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Music

Summer Walker went from housekeeper to R&B it girl — and she’s still a mystery

Summer Walker
Summer Walker, whose “Over It” is the highest-charting debut album for a female R&B artist in more than a decade.
(Ser Baffo/Getty Images for BET)

In the music video for her latest single, “Stretch You Out,” Summer Walker mists a stripper pole with disinfectant before twirling around it in clear acrylic pumps and a sparkly silver bra and shorts set.

The spritz isn’t just for telegenic effect; before she became R&B’s next big thing, Walker worked as both an exotic dancer and a housekeeper.

On “Stretch You Out,” Walker tells her man she would rather enjoy a night in bed with him than deal with his stress. That raw, straightforward point of view, reminiscent of Mary J. Blige’s hardened approach to rap-influenced soul, earned the 23-year-old Atlanta native 1 billion streams before she even dropped her debut album.

Released last week via upstart Atlanta label LVRN and Interscope, “Over It” bowed at No. 2 on Billboard’s album chart, becoming the biggest debut album for an R&B female artist in more than a decade and the largest-ever streaming week for a female R&B artist. Buoyed by her sex-positive hit “Girls Need Love,” featuring hip-hop superstar Drake and packed with blunt dispatches on dating, love and sex, “Over It” is poised to establish Walker as a fresh voice for young black women.

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“It’s very rare that the culture and the mainstream agree with each other, especially in the beginning,” said Sean Famoso McNichol, co-founder of LVRN. “Usually, things are grassroots and bubbling for a year and it finally catches. This is the first time in a long time that we’ve seen the culture and mainstream walk hand in hand.”

Walker has been singing since she was at least 15, influenced by straight-talking soul singers like Jazmine Sullivan and the late Amy Winehouse. She taught herself to play the guitar by watching YouTube videos and perfected her honeyed voice on covers she posted online when she wasn’t cleaning houses or dancing.

“I started singing because I wanted to figure out ways to make money in [a] comfortable and creative way,” the singer-songwriter told Billboard earlier this month. (Extraordinarily introverted with severe social anxiety, Walker eschews most interviews and declined to speak with The Times.)

LVRN (short for Love Renaissance) discovered Walker after its studio manager — who coincidentally shares the same name — Googled herself and found videos the singer had uploaded on YouTube and Vine (one mash-up of Drake, Rae Sremmurd, Ginuwine and Beyoncé has been viewed more than 522,000 times). The label was making waves with singer 6lack, whose success helped establish the small shop as a disrupter in the trap-dominated Atlanta music scene, but it hadn’t signed a female vocalist until representatives met Walker.

“She walked in with face tattoos, guitar in hand and the story of being an exotic dancer and cleaning houses by day,” recalled McNichol. “You can’t make that up.”

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Walker’s breakthrough continues a robust period for young women who have pushed hip-hop/R&B forward with beguiling tales of dating, sex and love that counter the unbridled lust doled out by their male counterparts.

Like that of Jhené Aiko, SZA, Kehlani, H.E.R. and Ari Lennox, Walker’s music unspools like group texts among close friends.

“Summer gives a voice to a certain type of black woman who for so long didn’t have a voice,” says Sylvia Obell, host of Buzzfeed’s online talk show “Hella Opinions.” “She’s the type of girl Drake is always singing about. Guys are always singing about falling in love with a stripper, but we never get that girl’s perspective. We never get a girl saying, ‘Because I like sex, I’m not wife material?’ Summer — like SZA and Ari — makes music for us whose relationship status is ‘complicated.’”

Walker’s Instagram feed is rife with posts that showcase the singer’s personality. She posts freely about her anxieties and her bad days to her 1.3 million followers, and she peels back the curtain on how she’s processing fame in real-time, from feeling overwhelmed about touring to posting the DMs she gets from Drake (he told her a track from her new album inspired him to record two songs at 7:30 in the morning).

“She’s really shy,” says Joie Manda, executive vice president of Interscope Geffen A&M. “But everybody is connecting to her, because she’s direct and real.”

“Over It” adds to the momentum Walker has been experiencing since she released her first mixtape last year, “Last Day of Summer” and a follow-up EP, “Clear,” earlier this year that she recorded live in an Atlanta treehouse she booked on Airbnb.

The mixtape’s lead single, “Girls Need Love,” was already gaining traction on streaming services and radio when Drake heard the sex-positive anthem in a bowling alley and sent Walker a direct message on Instagram about it, leading to him jumping on the remix that landed on Billboard’s Hot 100. And “Girls Need Love” wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down when Walker announced the arrival of “Over It” in August.

Largely produced by her boyfriend, Atlanta producer London on Da Track (the two met at the strip club where she worked four years ago), Walker’s album vividly renders the complications that often come with young coupledom.

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She pays direct tribute to ’90s R&B by updating Destiny’s Child’s signature hit “Say My Name” on “Playing Games,” calls on fellow Atlantan Usher to flip one of his own records into a lusty late-night invitation on “Come Thru” and rides an interpolation of 702’s “Get It Together” for the steamy “Body,” among the album’s highlights.

But “Over It” isn’t just an album of ’90s R&B nostalgia; it also showcases a young woman unafraid to interrogate her own faulty judgment when it comes to love — like scaring a boyfriend by waving a gun at him — or expose her every frustration and desire.

“From the moment I saw her, she caught my eye,” said London on Da Track. “She’s very relatable. And her voice is impeccable. When you put those together, you’re bound to touch souls.”


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