It’s the day before Addison Rae drops her first EP, titled AR, and the TikTok megastar turned musician is in a reflective mood. “I’m feeling very grateful and content,” she says over Zoom from her home in Los Angeles, wearing a vintage baby pink Marc Jacobs tee with the slogan “Protect the skin you’re in” printed over a nude Chloë Sevigny. “I’ve been a little bit nervous, but I’m less nervous now. I feel like I’ve had enough time with these songs, and now I can breathe a sigh of relief that they’re finally going to be officially out in the world.”
Even if releasing these songs in this manner was never part of the plan (more on that later), for Rae, making music was always part of the plan. A little like Britney Spears, another pop ingenue who was catapulted to fame as a teen, Rae came from humble beginnings in the Louisiana suburbs; despite a bumpy childhood that included a stint living in a mobile home, her early promise as a performer encouraged her parents to scrape together what they could to support her entering the world of competitive dance. Years of grinding followed (and, you could argue, never really ended) as she set her sights on Los Angeles and stardom—a dream that would come to fruition thanks to TikTok, which Rae first joined in 2019.
It’s surreal to think it’s been less than four years since a handful of dancing teenagers rocketed to overnight global fame—Rae now has 88.5 million followers on TikTok and 37 million on Instagram—but even more surreal, you might imagine, to have lived through it. “I grew up as a really big fan of MTV, watching all the music videos and recreating the music videos in my bedroom, and being like, I want to do that one day,” she says of this whirlwind journey. “So it was always a dream, but it felt like a very distant dream, you know? I feel like a lot of people have that dream, but it feels so far away. Growing up in Louisiana, too…it’s a very different world. It was crazy. But for me, it’s always come down to the joy of performing.”
Rae’s success also comes down to the kind of effervescent charm and charisma you can’t manufacture; the kind that radiates even through a computer screen from where I sit some 5,000 miles away. But while that played one part in her stratospheric rise, the other part was simply hard work. When she landed her first acting role in Netflix’s He’s All That, she spent eight weeks working intensively with an acting coach, and when it came to business, she was one of the shrewdest operators within her TikTok cohort, parlaying her success on the platform into a multi-million-dollar beauty brand and a multi-picture “creative partnership” with Netflix.
And so it was with her approach to music. When Rae first began vocal lessons and studio sessions in earnest back in 2020, she opted to fund them entirely herself rather than sign with a label, meaning she could choose her own collaborators. Naturally, she already had an extensive list of hitmakers in mind, including the Swedish pop powerhouse Rami Yacoub, whose songwriting and production work has spanned everything from Spears’s “…Baby One More Time” to Beyoncé’s “Alien Superstar,” and his fellow countryman and Max Martin protégé Oscar Görres. “The Swedes always know what’s up when it comes to pop music,” Rae laughs.
But all this wasn’t on the public record when Rae released her debut single, “Obsessed,” in March 2021. While there are those who have harnessed the power of TikTok to soar to viral success before developing a more sustained career—Doja Cat, Lil Nas X—there are many fewer who actually began as a TikTok personality, and it’s hard not to imagine that played some part in the skepticism that greeted Rae’s first foray into music. Produced by pop maestro Benny Blanco, “Obsessed” felt like a knowing riff on the cloying odes to self-love that dominated the charts of the 2010s, as well as a cheeky acknowledgment of the inherent imbalance of fan relationships online—all packaged up in a splashy video featuring TikTok-ready dance moves, slinky Mugler bodysuits, and a chorus as catchy as flu on a cruise ship.
Yet many critics, both online and in the media, didn’t see the vision. “I wrote a lot of songs, obviously, as one does when they’re trying to figure out what they want to say, and what kind of music they want to make,” Rae says. “As I was doing that, I put out ‘Obsessed,’ and…” she sighs. “I’m pretty hard on myself in general. I have very high standards for myself, and that can be my downfall sometimes. I just wanted people to know that I really care about music, and that I take it seriously. I put out ‘Obsessed’ and, you know, people didn’t love it as much as I loved it.” Initially, the negative responses to “Obsessed” almost put her off her dream of being a musician entirely. “I think I had a really fragile sense of self at that time,” she recalls. “I was 19, you know? It kind of crushed me for some time. I started feeling a lot of self-doubt, and those big dreams that I was pursuing, I just thought, Maybe I’m not good enough to do this.”
