Pink Sweat$ Is Putting Love Back in R&B
Philadelphia singer isn't afraid to sing about love, even if it's dysfunctional.
Pink Sweat$'s brand of R&B is draped in the bravado of his contemporaries, but it reflects the romance of his 90s predecessors. Sweat$, born David Bowden, credits his "super Christian" upbringing as his gateway into music, even though his parents forbade him from listening to secular songs until he was 17. The restrictions spawned a natural curiosity in the singer, allowing Sweat$ to hone the skills he learned while improvising with songwriting as a child. Now, at 26, he's trying to put the love back into R&B.
"Culturally, we don’t even relate love to Black people," he tells Noisey. "But right now, how could you?" In the last decade, the genre's emphasis on the rhythm rather than the blues prioritized a trap-centric sound, making it difficult for traditional R&B vocalists to find their footing. "If the media is only pushing a certain kind of music forward you’re slowly being conditioned even if you don't know. When we hear certain songs about love at the mainstream level it’s usually not a Black artist and if it is, it’s only one. But you can find a new rapper every day."
Sweat$ made his late night TV debut Tuesday with a performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, but he introduced himself to the world by airing out his dirty laundry last fall in his debut video for "Honesty," a guitar-laden anthem about searching for common ground in a relationship. Set in a laundromat with a Pepto Bismol-hued theme, the video was an invitation into the monochromatic world he's creating. When we meet in April, the singer has traded his pastel uniform for an electric pink fleece, zipped down far enough to bare his chest in New York City's indecisive April weather. Spring has barely sprung, but his outfit feels like a deliberate nod to the era when Black male R&B vocalists like Teddy Pendergrass and Marvin Gaye were considered sex symbols.
In the past eight months, the Philadelphia singer's two EPs, Volume 1 and Volume 2, have established him as a bona fide talent, though he's shifted his focus from songwriting to singing after being diagnosed with achalasia, a rare disease that erodes the esophagus. He used his recovery time to reclaim the talent he thought he was wasting, and although he's released less than 30 minutes of music (the two EPs are only five songs long), Pink Sweat$ has already mastered the art of crafting a painfully honest love song. The Philadelphia singer chatted with Noisey about the love that guides his music.
Noisey: You wear a lot of pink and pastels as your signature, and the cover art for Volume 1 is super flowery and delicate. I thought it was an interesting choice aesthetically. It’s not often you see images of Black men in gardens and pastels. What made you choose that aesthetic?
Pink Sweat$: Volume 1 was the introduction. It’s the stage of how I felt. I was delicate as an artist. It was a new stage in my life. I’m not one of those people who have to work on an album for ten years. I could take one day and if that’s what I came up with, that’s how I feel right now, so let’s put it out.
Volume 1 is the opposite of [Philly] as far as aesthetic—nobody would be dressing like that or promoting that kind of message. Why shouldn’t I be the guy to do that so kids who don’t get the opportunity to move at 16 like I did, could be like, “He’s from here and he’s not doing stereotypical things.” We don’t have to only be a rapper or a dope boy. I’m not saying that those things are bad, but we have another option.
"Honesty" is a song that borrows from the format of a conversation. You’ve said you freestyle a lot of your songs, but how much of "Honesty" borrows from a real conversation?
Eighty-five percent. I was having a conversation with a friend, who probably doesn’t even remember because we were drunk. Everybody is lowkey a little afraid of love and being vulnerable to somebody. When you get older you start recognizing your own demons. “Honesty,” even though it was a conversation with someone else, it was me looking in the mirror too.
Volume 1 sounded like it was shaped as a product of your environment, where Volume 2 seemed like more of a conceptual project. How did you approach them differently?
It’s important for me to inject little things where people say, “Oh, I wasn’t expecting that. That was kind of dope.” Volume 2 is me bringing people into my mind, for real. Instead of categorizing myself as R&B, Volume 2 is what I hear in my head all the time. I’m gonna put this blues/country song [“I Know”] on a project and still deliver “Body Ain’t Me.” That is an amazing song, but it didn’t challenge me because it felt like Volume 1 so I knew people were gonna gravitate toward that.
I wanted to hit "Coke & Henny Part 1 and 2," first before you get to ["Body Ain’t Me"]. Then people start thinking "Wow, I don’t really like blues or country but this song is kind of dope."
It’s like walking in a grocery store. Those guys spend millions of dollars on marketing. They when you walk past the soda on the way to your vegetables you might stop and say "Let me get a Coke or a Pepsi." That’s what I’m trying to do with music. I'm trying to get people to a pink planet full of love and acceptance.
You once said you’d written some really good country songs but people weren't being receptive to it but "Old Town Road" is the number one song in America. Could there be an EP worth of blues/country inspired songs?
I don't think I’d do a whole EP. It's not as authentic to sing, so a whole project it wouldn't feel real to do.
Who was your entry point to country music?
Johnny Lee. We wrote the same song ["Looking for Love"]. Growing up, we couldn't listen to a ton of songs so we had to make our own songs. I was mixing the song in my head and I heard him singing on one of those infomercials where they sell CDs, if people still remember what that is. I was like, "Wait, that’s the song in my head." It was the same melody and lyrics. Then I was like, "I guess I like country."
I love the contrast between both parts of "Coke & Henny." I can smell the bad decisions of part one, which is led by lust. But, part two is about you getting over the hangover. Why did you approach it that way?
The best way to say it is like my dad says, "When you first meet someone you meet their representative." People are very rarely who they are on the first day. I could be at the club but be a straight edge guy on Monday. Then you’re like, "Who is this? This isn’t the fun person I met the other night." You might start missing them but in reality you never really knew them.
Both EPs find you on different sides of reciprocity. How has that fully fleshed out your songwriting?
When you take a step back and look at your life as an adult and are able to say "Man, I be messing up" or "It's not always this person’s fault, these are my flaws" it helps you be more well-rounded. It’s easier to write when you’re not trying to mentally block off pieces.
I can always go back and tap into a feeling. I’m kind of selfish with a person. I'll think, "I hope they’re not being mixxy. I hope you’re sleeping alone.” It’s the same energy as "Body Ain’t Me." I hope that if I can’t have you, nobody wants you.
Selfish? I couldn’t tell. You did say, "I lied when I said I hate you / Baby, I was trying to get through."
[LAUGHS] It’s so real though. Women can relate to being like "I HATE YOU!"
Kristin Corry is a staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.