Russ is striking and controversial in modern music. Only around 300 acts drive more traffic on Spotify. He has heterochromia meaning one of his eyes is an amber brown, and the other’s iris ends with vaguer borders than one would expect – a flint black hinting at the fire inside. Alexander the Great had heterochromia. So did David Bowie. To be marked by nature at the doors of the soul with rare wood must do something to someone psychologically. It can be a shield or a sword or a trap depending on how its twists with the spirit and circumstance.
Bowie, the Great, and Russ were blessed by many other miracles, and there is overwhelming evidence that their success came from their remarkable senses for independence. Attention comes with success. Controversy comes with independence. It seems like everyone in music has had something to say about Russ. He’s close friends with Ed Sheeran, and the two, though they make different music, share in a similar pressure, fame. Fame comes in love, and it comes in hate. But tour is a place for the former. It is as safe and as welcoming an environment as possibly exists on planet Earth.
Russ opened his The Journey Is Everything tour in WaMu Theatre in Seattle on April 29.
The Day Before WaMu
It was the afternoon before the concert, and Michal was driving his Cadillac XT
“WaMu theatre used to be Washington Mutual Theatre, but obviously – you know, that was the bank that took all those people in 2008,” said Michael. “Now it’s Washington Music.” He paused for interjection. None came. “Talk about erasing history.”
Michael wasn’t getting the sense that his passenger wasn’t listening. He had hoped to draw greater attention with his fun fact. Her son selling out 9,000 seats didn’t surprise June anymore. It humbled her and overjoyed her. It didn’t surprise her. She smiled from the back seat to herself.
“You’re lucky the President just came to town. This isn’t the Seattle I knew anymore – back when. The President just came through town, and they cleared out most of the homeless and their tents,” said Michael. He laughed. “I haven’t seen the streets this clean since I was a younger man.”
June was busy looking at the sapphire inlet below the highway and in front of the Olympics, the mountain range against the sea. Today Seattle’s rain was a Spring fog. She was caught on a thought that this was the same hillside commute hundreds, if not thousands, took and listened to her son’s music to dream of better days. Maybe they closed their eyes to concentrate on the lyrics. They sang along.
Michael kept speaking. “You know how it is in Hollywood. People come with a dream and no talent or work ethic. Then they’re waiters or something. You know? That’s how it is here. People come with a guitar, but the days of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden and Nirvana getting their names here, cutting their teeth here – it’s over.” Michael kept talking.
Seattle’s a music town. Close to her hotel, June saw venues and shows in theatres and holes from downtown to the woods beyond the city center. Each buzzed for the weekend. The enigmatic pop singer Raveena had a scheduled show, but she ended up growing ill. June didn’t see competition. The world was once again practicing its love for live music. Other acts would be in town, and nearly every house would be full. It was the same all over the country. Demand was back. The people were hungry, and the growing pains of the new economy were eating at their wallets like pigs at a pizza parlor. The people, though, had live music and show again. She’d seen on CNBC that ticket prices were doubling all over the country. There are bits of a nightmare in every dream.
The pandemic gave Russ an opportunity to be at home with his family and friends making music. The fruits of that labor were on their way to Seattle. It would hear from KTLYN first.
A Few Hours Before WaMu
“TikTok is gold, literally,” Russ told a writer in his hotel, the Four Seasons. “It’s the best tool for artists that I’ve seen in a long time. Up and coming artists who have no following are able to put up a sh**y quality video in their bedroom, and it will go crazy. TikTok likes that kind of content. It loves the un-doctored and the un-orchestrated.”
KTLYN is blonde rapper from San Diego. But like most of us, she’s from the internet as well. KTLYN and Russ were introduced on TikTok, the public arena and the perpetual talent show. Russ opened space on his song “Handsomer” for another rapper to perform on.
KTLYN gave an undeniably well-delivered, well-written verse, and now she’s employed by Russ and his record label, DIEMON. One afternoon of work, one video after a life of practiced hustle changed everything. It is the technical age.
Russ used to worry about working with TikTok. He thought things like, “what am I going to be going on there, dancing?” He’d say to himself, “is this going to just be some TikTok s***?” But he went forward with higher reverence. “Lizzo’s on TikTok, and that’s marketing. Coi Leeray has a whole community!” he told the journalist.
Russ was signed once too, to Columbia Records. Bob Dylan got his start at Columbia. One of the next statements is from Bob Dylan and the other is from Russ. Someone said, “columbia Records and Rob Stringer have been nothing but good to me for many, many years and a whole lot of records.” The other said, “I didn’t have a bad record deal like you hear about. Columbia was good to me. What it came down to is, the juice just wasn’t worth the squeeze anymore.” The latter was Russ, but they share an odd and affectionate sentiment.
Russ has gotten stoned in the public eye like Dylan. And he had publicly incorporated the message of sobriety in his life. “I’m at my best self. I’m working out six days a week. I haven’t smoked in a year. My drinking is light,” he told the writer, who had hoped in private to party raucously with the rapper. The Seattle nightside looked to the young writer’s eyed like an Eden, fertile soil for literature. He would have to settle with the artist’s peace. Dylan’s sober too.
Russ’s dad was watching his sister’s cat. Russ’s mom and brother were waiting for him for dinner and a movie while he wrapped up his conversation. And his sister was flying in later that night. Personal sustainability materializes around family. Tour is as much business as adventure. And who keeps you more grounded amidst change and festival than family? Who has your back more in business?
