Six years is an eternity in rap. The time it takes to go from blog obscurity to critically-acclaimed and commercially viable (and vice versa) is, to paraphrase Biggie, shorter than leprechauns. For evidence, you needn't look further than Compton. Since 2011, Kendrick Lamar and YG have gone from budding regional talents to globally renowned, Billboard-charting artists. Though he signed with Pharell's i am Other imprint that same year, Buddy has spent these last six years on the cusp, releasing music sparingly and slowly increasing his fan base in a climate where anything less than exponential success is tantamount to stasis.
Yet, despite a nearly fruitless record deal and the temporal pressures of the industry, the 24-year-old Compton native is at ease, peaceful even, when he walks into the lobby of the Sunset Tower Hotel. Since moving from Santa Monica to West Hollywood earlier this year, the towering and aged Art-Deco edifice has become one of his preferred local haunts. Today, on a blazing afternoon in late August, the hotel's air-conditioned dining room, with its thick, bleach-white tablecloths and napkins, is a welcome reprieve from the heat. Buddy, perhaps anticipating the restaurant's incessant chill, wears a bright long-sleeve T-shirt that accentuates his thin, lanky arms.
"This place is just nice," he says between bites of french fries. "I like it here."
Though our meeting coincides with the release of his second independent EP this year, the Mike & Keys-produced Magnolia, Buddy—who performs at Day N Night Fest in Orange County this weekend—claims he doesn't have anything planned beyond this interview. "What's today, Friday? I'll probably end up out. I'm just happy I get to put music out and that people listen to it. That's the big deal for me."'
Like May's Ocean & Montana (produced by Kaytranada) before it, Magnolia's five tracks display a marked growth from the Buddy listeners met on 2014's Idle Time, a maturity in delivery and content alike. At times, his ability to shuttle between rapping and singing is reminiscent of an early Anderson .Paak. "Find Me," the lead single from Ocean & Montana, is both a powerful reflection on the recent past and a contemplative prayer for the future. Over glinting synth keys and swirling atmospherics, Buddy, weary of flimsy industry promises and battling regret, raps and sings at the intersection of rap, R&B, and gospel. "Who Shot 2 Tall," on the other hand, uses the death of a slain childhood friend to examine the perennial effects of gang violence ("How many niggas gon' die before the summer's up? / How many real ones alive? / Let's go on and count it up / What they had to do to survive? / Man, you don't wanna know").
Still, the thread that ties both EPs together is their near unrelenting joy. Unlike many a rapper from Compton, Buddy's work isn't written in mournful past tense and primary colors (i.e. red and blue). Grim tales of violence and retribution, and all manner of thug posturing, are essentially absent. In their stead are songs that espouse the power of self-belief and those that celebrate the successes that confidence affords. In talking with Buddy, it's clear that he puts little stock in dwelling on unrectifiable slights and missteps. He's worked hard to get here, and he counts his blessings often.
Born Simmie Sims III, Buddy was raised in Compton. However, he recalls spending little time in there as a child. His parents—his father was a pastor in the Baptist church, and his mother worked for Kaiser-Permanente—didn't want him to expose to the ills of the community.
"I went to school in Long Beach and went back home to Compton. I did stuff in L.A and went back home to Compton," he explains. "I just kind of slept there. I never really hung out in the city."
In addition to enrolling him in schools outside of Compton, Buddy's parents encouraged him to pursue the arts. During grade school, he attended the NAACP Award-winning Amazing Grace Conservatory, a non-profit program which trains members ranging from five to 18 years of age in acting, singing, and dance. "It was tight," he says. "I got to hang around a bunch of young creatives who were coming into their own—beautiful people who could sing, act, and dance really well."
Enthralled with acting both on stage and off, Buddy began going on auditions, eventually landing a few commercials and small roles on shows like ER (he played the role of small child in a wheelchair). Though he continued to act while attending Renaissance High School for the Arts, Buddy began rapping with greater interest. Before long, making music had supplanted all other extracurriculars.
Introduced to Pharrell by music supervisor Scott Vener ( Ballers, Entourage, How to Make it in America), who is a friend of Buddy's former manager, Buddy signed with i am Other at 18 and dropped out of college. He then spent a little over a year recording with and without Pharrell both in L.A. and Miami. The resultant collection of auspicious songs became Idle Time. Three years later, the list of collaborators on the project remains staggering. In addition to production from Pharrell, Chuck Inglish, Boi-1da, and Cardo, there are guest spots from Freddie Gibbs, Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke, Asher Roth, Kendrick Lamar, and more.
Then, struggling with poor management and label neglect, Buddy was left to his own devices and released Idle Time on his own.
"I was in Compton [living with my parents] and sitting on all of this music, so I put that out by myself. There was no i am OTHER collaboration. There was no album rollout plan. I didn't have a bunch of videos. I didn't plan a tour. That was me rebelling," Buddy says matter-of-factly, without a trace of resentment. "I didn't see any movement, so I dropped it."
While there was no backlash from Pharrell or i am Other, the project went woefully overlooked. Today, Idle Time does not appear on any streaming services, and the number of combined views (not downloads) on popular mixtape sites LiveMixtapes, HotNewHipHop, and DatPiff is less than 100K. Though the project lacks cohesion and a defined biographical arch, the metrics don't do it justice. With the right push, he might've been touring alongside his notable guest stars.
More than anything, Idle Time afforded Buddy the position of being known in the industry but not, of being able to move from one recording session to the next virtually under the radar. As a result, he was able to learn from his peers' missteps, to mature. Part of that newfound maturity manifested in the way that it often does for people in their early 20s: leaving home. After finding an apartment on the corner of Ocean and Montana, Buddy settled in the affluent, beachside community of Santa Monica. The change in geography proved life-altering.
"I was riding bikes, cooking, going swimming—I was having a blast," he says of his time by the beach. "I didn't hear any sirens or gunshots. I wasn't far from all of the nice things in L.A. I was super happy. It was all smiles the whole way through."
Again, the smiles shine through on both the aptly titled Ocean & Montana and Magnolia. And those he's understandably mum about it, this happiness is likely to surface on his debut album, which he's diligently working on with Mike & Keys and considering shopping to major labels. As we finish our conversation, Buddy remembers, almost as an afterthought, that he's purchased a billboard on the side nightclub 1 Oak to advertise both EPs. "I went there earlier and they hadn't put it up," he says, still beaming. "It's right there on Sunset."
Following our goodbyes, I drive west on Sunset to look for the billboard. It isn't there. The next day, Buddy posts a photo standing in front of it, his face and name larger than they've ever been. He might've waited a little longer than anticipated, but he's used to that. He knows how to move forward.
Max Bell is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.
Buddy will perform this weekend at Day N Night Fest in Orange County, CA.