Every few years, a new artist emerges from Harlem, ready to take on the rap world: The Diplomats, A$AP Mob, Azealia Banks, Dave East. In 2018, that spotlight belongs to Melii. The 20-year-old rapper got her start posting music online before her viral take on Cardi B's "Bodak Yellow" led to a record deal with Interscope last December.
Melii's popularity also got a boost from none other than Rihanna, who shared the rapper's aggressive "Icey" single during a Fenty Beauty product preview on Instagram in May. While Melii says she misses her mom's Dominican cooking and her local Chinese food spots when she's on the road promoting and performing, she finds comfort in knowing that her hometown friends haven't turned their back on her. “People get it fucked up about the projects," she explains. "Whenever I go back to Lincoln in East Harlem], they always sitting on the steps outside and showing me love."
Now, she's prepping her debut project, Phases, which will be arriving this fall. To tide over her fans — the "Melii Mob," as she refers to them — she's been steadily putting out tracks that showcase her versatility, whether it's dominating a horror movie-worthy beat on "Balling" to showing f her vulnerable side (and her singing abilities) on "BK Woe."
"Phases is a person waiting on the bus stop like, 'Where’s the bus?'" she explains. "But the album will be an introduction to Melii, all the different characters I have and phases I’ve went through." Below, Melii tells Billboard about growing up in the projects, her love for Nicki Minaj and her hilarious reaction to Rihanna posting her song.
How does your Harlem upbringing influence your music?
People in Harlem are very blunt. Like, we’ll tell you if you’re trash! I always told myself, "If I want to do this music thing], I have to bring the real shit." I’m a very sassy person; I stand by what I do and what I say. I don’t lie on my records, and I do write my own stuff. So whatever I’m spittin’ is what I feel. I always think who’s going to hear it, because I know certain people could call me out on it! Laughs] But my mom always told me, “Nobody can use your truth against you.”
When did you realize rap music is your calling?
I never had another path. I always kept journals and used to write all my poems down. And in school, I would always find myself in the music class. I went to a transfer school called Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School — A$AP Rocky used to go there — so I could get my credits and diploma. They assign you to different teachers, and mine was the music one; his name was Albert, and I remember he was in a band back in the day. FOX News came one day for an interview, and he told them, “Melli’s gonna be the next star out this high school."
After that, I started missing school and started getting into that booth. But it wasn’t really a studio. Laughs] I went to another set projects in Harlem on 116th street. My boy Dennis, who I went to school with, said, “Hey, my friend has a studio.” We were in his room recording in his closet! I was still excited to the point that I’d leave school early just to record. After that, I got in the wrong hands with my previous manager and went to D.C. to sign a contract that went horribly. Once I got myself out it, it became a threatening situation, because people knew I had what it took and they wanted to grab it. Then my next manager tried to fuck me, and I was like, “Why do I keep messing up with this?” So I just went solo and started posting all my videos on Instagram on my own. I put out the Cardi B] “Bodak Yellow” cover last October] and boom — labels started hitting me up. Now I’m signed to Interscope.
You've cited Nicki Minaj as one your biggest inspirations. What is it about her that made you a fan?
Lil' Kim was already out, but my generation knew Nicki. If your mom wasn’t putting you on to Lil' Kim and you didn’t hear “Lighters Up,” then you wouldn’t know her. You needed to have that background in order to know the OGs, you feel me? I got glimpses music, because in the projects everyone played their radios loud, and I remember knowing all the lyrics to Minaj’s] “Itty Bitty Piggy.” If you didn’t know about Nicki at that time, you were under a rock. She was that bitch, and she still is!
Girls from Harlem have no chill when it comes to our mouths. If a guy tells us “Suck my dick,” we would be saying it right back. Nicki showed me that it’s okay to talk like that. You can be a pretty girl and still spit n—a bars. She also writes her own shit, and I praise her for that.
I love that you celebrate your Dominican culture and rap Spanish lines in your songs.
My dad is mixed; he has French and Cuban in his family. My mom is fully Dominican, and she came as an immigrant here. A lot people lose their Latin side, because in school you only speak English. My mom was like, “No, y’all are gonna learn Spanish in here!” We were only allowed to speak Spanish at home. My new song "La Envidia Mata" is all in Spanish; there's only a bilingual hook. Tory Lanez actually inspired the hook, and I see the girl version him in me. One the lines translated] is: "These people have some nerve to say she don't write her own songs." Yeah, I write my own shit and I can do it in another language. Check the credits!
You also sing in addition to rapping.
When I’m ranting on Instagram, my manager] would tell me, “Save that for the studio.” When I’m down or I catch myself in very vulnerable situations, singing just comes naturally. I’m the type person that, when I cry, I want to look out the window and be dramatic. Laughs]
The song that I connect with the most is “BK Woe,” because I’ve definitely had my heart broken by a Brooklyn dude before.
That’s a very, very vulnerable song. I was going through a really hard time in my life where I basically made this guy my comfort zone. So I didn’t know how to deal with the things I was going through without him being around. It was a time growing up and realizing that you can’t put your all in a relationship and depend on your partner to feel happy.
I have to ask about Rihanna — what was your reaction when you found out that she posted “Icey”?
I found out in a group chat with the label. They were like, “Yo, Rihanna just posted your shit!” I was going through a breakdown at the time] and cut my hair f that same day. When I went to the phone to check my texts, the right side my hair still wasn’t cut f! I went to check Rihanna’s Instagram] and saw her looking fire while my song is playing in the background. I still had the scissors in my hand, and I started crying. Then I started dancing. There were so many emotions at once!
I slid in her DMs like “Queen thank you for posting me!” She still hasn’t replied. Laughs] But I’m always commenting under her photos like, “Invite me to your Diamond] Ball. I wanna go!” I don’t do that for anyone else besides her and Kylie Jenner], who also posted "Icey" on Snapchat. I love boss bitches.