There were young men and women with garden seed mustaches swinging attached at their fornication parts before the music even began. There was loving on the dance floor – the sort that only happens in the anonymity of a crowd. WaMu was a warehouse in human celebration filled with blunt smoke and furrowed policemen. The Seattle Seahawks played a hundred feet away, and the theatre and the concert had the energy of the underside of an arena at a season opener.
A lady, 5’2, passed out in the middle of the large crowd by the stage. She was saved by how early her night ended. Russ wasn’t performing for another hour, and the crowd was loose and restless and eager to call for help. The flashlights in their phones shot to the heavens and in mass like seagulls. The venue staff-member closest pulled her over a barrier into production. The unconscious woman’s friends tried to revive her with fanning hats and pouring water. The venue-staff watched half-heartedly and flirted with a young woman, another reporter, nearby.
When the dormant woman woke up in a terrible night surrounded by good friends and started walking, she passed out again. A man yelled over the barrier that he was a registered nurse. With a shrug from the smiling staff, the RN jumped the fence. The nurse, the unconscious women, and her mates made their way together out of the theatre and into the cold and unforgiving, but less crowded night.
Russ took the stage, and the lights went blue. And a short, tattooed coder let his hands go limp under his shoulders and pointed his chest to the sky. He began to gyrate his shoulder in rhythm and foam at the mouth. A trio of blonde women with handsewn Russ jerseys made to look like official merch for an eighth of the cost danced and spilled their drink and flirted with a group of firefighters. There were pairs of tall hairy men in Hurley shirts smoking and vaping in turn and giving everyone who passed them the stink eye. A farm boy told the stranger next to him that their shoes looked comfy.
The fans there reflected Russ’s innermost struggles and joys. He was and is impatient. He’s working on it. The fans in front of him who weren’t dancing were mostly in the throes of impatience and the torment of constant unchecked need. That sort of thing swirls in your head like vultures. Fans who were also ‘working on it’ danced, smiled, smoke and drank deeply.
And they all rose to the music violently – because they wanted to have a good time and they identified with the hints of what it means to be human and alive in music and in Russ’s music. The way some of them lost in song flailed like idiots proved everything true and beautiful there is to know about being vulnerable and present. It’s antiviolent. They had more fun.
The crowd was mostly composed with troublemakers. People with whom grade school was difficult. Brains are diverse, and classrooms are rigid. Russ was afflicted with boredom. School was easy, so he acted out. It worked out for him in the end. Many in the audience weren’t as lucky. Love and talent took him to the top.
Russ’s loves started where all love starts – as a seed. In his living room with his brother Frank, Russ rapped, “I’m from Queens. I got baggie jeans” because Biggie was from Queens. At the time their family was moving around. They wouldn’t find Atlanta, their home to this day, for five more years. “Oh! That’s so good,” replied Frank in astonishment. They were best friends and protectors and enemies, brothers before and after all. The hairy guys with the stink eyes smoking in the crowd were brothers too. They also felt safer together.
Everyone in WaMu didn’t feel or hadn’t felt accepted at some point in their lives. Difference, despite its beauty, can be a harsh mirror. Before the show, Russ spoke to his friends, musician Jermaine Dupri and producer Bryan-Michael Cox. They agreed that he wasn’t accepted by Atlanta and its music scene. Atlanta radio didn’t play him, didn’t represent its city through him. Russ sure didn’t feel accepted. “They may not claim me, but I don’t need them to claim me. I’m doing a sold-out tour, and I’m expanding the soundscape of Atlanta. I’m broadening it,” said Russ.
The farm boy in the crowd heard Russ’s tenacity and his love in his music. His friends had been critical and quick to jostle Russ’s, but listening to the Sicilian singer, the farm boy saw himself climbing a mountain, one he’d never seen before, alone and sure-footed. He saw it as clear in his head as the words sounded in his ear.
The Late Morning After WaMu
William, a silver-grey chauffeur and avid hiker, was three minutes late to pick up Russ’s mom. June had been grateful when the driver’s name was given to her. The last ride was a bit opinionated for her. She could tell William was nervous about being late. He was in a hard job, and his flamboyance was easy on conversation.
“You’re his mother? And he sold out WaMu last night!” William asked. “You must be so proud.”
“He’s very talented,” she said.
“I’ve heard him,” William said not really knowing if it was a lie. So, he started new conversation. “It used to be Washington Mutual Theatre, but that was the bank that took all those people’s money in the financial crisis in 2008,” he said. “Now it’s Washington Music. I like the change. Washington Music, how easy on the tongue!”
June looked out the window in silence. A man in dull clothes holding on to a shopping cart by bloodless knuckles was in the process of being arrested.
“Oh, look at that. He’s having a bad day. The President just came to town. And they cleared out most of the homeless here, whole streets and villages of tents,” said William. “Neighbors all. It’s just a symptom of the bigger problem, if you know what I mean.”
“It’s hard to say,” he almost whispered.
June saw the Olympics in a new light. It looked like the mountain range was crying, and the sea was its tears, collected over who knows how many years.
After WaMu, their whole family were out to tour-travel the rest of North America, Europe then the largest cities in India, Australia then New Zealand, some of South America, and South Africa to close. Alexander the Great could never, June thought.
“Do you want to hear some Pearl Jam or Soundgarden or Nirvana?” William asked.