Addison Rae’s Next Act: Pop Star

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Samantha Hissong
·10 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

“It’s not as deep as people will think it is,” says Addison Rae, discussing the meaning behind her surprise debut single, “Obsessed.”

Rae has 78 million followers on her TikTok, which she launched in the summer of 2019. In less than two years, the 20-year-old has built an empire that spans fashion, beauty, podcasting — and, as of today, music.

More from Rolling Stone

When Rae first downloaded TikTok, she was an ordinary teenager, getting ready to attend Louisiana State University, where she would study broadcast journalism. She dropped out after just a few months, as videos of her doing TikTok challenges and dance moves were viewed by millions, and moved to Los Angeles as an early member of the Hype House. She was determined to tackle the entertainment industry.

About a year into her TikTok fame, Forbes reported that she was the highest-paid person on the platform, earning $5 million from her posts. Rae now sells her own branded clothing and merch, and advertises for celebrity-backed clothing companies like Fashion Nova and Kim Kardashian’s Skims. She was the face of American Eagle’s 2020 campaigns. She’s risen far above her roots — marked by her parents’ on-and-off-again relationship, living in a one-room RV, and traveling between Louisiana and Texas.

Rae, a trained dancer who started dancing competitively at the age of six, has “always been around music,” she tells Rolling Stone via Zoom. “I was always just overly interested in it, and I didn’t know why,” she says. “I knew I was a dancer, I knew I loved to dance to music, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with music. Going through high school and college, I always wanted to branch out and start singing and expressing that whole love for music in a different way.” she started singing with a local church group in Louisiana, but the dabbling didn’t go much further.

In the summer of 2020, Rae started a podcast series with her mom, a Spotify original called Mama Knows Best, before launching Item Beauty, a clean-makeup line. What most people don’t know is that Rae then quietly began plotting her next play: Becoming a pop star.

Rae, who’s been trying to figure out “who I am as an artist” for the last two years, used the extra time allotted to her by Covid-19 quarantine to study songwriting and production, and build a tight-knit team that she could trust to help guide her into a new shade of limelight. Four to five times a week for about six months, the bright-eyed optimist drove to a private studio in Hollywood owned by Jacob Kasher Hindlin — a songwriter who goes by the name Jkash and has helped create hits for the likes of Charlie Puth, Jason Derulo, Maroon 5, and 5 Seconds of Summer.

“I got to learn a lot about myself as an artist really fast because I was there so much, really exercising every part of my brain to write and learn melodies and things like that,” Rae says.

Hindlin agreed to put her music out via his own independent label, Sandlot Records, and teamed up with Adam Mersel. (Mersel is perhaps best known for managing the likes of Bebe Rexha and Dear Evan Hansen star Ben Platt, but he also recently launched a record label, Immersive, through Interscope.) Rae hired top-tier publicity agency The Lede Company to handle her media outreach, specifically tapping publicists Katie Greenthal and Courtni Asbury, who spent 10 years at Def Jam before joining Lede last year.

After the first four months of going into the studio consistently, just tinkering away and shelling out demos, Rae and a team of experienced songwriters and producers came up with the bulk of debut single “Obsessed” in a single session. Benny Blanco — who’s a good friend of Hindlin and has collaborated closely with superstars like Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Halsey, and Ed Sheeran — co-produced the song with Ryan McMahon, who co-wrote Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance,” and Blake Slatkin, who co-wrote and produced 24kGoldn’s breakout chart-topper “Mood.”

McMahon and Slatkin also served as co-writers with Rae, executive producer Madison Love, Tia Scola, and Brett McLaughlin (aka Leland). Love’s credits include Lady Gaga and Blackpink’s “Sour Candy,” Machine Gun Kelly and Camila Cabello’s “Bad Things,” and Ava Max’s “Sweet But Psycho.” Love also worked on Selena Gomez’s “Rare” with McLaughlin, who’s had a hand in multiple songs by Gomez, Troye Sivan, and Sabrina Carpenter. Carpenter’s latest single, “Skin,” was co-written by Scola.

Rae is the first to admit that she wouldn’t be where she is today without her “legendary” team: “I feel so honored to be able to work with people that really have a love and passion for this, knowing that I have a growing love and passion for this as well,” she says. “They’ve been very patient and understanding in helping me about every single step.”

Rae refers to her current state as “a visual producer,” explaining she can “definitely envision sounds” now: “I’ll be like, ‘Okay, can we find this kind of sound? I feel like there needs to be a double here or a triple here or something here.’”

