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This article is taken from our special print edition Crack Magazine: The Collections, Vol. 1.

In mid-March, an unexpected successor claimed the title of TikTok’s newest star. Curtis Waters explains how he went from working in a smoothie bar in Cary, North Carolina, to one of the most-streamed artists of the year.

As told to: Nathan Ma

At the start of the quarantine, I was doing my schoolwork and dealing with a lot of anxiety. I wasn’t really making any friends or going outside, I was just working on my album while I worked at a smoothie bar. I managed to save up a few hundred dollars for a music video, tried to run ads for my music from my parents’ house, and released a song every other week. I had my core fan base, but for days, I would just be playing Legend of Zelda in my underwear for hours and hours.

I’ve been making music since I was 14. I kept track of artists like Lil Yachty, Tyler, the Creator and Childish Gambino; I learned from other people online and was following every footstep to see what works and what doesn’t. I made my own Instagram filters, I did contests, I’d been in big studio sessions with big rappers and producers. Back in 2017, I would even go to Toronto to do producer battles and people knew me from then. The main thing for me was just to keep releasing music, and to keep promoting it. I didn’t think about whether it was good or bad, because once a song has reached its limit, you just move onto the next one.

© Curtis Waters

With Stunnin’, I was strategic. TikToks are so short – they’re around 15 seconds long – so the song worked perfectly because there’s a build-up to the chorus that keeps people guessing, and then a sound effect at the end. I started teasing Stunnin’ on TikTok for six days straight. Nothing happened, so I thought, ‘I’m gonna give up tomorrow, tomorrow’s my last day.’ The final time I posted it, it blew up overnight – 200,000-whatever views. My older TikTok posts started blowing up too and we made it to the big Spotify playlist and hit a million plays in a week or two. Now, we’re about to hit the radio Top 40, and I really don’t know what the limit is anymore.

Once Stunnin’ blew up, every record label was trying to sign me in a bidding war. It was a best case scenario: I was on Today’s Top Hits before even getting signed. The thing is, I didn’t have much guidance. At the time, my current manager Chris Anokute was helping me: “You need a manager, you need a lawyer – give him 5 percent – and this is how it all works,” he’d say. What I realised, though, was that nobody cared about my album; they just cared about the single. Chris cares about my album, he cares about my artistry, and he cares about the longevity of my career, so I just proposed it to him: “I want you on my team.”

© Curtis Waters

It was a really big adjustment to go from this small, tight-knit community of people that really care about me to, like, 59,000 followers on Instagram watching me passively. There was pressure to make another hit, too, but I asked myself if I needed to prove that I’m not a one-hit wonder. I’m making music because I like making music. It saddens me that I can’t meet my fans right now and see the real people. It all feels so algorithmic. Sometimes, it just feels really disconnected, all these numbers.

I used to watch all of the TikToks that featured Stunnin’ at the start. At this point I don’t because it’s overwhelming, but in the beginning it was everything. I loved seeing siblings just dancing around and goofing off because when I started promoting Stunnin’ it was just my brother and me in my backyard. Today, I’ll take him to music video shoots, he has my calendar, and everything on my Instagram is a picture he shot. He makes me feel comfortable wherever I am.

© Curtis Waters

I don’t want to fall into the rat race or the cycle of being an artist trying to crank out hits for the sake of being a celebrity; I want to have a farm and a girlfriend and hang out, making music at my own pace. It’s weird because I’ve been working so hard all these years because I don’t have health insurance. Now I have money, I’m trying to figure out what the reason I do things is. My whole life I was doing music to cope, and now it’s become a commodity, I need to adjust to the fact that my passion is now my job. It’s a big life change… what’s the next step, and where am I going?

It’s been a wild journey to even get here. I remember last New Year’s Eve, where I was just hanging out with three friends, and I posted a picture at nighttime with the caption: “It’s 2020 I am terrified”. I knew something was going to happen this year – and look what happened.