRN and producer London On Da Track, sparked mass trolling online, with people accusing Walker of faking her social anxiety despite the singer visibly struggling to speak in front of a large audience. Earlier that year, the star had embarked on her 29-date The First And Last Tour, though it was cut short “because it doesn’t really coexist with my social anxiety and my introverted personality”. Walker has long battled with her anxiety, but she didn’t think it was “important to talk about it until people started questioning the way I do things, and then I felt the need to explain”.
“I don’t ask other people why they do things the way they do, so why are you asking me? I didn’t think it was anybody’s business,” she adds. Walker is clear that she does not want to be an advocate for social anxiety and instead wants to fly under the radar, keeping her music-making and public personas markedly separate.
“I didn’t think discussing my social anxiety was anybody’s business”
But in her work, and particularly that of ‘Still Over It’, there’s a frankness that’s relatable to every woman as she speaks on love from all angles, without judgement and with candour. When NME asks Walker about why she thinks her music connects with so many people, she throws the question back as if the idea that her tunes resonate is absurd: “Would you like to tell me how I’m so relatable?”
Walker does concede that she is a woman with unique ideas and “different viewpoints” than those around her, and that when she talks to them, “they’re like: ‘Bitch, you weird’”. But despite her uniqueness, her public on-off relationship with London On Da Track is perhaps no different than the ones in our own lives. “There’s always going to be ‘ain’t-shit’ n**** out here,” she says. “That will always be a relatable factor for everyone.”
Walker also acknowledges that her secret weapon is her empathy: “I’m a vulnerable, open person. I’m an empath, so I’m really emotional and shit.” Her astrological chart, she believes, has something to do with that. “I’m an Aries, Aquarius, Sagittarius,” she says while discussing what astrologers call her ‘Big Three’: her sun sign (the main one), moon sign (her emotional self) and her rising (how she presents herself). Aquarius Moons are supposedly deep thinkers, while Aries’ Sun indicates a level of directness, which might help explain the vivid storylines and signature frankness in Walker’s music – even if she doesn’t quite fully grasp how it came about this way.
“I’m not, like, a big astrologer,” she explains. “My teacher showed me this website that helps map your chart that I like to reference all the time because it makes hella sense. If you’re trying to get somewhere, you’ve got Google Maps and a GPS. You can use it to get to where you are going instead of just driving all willy-nilly, trying to figure it out. So why wouldn’t you use the GPS for the cosmos and trying to make it through life?”
“When Mary J. Blige made R&B, she had real pain and real stories. That’s why it was so good”
If that astrology website became a guiding force for Walker, then ‘Still Over It’ and its tales of love and loss might offer a similar guide to her listeners, whether she likes it or not. “I was just telling the fans what I was going through, but it definitely has an independent feel since I have to be extremely independent every day in my life,” she says.
Pain has been placed inside her most recent album – does Walker think that authentic R&B needs emotional agony? “I do. Back when Mary J. Blige and Faith Evans were making R&B, they had real pain and real stories. That’s why it was so good.” That sentiment is evident on tracks like ‘4th Baby Mama’, which is aimed at London On Da Track, the father to her young child (the song’s withering opening line – “I wanna start with your mama, she should’ve whooped your ass” – has quickly found fame on TikTok). Here, Walker furiously lays it all on the line: “How could you make me spend my whole fucking pregnancy alone?”
‘Still Over It’ features a star-studded cast, including US R&B stars like SZA, Ari Lennox and Ciara, as well as producer icons The Neptunes, Chicago drill hero Lil Durk and the Bronx’s finest, Cardi B. The latter’s contribution comes in the form of a voicemail-style message which reminds Walker to “not let them feel like they have a one-up by destroying your moment” and to “put that shit in your music and make money off it in your music”.
Walker explains: “I was getting harassed by one of [London On Da Track’s] baby mommas. [Cardi] saw it, and just wanted to be kind and give me some advice. We had to chop it down. She said a lot more about how to deal with that, because I think she went through that [situation] as well. We only left in as much as she was comfortable for the public to hear.”
“Cardi B just wanted to be kind and give me some advice”
‘Still Over It’ incorporates the melting pot nature of alternative R&B and neo-soul that Walker grew up on, including Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill and D’Angelo. It was these artists’ boundless creativity that encouraged Walker to try new sounds and experiment on her latest record. But while her track ‘Unloyal’ serves as an example of her willingness to shift gears, the singer now wants to hone in on a particular style. “My projects are all soul from here out,” she says. “One of them is cleared, and if we can clear the one after that, then the upcoming music will be straight soul.”
But for Walker, nobody has done it better than Erykah Badu (whose track ‘Bag Lady’ Walker recently covered for BBC Radio 1Xtra’s Live Lounge). What’s her favourite thing about Badu? “Her ability to just be herself and be free. She promotes that you say what you want to say, wear what you want to wear and be who you want to be.”
Like her heroes, Walker has already proven her ability to turn lemons into lemonade and her music will help secure your belief in love, no matter how absurd it may seem. It usually takes years for artists to master a trick like that, unless you’re Summer Walker – then it’s just something of divine invention.
Summer Walker’s ‘Still Over It’ is out now.
Styling by Danasia Sutton