But she’s also been hands-on with the whole process. “When something has my name on it, I feel like it’s very important to know exactly what it is and what the message it gives off is,” she says. “When it comes to the makeup, I’m really involved — [same] when it comes to my own videos and my own content. It’s all a representation of who I am. That’s how I felt when I started with my music… I really wanted to figure it out for myself, but also surround myself with people who are trusted, amazing, and know exactly what they’re doing so I can learn from them.”

She admits she didn’t even know musical keys until she started on this journey. “[Those] are basic things that people in music, people who have done this their entire lives, know… I’m a little late to the game when it comes to knowing all this information, but I won’t stop learning,” she promises.

In a way, that’s Rae’s secret to success: She learns by doing. When she feels passionate about something, she starts moving and figures out logistics on the way. She doesn’t sit and worry herself with “what ifs.” She says people are often shocked to find out that she has varied interests — but she wants to be known as more than a TikTok influencer.

“I have such an artistic mind and heart, and I’ve always, always, always been drawn to that,” Rae says. “I think now it’s about exploring that and fully submerging myself in that art.. I fully want to give myself every chance to be a part of it, understand it, and really appreciate the art of it… It’s been what I’ve eaten, slept, and breathed for the last year.”

While she’s no engineer, she’s definitely one to hover over the board and pelt collaborators with questions. She refers to her current state as “a visual producer,” explaining she can “definitely envision sounds” now: “I’ll be like, ‘Okay, can we find this kind of sound? I feel like there needs to be a double here or a triple here or something here.’” Some nights, Rae now plays around with Garageband trying to make beats and tracks herself.

Rae says “Obsessed” turned a creative faucet within her, setting the tone for her future. “That’s kind of when everything clicked,” she explains. “Me as an artist, what I wanted to do, and what I wanted to communicate to my audience literally started with ‘Obsessed.’ Every song we’ve done after that has just felt so right. Now, when I listen to all the songs we did before, I’m like, ‘Ah, what were we doing?’ It’s a process. It takes a lot of time to figure out who you are as an artist.” Normally, it would be easy to scoff at a 20-year-old for saying something like that, but Rae’s earnestness is disarming.

“Obsessed” is based on a conversation Rae had with a friend. “It was a funny joke that turned into an empowerment song, and I think that’s the coolest part about it,” she says. “It’s not, ‘Oh, I’m obsessed with myself because I’m perfect.’ It’s more like, ‘I can love myself just as much as I want someone else to love me.’” She says it unintentionally turned into a self-love anthem: “It’s ‘You love me? Well, I can love myself too. I don’t need that from someone else when I have it inside.’ I think that’s a great place to be at in life. I’m working on it, and I think it’s a great thing for everyone to work on. It’s not easy to love yourself, especially since there’s so much comparison in this world today.”

Self-love is necessary to be on social media, she says. “There are people who don’t mind being mean or hateful, or saying things that could affect you as a person and your self-worth. I think that’s a really hard thing for people to understand, because it hasn’t always been this way. I don’t think social media always was as negative as it is today. If people can really learn to love who they are then they have no reason to bring someone else down.”

When asked how many songs she has done, Rae giggles, bashful. “I don’t know if I can say exactly, but I do have a lot,” she says.

“A lot of people assume that just because of TikTok, I get things handed to me. By doing it this [independently], it feels so much more organic.”

Maybe not all of them will see the light of day. Rae also won’t confirm or deny plans for an album. “Who knows,” she says cheekily. “There are endless opportunities for me to showcase myself as an artist now. But like I said, I’m learning. I am by no means a professional at this. I am by no means perfect at any of this.”

As for releasing the music — why did Rae choose to do it independently instead of signing with a major label for a hefty advance? The star says she didn’t want people to think she just “walked in” somewhere and got a readymade music career. She also didn’t want any contract controlling how she shaped her narrative. She’s not opposed to record labels: She just felt the need to set the bar herself. She craved the space and room to play without pressure or deadlines.

“A lot of people assume that just because of TikTok, I get things handed to me. By doing it this way, it feels so much more organic,” she says. “I want to show that this is a real passion of mine and not just something that I jumped into and got the chance to do.” TikTok may have given Rae the means to take such a luxurious approach, but she earned that all on her own. She didn’t have to jump in. Rae could easily go on “influencing,” but she’d rather grow.

See where your favorite artists and songs rank on the Rolling Stone Charts.

Sign up for Rolling Stone’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.