Morray’s feature on J. Cole’s new album, The Off-Season, is a fitting introduction to an artist who almost didn’t make it here. “Made it out the struggle, don't judge me, what you saying now won't budge me,” he belts out on “m y . l i f e,” a moody interpolation of a Styles P and Pharoahe Monch song.
The 28-year-old rapper, born Morae Ruffin, honed his voice in the Powerhouse of Love and Faith, one of two churches opened by his grandmother in Fayetteville, North Carolina, the hometown he shares with the Grammy-nominated J. Cole. Thanks to the success of his song “Quicksand”—which has racked up over 77 million views since last October—Morray’s soulful tenor, melodious with a slight rasp, is already ubiquitous on radio across the States. But if you ask him, he doesn’t stand out because of his voice.
“God gave me just enough, but not a lot,” he says, with a contagious chuckle. “My singing isn't different. My pain is different.”
On first listen, Morray’s music stands out not for its pain, but its joyfulness. “Everything is easier if you believe,” he sings on his debut mixtape, Street Sermons, the title of which offers a neat summation of his style: gospel melded with hip-hop. He calls it "harmonic rap."
In person, he has the magnetic charisma of a pastor, equally liable to break into song as he is to crack a joke. But on songs like "Trenches" and "Reflections,” we catch glimpses of darker feelings—a sadness and an anger he says comes from “growing up seeing your mother cry, getting kicked out of school, getting locked up, your homies dying.” The interplay between those two sides of Morray—the triumph and the suffering—is what makes his music so deeply personal to him—and so captivating to listeners.
Morray made his singing debut at church at four years old, performing a solo rendition of “I Believe I Can Fly” at a service. His mother led the child’s choir, which Morray would eventually join, singing old gospel standards like “Fill My Cup, Lord.”
Unfortunately for Morray, his undeniable talent singing gospel could be a liability at school. “When you're chubby and you go to church, a lot of people try to pick on you,” he says. “You start singing, they try to bully you. I just stayed to myself and tried to stay out of the drama.”
Despite his attempts to skirt conflict, he got into fights at school, leading him to multiple transfers. Eventually, these fights led his mother to move them from Fayetteville to Lebanon, Pennsylvania, where Morray had to enroll in the sixth grade for a second time. Constantly moving schools, he says, made it difficult for him to find out who he was.
“I did a lot of stupid shit that I shouldn't have, just to fit in,” he says. Listening to gospel music helped. “Those are the best stories to listen to growing up, because it’ll make you appreciate what you go through.”
“If you want to hear some great pain music, listen to gospel,” he says, pointing to artists like Karen Clark Sheard, J. Moss, and Deitrick Haddon. “It will really tell a story about how somebody came from the bottom, and they've been living off faith.”
Morray did not think to combine his own singing style with rap until he heard Drake's 2009 mixtape, So Far Gone. With his hybrid delivery—neither fully rapping nor fully singing—the buzzing Canadian artist planted a seed in the 16-year-old Morray’s mind. “I could probably make my singing a little tougher to fit my vibe,” he remembers realizing.
It would take years for Morray to truly commit to his music. But he says that the arrival of his first son—born on Christmas in 2011, when Morray was 19 years old—helped "simmer a lot of the bad thoughts down," prompting a period of soul-searching that would lead him to music instead of the street. “I didn't want to go to prison," he says. "Didn't want to get locked up. Didn't want to be out until five, six in the morning. Because I wanted to see my kids.” In a way, he says, he was inspired by his father, whose abuse and neglect Morray says showed him who he never wanted to be. (Now, Morray is married and has three children.)
In 2014, when he was 21 years old, Morray recorded a song to honor his future wife's birthday. She liked the song so much, he told Passion of the Weiss, he decided to take his art seriously.
As Morray worked on his own music, performing at shows and open mics in Fayetteville and nearby Spring Lake, he took on a succession of day jobs, including a seven-month stint at Smithfield Foods, a pork-processing plant where he had to cut the small intestines out of pigs. “The shit would squirt on your hands, your face," he says. "Oh my god. I hated that job,” he says.
Eventually, in a turn of events he says was fated, he started working at a SYKES call center.
