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Paul Russell’s Soundtrack For A Better Tomorrow

The LA-based pop-rap phenom has been all over TikTok with “Lil Boo Thang” and now he’s doing everything he can to seize his moment. 

by Ben Boddez

Photos by Nathalie Rodriguez

It’s commonplace these days that when a song catches on with TikTok, users can quickly translate that moment into chart success. It’s a little rarer that the artists behind the songs become equally as well known, leveraging their star power into second, third, and fourth hits. But as his infectiously positive and classic funk-sampling pop-rap tune “Lil Boo Thang” – which has scored numerous videos of adorable pets, adorable partners and even ghostly Halloween puns – climbs the ranks, LA-based artist Paul Russell seems to have the toolkit, the mentality, and the charisma to stick around.

He certainly has the innate ability to seize his moment of opportunity – although “Lil Boo Thang” was only officially released back in mid-August, the song has been in the collective consciousness since Russell posted a brief snippet of the track’s chorus back in June. Not expecting the reaction that it received, a mountain of comments demanding a full version and an official release piled up – and got exponentially more impatient when Russell had to wait on the track’s benchmark sample featuring The Emotions’ “Best of My Love” to be cleared.

In fact, Russell’s journey was taking off before the song was even officially finished – before the final touches were placed on the track, Russell had already been signed to a major label, performed his 20-second snippet at weddings, and received marketing opportunities left and right. Naturally, the week the song finally received its official release, Russell made the decision to quit his job.

“I was on a trip for a music thing – I got invited to be in a commercial, which was insane, and I was still working my job. So, I just didn’t tell my boss, and I was out in Barcelona,” he says. “Some friends messaged me like, ‘Hey bro, you should probably quit or something, they’re wondering where you are.’ At that point stuff had been moving and I knew I wanted to make the jump, but you kind of wait until the right time. I ended up quitting, and I’m glad I did, because it’s been awesome since then.”

Born in Atlanta and raised in a suburb of Dallas, the 25-year-old Russell actually started out signed to Christian rap label Kings Dream Entertainment, dropping some collaborations with some of the genre’s notable artists like Lecrae and releasing two albums under the label in 2018 and 2019.

Russell has often termed his passion for following music as a passion for making people happy first and foremost – and the big decisions he made to get the platform to do so are often guided by his spiritual nature. He credits seeing Los Angeles pop up everywhere while doing research in Zambia for his decision to move to Hollywood, and these signs have continued to pay off for him lately.

“I think there’s a God who sometimes is like, ‘Alright bro, I’m trying to get you in the direction to do what you need to do,’” Russell says. “There was a day at the beginning of this year where I was just in my car, praying, and I left that time feeling like I should really pursue trying to make music work this year. I didn’t have many listeners, I didn’t have a label, but the reason I kept pursuing it was that moment. And I’m so glad that happened, because there were definitely hard times in the middle.”

Russell mentions that his social media acumen comes in part from another former job of his – working at a brand consultancy. While at work, he would conduct months-long series of meetings with companies, trying to come up with a narrative direction for them that would fit in with trends and what he calls the “current cultural moment.” Having to come into work with that mentality affected his thoughts on the energy he was giving to his musical career.

“I thought about the purpose of what I was doing. For me, a lot of that is the fact that my music is so optimistic and happy in a time when I think there’s not as much of that being made,” Russell says. “A lot of that is because it’s a difficult time. You had the pandemic and social unrest and all these things going on that aren’t necessarily super happy. So, I think it’s important to have an escape, to step back, look around and go, ‘Okay, there’s still good things I can enjoy in life.’ I’m trying to make the soundtrack for that.”

A common saying of Russell’s is that he’s trying to make music for the cookouts – and it’s an environment that is naturally familiar to him, growing up in the southern United States where he claims the best cookouts of all are held. According to Russell, although the music being played is the most important aspect – “A big part of it is just belting out whatever song is on, so I’m making things that beg you to sing along” – another key to a great cookout is that each person understands their greatest culinary strength and brings that dish to the party.

Like his mother’s famous mac n’ cheese, Russell’s big smile and overall demeanour means that he finds his strengths in making people smile just as wide over a peppy backdrop. And while music in Russell’s style of choice could easily tip over into being overly saccharine, disingenuous or even positive to an obnoxious degree, Russell’s level of commitment speaks to what he once called his motto: “It’s only corny if you make it corny.”

“Your job as an artist is to have good taste. There was a long time where I didn’t want to release things because I thought the idea was corny, or I’d seen people do it in a lame way before,” he says. “Posting music on social media, using samples… but I was talking to someone who said ‘You don’t always have to do the coolest thing, you just have to do what you want to do in a way that you think is cool. Chances are there’s going to be people who like that.’ It was a big unlock for me. If you make something you think is dope, other people will too.”

Russell also hopes that he can be a part of what he calls “the movement of authenticity” online, as influencers and even megastars now seem to cater their social media output to their genuine personalities instead of being materialistic or posturing with exaggerated lifestyles. “I think my philosophy is that people want to see people that are having fun more than they want to see people that they’re jealous of, you know?” he says.

From David Guetta’s flip of “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” to Ice Spice’s “Barbie World” or The Weeknd’s reworking of Mario Winans’ “I Don’t Wanna Know,” it’s becoming more common than ever before for some of the year’s biggest hits – especially those that initially came from TikTok – to have prominent samples or interpolations. As Russell lifts a classic instrumental and chorus, he does it with an understanding of what’s clicking with people in a world now devoid of a monoculture.

“Everything is so tailored to specific niches on social media now. There was a time where everybody had the same media that they’re consuming, so if you create something that connects with that, then no matter who you are, everyone’s going to connect with it,” he says. “Also, so much of growing as a musician is making people care, and it’s hard to make them care about stuff they don’t already have some familiarity with. When I first started, I would find a song that was already popular and do a rap verse on the end. If someone is scrolling and hears something they recognize, it’s like ‘Oh! What’s he going to do with this?’”

Even before making his first musical signing, Russell was dropping music independently beginning in 2016 – and unexpectedly, given the content of his current work, he was known as Paulitics. The name was apt, because Russell would often dive into sociopolitical subject matter and address topics like inequality. Russell’s desire to bring some light to the world isn’t uninformed – he’s always been socially conscious. One early song, “Good Things,” found him worrying about losing touch with the average American if his music were ever to make him rich.

“I don’t think I’m at the point yet to be worried about it, to be honest,” Russell laughs. “Call me in a year. But I think it helped having a job for so long where I’m pulling from normal life, and what normal life means to me. There are a lot of artists where I’ll relate to their early music, and not their later music. They don’t understand what real people are going through. You have to fight against that by understanding who you’re speaking to, and understanding what you have in common with people.”

One thing’s for certain: any accusations of corniness aside, it’s difficult to find anyone out in the wild who doesn’t immediately have a smile on their face as soon as they hear the introductory horn stabs of “Lil Boo Thang.” With a roster of equally upbeat tunes already released and an album in the works, Russell might have to keep that mentality for quite a few years ahead.