A further blow came when a tranche of songs Rae had recorded throughout that first year of sessions leaked online—“I was shocked,” she says, noting that she still has no idea how they got out—forcing her to confront her insecurities head-on. For while Rae initially feared the leaks could mark the death knell for her music career, they soon began taking on a life of their own. Fans on Twitter and Reddit began demanding justice for the (genuinely fantastic) songs Rae had written, and eventually, that enthusiasm crossed her radar. “I began to notice there was this group of people who were super-interested in them, and it restored a little bit of excitement about it all for me,” she says. “I was just really surprised, after what felt like a long period of time, that people were so interested and wanted to see me continue. And so I began to realize that the only way I can fail is by not continuing. I think that’s the most important thing I’ve learned over the past two-and-a-half years.”
For Rae, deciding to release the EP last Friday was about closure—but, even if she’s far too polite to say so, it also feels like a two-fingers-up to those who might have doubted her. The opener, “I Got It Bad,” is a bona fide pop masterpiece with a welcome dose of weirdness (“Take off every piece of me / until there’s only skin on my body”) that recalls Britney at her peak, with an irresistible, swooping chorus and a juggernaut of a bridge. “Nothing On (But The Radio)” will be familiar to Lady Gaga fans as a demo that was once leaked for her too; here, it finds a new life with Rae as a deliciously silly siren call to a distant lover. It’s as much fun to listen to as Rae clearly had making it.
Meanwhile, the twinkling synths of “2 Die 4” feature an important cosign for Rae: a verse from Charli XCX, with whom she first began collaborating back in those early sessions. “I’ve looked up to Charli forever, and to have her as part of this means so much, as she’s been supportive of me all the way,” says Rae. “She’s always been excited about my music.” Clearly, the feeling is mutual: Asked for a quote about working with Rae, Charli replied with a few paragraphs outlining their friendship and her admiration for Rae as both a person and artist. She recalls the first time they met in the studio as the ultimate example of opposites attract—with Charli standing on a balcony chain-smoking and “having not brushed [her] hair for days” when Rae arrived in her pink Tesla, bounding into the studio and declaring, “Ugh! Boys are so stupid!” Adds Charli: “She was like no one I’d ever met really. Not jaded. Not faking. Not uncomfortable. Not trying to be anything other than herself.”
For Charli, the key to Rae’s success also lies in her impeccable taste: She notes that whenever Rae gets on the decks at a party, everybody heads straight to the DJ booth to find out what she’s playing. “If I ever get married, I would definitely ask Addison Rae to be my wedding DJ,” Charli adds. And really, it’s this I was probably most curious to ask Rae about. It wasn’t just the leaks that piqued the interest of the online pop sleuths who begged for her return, but the unexpectedly eclectic music tastes fans have noticed via her Spotify. Scroll through her playlists and you’ll find FKA Twigs, Yves Tumor, and Kelela sprinkled among hundreds of tracks that span recent avant-garde hip-hop to the cream of ’00s Timbaland-produced R&B. (I mention this only because it’s hard to picture, say, Charli d’Amelio listening to Aphex Twin in her downtime.)
It’s an idiosyncratic approach that extends to her style too, whether the vintage Betsey Johnson and John Galliano for Dior dresses she’s worn on the red carpet, or the Björk puffer jacket she sported on a trip to Disneyland. Say what you want about Rae, but she knows her references. Where does she think that eagerness to learn about the wider constellation of genres that orbit contemporary pop came from?“I think I’m just a really curious person,” she says. “When I start doing something, I want to know everything there is to know about it. I’ve been learning so much about new sounds and new producers over the past few years, but I always want to know, What else is there? Where does the inspiration for this come from?” If you needed proof, you’d find it in the way she visibly lights up when talking about the other musicians she loves. “I started listening to Sophie a few years ago and I was just like, Wow, what is this?” she says, beaming. “And then I just went down this rabbit hole.” Is there anyone she’d be especially keen to collaborate with at this stage? “I mean, I would love to work with Arca, obviously! I just love her sound, and I think she’s so cool.”
Arca’s genre-bending, often abrasive dance music might feel a world away from the slickly engineered bangers of Rae’s EP, but as a budding scholar in the arts and sciences of pop music, she’s now willing to get a little more experimental. “I just want to hear everything, I want to try everything, I want to do everything,” she says, before adding, firmly: “And I want to work with people who will push me outside of my comfort zone.” Where just a few years ago she felt ready to give up on music entirely, she’s now more focused than ever—even if she remains tight-lipped about what, exactly, her next chapter might look like. “I think I know myself now, and I know what I want to do, and I know where I want to go, and to have full control over doing it exactly how I envision it. I wanted this EP to be the end note to the past few years, and a stepping stone forward in my career,” she says, before pausing and breaking into another infectious smile. “And I can’t wait to show you the next part.”
Photographer: Davis Bates
Hair: Bryce Scarlett
Makeup: Nina Park
Styling: Devon Lee Carlson and Addison Rae
Nails: Natalie Minerva
This article was originally published on Vogue.com.
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