For an artist who’s built his audience and sourced his own success via Spotify, all from the ground up, it makes sense that R.LUM.R would be walking the streets of Nashville during our phone interview. “Just getting some fresh err,” he quips.
As of this writing, R.LUM.R (pronounced “AR-lamar”) has approximately 20 million streams on Spotify, averaging one million per month—all accomplished without a major label, a celebrity crew, or even a city that’s known for urban music. Nashville is and will forever be a country town first, but R.LUM.R sees only opportunity.
“I’m a lyrics person,” he says. “The advent of country is here and that is a storyteller’s art form. I figured it’d be tight to come where the lyrics [are prioritized].” R.LUM.R moved from Central Florida to Nashville on December 1, 2015, a date he recalls quickly and fondly, like a lover’s anniversary. The emphasis on songwriting eventually won him over to the area, but there were other factors as well. R.LUM.R wanted room to work in a town whose sound wasn’t already determined and influenced by successful urban artists of the past.
“I could’ve gone to Atlanta or Chicago or L.A. or Portland or whatever, but those places already have a sound that you think of when you think of urban—read: black—music. L.A. has Kendrick, the beat scene. Atlanta, there’s that wonderful trap music that’s poppin’. New York City there are the boom-bap rappers. Chicago, it’s Mick Jenkins. People, you know, who have a history in those places.”
He continues: “As a person outside looking in, I didn’t think Nashville had a lane yet for a black guy making traditional black music, you know what I’m saying? But that is an advantage. That’s a place where I can go and create my own lane.”
The strategy is working. R.LUM.R has been selling out venues in Nashville, performing residencies outside of town, and spreading his music globally via streaming and satellite radio. “Frustrated” is his biggest success to date, with over 15 million Spotify streams. On Sirius XM, the song recently claimed number one on R&B and urban music channel the Heat, beating out mainstream artists like Chris Brown, Bruno Mars and Drake.
And it’s no wonder. “Frustrated” is a three-and-a-half-minute tour de force. In it, R.LUM.R’s range is on full display, not just as a singer with a rich and impressive range—whose falsetto floats upon the track like sheets slowly falling to bed—but also as a songwriter who can infuse fresh energy and relatable meaning into a tired pop formula. And that hook. Listen to that hook.
“Frustrated over you. Frustrated I’m a fool,” R.LUM.R sings. Lyrics wax cliché at first glance, but the song is actually about something deeper than vexed lovers. “I was very much frustrated about where I was going in life. Who I was, what I wanted to do,” R.LUM.R said during an iHeartRadio performance back in March. “Did I want to move to Nashville or stay comfortable in Orlando? It’s really a letter to myself about all these warring ideas.”
Formerly performing as an acoustic act under the name Reggie Williams [note: the dude can shred], R.LUM.R was created in the studio from an opportunity to explore a new sound with producers EthniKids. From there, R.LUM.R learned what he calls “the building blocks” of electronic music. The team recorded four songs and planned to release one per week on Spotify, the idea being that Reggie Williams would once again don his acoustic guitar after the project finished. R.LUM.R would only exist for a month.
“Show Me” was placed on the massively popular Spotify playlist New Music Tuesday (now New Music Friday) and career plans drastically changed. Suddenly, R.LUM.R was more than just a music project. It was a full-time gig. “People were like, ‘Who is this? What’s going on? Who are you?’ So I just kept doing it.”
The project was successful due to of a mix of hard work and talent, but R.LUM.R doesn’t discount Spotify’s impact on his career. He calls it the missing piece that completed the puzzle. Before as Reggie Williams, his music was primarily consumed live, the studio stuff secondary. But with Spotify providing a platform for R.LUM.R, the recordings have been the focus and the live experience a bonus. “When I was playing acoustic music, I’d make these connections to the audience, but I always felt like the recordings weren’t up to snuff of the live show. That can be the perpetual imbalance: one is always better than the other.”
While R.LUM.R can be considered an R&B artist making R&B music, this label doesn’t tell the whole story. You’re an R&B artist if you’re black and can sing is a sentiment that R.LUM.R has felt, having been compared to everyone from Gallant to Prince. “Our music doesn’t sound similar. Gallant and I are just two black dudes that have a high falsetto,” he says with a laugh.