“That job, I was supposed to have,” he says, explaining that it led to him to meeting JaxOfNorth, the videographer who would eventually shoot the celebratory visual for “Quicksand,” a song about being mired in the sticky business of street life.
Last summer, Morray caught the break that would change his life forever when Moe Shalizi, an artist manager and the founder of The Shalizi Group, fell down a YouTube rabbithole and discovered the video for “Quicksand." Captivated by Morray’s voice and personality, he messaged him on every platform he could find.
“I tried hitting him up on Instagram—he had like 500 followers—nothing," he says. "Found his personal Facebook. There was no answer.”
At the time, Morray was in Massachusetts visiting his father-in-law, who was awaiting a kidney transplant. He’d recently lost his job at the call center, and his cell phone service had been disconnected. He’d spent his last paycheck to fuel his car up for the drive from North Carolina to Massachusetts with his wife. “I don’t give a fuck about music right now,” he remembers feeling at the time.
Eventually, Shalizi got in touch with Morray’s videographer, Jaxofnorth, and Morray used his wife’s phone to connect with the artist manager on FaceTime. Shalizi offered to help push his song, and signed him to a label that would eventually be called Pick Six Records.
Though Shalizi saw promise in the song, Morray had recorded it in a kitchen, and it needed additional mixing. At the time, Morray was most concerned about losing the thousands of plays on the video. But with Shalizi’s help, they took down the video and re-uploaded a new version with audio that had been remixed and remastered. As views on the video started accelerating, he amassed praise from high-profile rappers including J. Cole and Rick Ross, assisted by bumps from fellow Shalizi Group artists like the producer Marshmello. By the end of the year, the song had landed on a Tidal playlist personally curated by Jay-Z.
“I can't thank Moe enough, honestly, for saving my life,” Morray says.
Aside from boosting “Quicksand,” Shalizi also provided Morray with artistic guidance. "Once I heard him sing raw, [I said] you don't need Auto-Tune," Shalizi recalls telling Morray. "You don't need a lot of the shit you're trying to do. Your voice is incredible by itself." Morray and Shalizi removed some of his less polished music from the internet and began releasing a slow trickle of songs they felt best represented his sound, focusing on quality rather than flooding his new fans with content.
The approach worked. Morray is now signed to Interscope in partnership with Pick Six Records. Morray’s 2020 cosigns are begetting 2021 collaborations: His feature on Cole’s The Off-Season, as of May 26, is at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, and Morray says he's been inundated by requests to lend a hook to other artists. “I'm like, ‘Damn. I'm about to turn into a hook bitch now,” he says, laughing.
That doesn't mean he hasn't been working on his own music. In April, he released Street Sermons, a 13-track solo mixtape that should quell any concerns that "Quicksand," with its infectious melody, was a one-off. Sparse beats featuring guitar and piano loops, ticking hi-hats, and thunderous 808s offer Morray’s voice the polished backdrop it deserves. While there are still stories of pain and street life, Morray's newfound success brings new themes. Now, as he explains on “Can’t Use Me,” he has to protect himself from those who want to leech off of him. But he still keeps coming back to his faith: “Mother fuck the money and the fame, I'm still gon' praise God,” he sings on “Real Ones.”
Even as his star grows, that faith remains a driving factor in what he sees as his mission as an artist: Uplifting people who might be in the same circumstances he was just a couple of years ago.
“I'm not trying to be number one, the GOAT—none of that,” he says. “I want you to understand that I'm making music for everybody. People who live everyday life, who go to work, come home stressed, smoke a blunt and go to sleep and enjoy the rest of their night. That's who I make music for.”
After all, he also sees that faith as the reason he is here, in New York, telling a journalist about his story as his voice rings out of stereos across the country. “I had doubt for the last 12 years of my music career," he says. "When I started having faith, it started working. I doubted myself for too long.”
One of the doubt-removing moments, he says, recently came to Morray in the parking lot of Wal-Mart. “Somebody was playing my song," he says. "He was like, 'Ay bruh! that's you!'” As he tells me this story over a slice of pepperoni pizza in Manhattan, an Audemars Piguet glinting on his wrist, his voice jumps several octaves. "I’m at the Wally World? It's over. I done made it.”