Viral superstar Monaleo is becoming a force to be reckoned with. An exciting and refreshing addition to Houston’s renowned rap scene (home to the likes of Megan Thee Stallion and Don Toliver), the 21-year-old tasted major success back in April thanks to the Flo Milli-featuring remix of her 2021 track ‘We Not Humping’. The soundtrack to the city girl summer, the two rappers go back-to-back with quick-witted lyricism which embraces the role of the rejecter. “Put that dick up, we not humpin’,” Monaleo declares over bass-heavy beats. “Sky Zone, bitch, my block jumpin’ / Jump out the black truck, we start dumpin’ / In the field with a hundred bands, no trumpet.”
It was Monaleo’s younger brother, the rapper Yung Rampage, who first encouraged her to give rapping a shot after a few studio sessions together in 2020. The overwhelmingly positive response to the few Instagram clips that the pair shared of their work – which have since been deleted – urged Monaleo to take it to the next level, leading to the creation of her February 2021 break-up hit ‘Beating Down Yo Block’. After catching the internet’s attention with that track and its December successor ‘We Not Humping’, Monaleo’s TikTok fanbase swelled, hitting over six million likes across her page.
She hasn’t let those giant numbers get to her head, though. Having been open about her own struggles with anxiety, Monaleo is instead keen on using her platform to advocate for mental health awareness in the music industry. “My mental health is something I deal with on a day-to-day basis,” she tells NME over Zoom from her Houston home. “So I want to make sure I handle myself and my story with care, so when the time feels right, I can attack it.”
Our interview with Monaleo has been sandwiched into a typically busy week for the artist, which also includes a new video shoot and studio sessions for her debut album. Monaleo’s passion for her art, though, beams through the Zoom window, exuding the “real, raw and authentic” self she plans to continue to reveal to her fans as her career progresses.
NME caught up with the rising star to discuss her viral collaboration (and newfound friendship) with Flo Milli, her plans to continue her mental health advocacy through her music, and how she feels about joining the next generation of bold, multifaceted women in rap.
What were your dreams when you first started out as an artist?
“I wanted to be a singer. When I was young, my grandmother would make me sing in church, but I hated people looking at me – I just loved to sing. I knew I had to decide what I wanted to do: I didn’t want to go to college, but everyone expected me to because I was smart, so I went there and changed my major a lot. I was getting ready to change over to a computer engineering major, but at that time my raps were starting to get a lot of traction so I was like, ‘OK, is this the moment? Is it getting ready to happen?’ I stopped going to school and focused on music, and it worked out.
“You have these dreams and fantasies where you can visualise yourself doing something, but when it starts to actually happen, it’s a surreal experience. I couldn’t believe it was happening, and as quickly as it was.”
Was rapping initially a side hustle, then?
“[Rapping] didn’t pay me anything: it was draining my funds, to be honest, but it was a slow progression. I’d post a video and it would get 400 likes, then [post] another that would get 900. Once the response was bigger, I figured it was something I could continue with, but only because I was seeing results. It’s easier to do something that’s rewarding. I was watching my followers go up and could easily gauge whether or not people were receptive to my art, so being able to watch my follower count go up was a catalyst for me to focus on being a full-time artist.”
Why does your creative relationship with Flo Milli work so well?
“The experience of working with her was very genuine and pure. It started as a simple Twitter DM: I’d sent her ‘We Not Humping’ before it came out and wanted her to be on it. I enjoy her artistry and I think she’s extremely talented. She’s beautiful and exudes this energy that’s channelled on our song. Her energy was very infectious; she was receptive and warm. She didn’t give me those ‘low-key intimidated’ vibes, nothing of the sort. We recorded the back-and-forth at the start of the song, and we were laughing, having shots. It was wonderful.”
The video for the ‘We Not Humping’ remix is high-concept. What was shooting it like?
“We originally shot another video before this one, and I hated it. We were on set for 22 hours and it was super-exhausting. I told Flo I wanted to reshoot it, saying: ‘I’m sorry to even say this, but I got the video back and I don’t like it. Our skin tones don’t look the best, we look muddy’. Being Black girls, I wanted to be candid and for our beauty to transfer on camera, and I felt like the original video didn’t do what it needed to do. I didn’t want to be too demanding, but it was one of those things I had to be honest about. Flo was super-understanding and supportive throughout the entire process. Even though she’s a bigger artist, for her to be receptive to my artistry was so fulfilling. We became friends: she gave me a gift for my birthday, we text and catch up with one another. It’s a genuine friendship that came from doing a song together.”
“This is my life, my narrative – something that I have full control of. That’s the part of being an independent artist that I like.”
It sounds like the final video came from you putting your foot down and asserting your creative control. But do you ever feel like you can’t speak up or be ‘demanding’?
“I’ve definitely had moments where I’ve thought, ‘Is this my place to say something, or should I just be grateful?’. But then I realise I’m not that person. If something is going on that I don’t like, I’ll say so. This is my life, my narrative – something that I have full control of. That’s the part of being an independent artist that I like. I had to make that difficult decision to say, ‘Let’s do this again and go back to the drawing board and make this a moment’. I don’t want to look back at the video and say, ‘I hated it’. It would’ve been a waste of time and effort. It made sense to redo it and make the most of the moment.”
Do you think your willingness to be so open is why people are connecting with your work?
“I think my music resonates with everyday people. Yes, being an artist allows me to pay the bills, but I also want to take care of myself and my mental health, so I figured that, to do both, I had to be open about what I was going through. If there’s a day where I wake up and don’t feel in the mood, I’ll say that. I don’t care who has anything to say about that; I won’t be made out to be a robot that doesn’t have feelings.
“Candidly speaking, it also feels good to be validated. I’ve dealt with feeling invalidated for a long time, and that can fuck with your mind and perception of life. I’m not saying you should do things to be validated, but there’s power in solidarity. Knowing people had been through what I went through was uplifting. I created a space that allowed me to share my experience freely with people that wanted to understand me.”
You recently performed live at Rolling Loud in Miami. Did you have a specific routine to help calm your anxiety?
“I’m still having a really hard time getting acclimated [to performing live]. The last show I had was one of my best because I was honest with the people out there. For example, Summer Walker and I have a lot of similarities with how we deal with our anxieties. I remember when she cancelled her tour and thinking, ‘That’s something I’d do.’
“I understood why Summer felt like that, and how overwhelming it can be exchanging energies with different people that you don’t know. To see the amount of anguish she was experiencing, and the chaos that ensued after the decision she made based on how she was feeling, was scary to me. I want to be able to spark a conversation on stage and chat to the crowd without feeling overwhelmed about being the centre of attention, which is something I’ve always had a problem with.”
What type of artist do you want to be remembered as?
“I’d like to be remembered as an artist that was fearless: someone who used her circumstances as a stepping stool to be a voice to the people who have gone through similar things. Ultimately, I want to be happy, but I don’t want to attach my happiness to anything tangible or materialistic. When your core is happy, everything around you is harmonious – it all works out.”