R.LUM.R continues: “Genres are relevant in that they help a record store guy place the records and help the radio stations know what to play. I know that sounds like a pissy, artsy, anti-establishment, fuck-the-man sort of thing, but there’s an argument for both. If you’re genred, like Bryson Tiller, and your whole album has the same feel and you like that feel, then there’s a lot of [genre] there on that record for you.” Like any professional, R.LUM.R recognizes the commercial necessity of genre labeling and embraces the strategy, even if it oversimplifies his art.
For him, however, R.LUM.R makes it clear that he pulls inspiration from every corner of the music industry. The singer rattles off artists, bands, albums and singles like a walking, talking song-wiki jukebox, often bursting into chorus mid-sentence.
“My favorite R&B in the world is coming out of the U.K. and Australia: Ray BLK, Sinead Harnett, NAO, Kimbra [New Zealand], the Kite String Tangle is really dope, and obviously Hiatus Kayiyote is down there doing their thing.
“I pull influences from a lot of places, not just R&B or black music. On Instagram, sometimes I’ll screenshot something I’m listening to and post it to Stories. You know that Elliott Smith record Either/Or? [Starts singing ‘Rose Parade.’] ‘Alameda’ is another good one. I posted that up and some girl was like, ‘What! You like Elliott Smith?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, of course.’ He’s super sad, but he’s got these beautiful, fantastic melodies.”
R.LUM.R goes on to mention Radiohead, the Mars Volta, King Crimson, Ray LaMontagne and Sufjan Stevens. He says that Fleet Foxes’ “Someone You’d Admire” is one of the best songs ever written. Even the Contortionist makes the cut, which, if you’re keeping track, we’re now venturing into progressive metal.
In fact, the list of music and musicians R.LUM.R mentions in the course of our interview is so impressive that we made a playlist just for the occasion.
From the eclectic mind of R.LUM.R
Perhaps R.LUM.R’s myriad music history reflects his own path, one that started in Central Florida playing solo covers of Anthony Green and Coheed and Cambria songs in church shows for the then-nascent Christian hardcore scene, which earlier had birthed bands like Underoath.
Dig a little deeper and you’ll find a young Reggie Williams sneaking 2Pac into the house against his mother’s wishes. “When we were growing up, there was a lot of music my mom didn’t want us to listen to because she thought it was violent. She was talking about 2Pac specifically. ‘California Love,’ ‘Ambitionz Az a Ridah,’ all the gun-totin’ stuff from when he was trying to get out of his Death Row deal.
“But she never heard ‘Dear Mama’ and ‘Changes’ and ‘Letter 2 My Unborn.’ [Sings chorus of ‘Letter 2 My Unborn.’] That’s the song he wrote to his unborn child because he thought he’d be killed before he saw his son. You have to put yourself in people’s mindset to appreciate it sometimes. That’s the purpose of music and the purpose of listening to music: to relate to people whose lives you don’t live. Music exercises empathy.”
“That’s the purpose of music and the purpose of listening to music: to relate to people whose lives you don’t live. Music exercises empathy.”
Does that mean R.LUM.R’s music rules will be more lax in his own household, should he ever have children of his own?
“I’m going to be walking around, playing stuff that I like to hear, so they’re going to be exposed to that. I’ll be playing ‘Give Up the Ghost’ by Radiohead, and then something from the Contortionist. [Sings heavy music noises: duh duh duh, chug chug chug.] And then Vince Staples, who I love. But I’ll also be playing King Crimson, and my kids will probably be bored [laughs].”
For now, the adroit artist with an eclectic mind continues to look forward. Singles have proven to be an excellent formula for Spotify, but R.LUM.R is thinking bigger. August 11 will see the release of his first EP, AFTERIMAGE, via PRMD Music. Next year, he’s hoping for a full-length.
At this rate, it’s safe to assume R.LUM.R won’t be slowing down anytime soon. “I try to always keep my hands and my fingers and my brain moving,” he says. “I get antsy when I’m idle.”
Header photo by Nolan Knight.