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Meet Bibi Bourelly, the 21-year-old behind Rihanna's 'BBHMM' and 'Higher'

Jon Dekel

When Bibi Bourelly describes how Rihanna "accidentally" ended up recording her song, she does so with the banality of a police radio scanner. Kanye West enters for a minute, then takes her to a location where Rihanna is waiting.

It’s a fact of life. These are people. And she, your intrepid, wide-eyed narrator, is escorted from studio to studio, slinging her wares. In this case, a grouping of songs she’d written —some of which would eventually end up on her debut EP, Free the Real (Pt. #1), out this month on Def Jam, and one song in particular that would change Rihanna’s career path.

Cupping a hot toddy in a Toronto bar, Bourelly recalls her fortuitous meeting with two of hip-pop’s biggest, boldest names. She had barely graduated high school in Maryland when she was introduced to a producer in L.A, who in turn introduced her to a manager, who in turn introduced her to Kanye West.

“So we go to Kanye’s crib and I play him 'Sally' and 'Ego' and 'Riot' and 'Bitch Better Have My Money' and he goes, 'Well, what do you think about writing for Rihanna?'”

“Love to write for Rihanna.”

“He goes, 'OK, come to the studio,' and Rihanna's at the studio. He wasn't interested in 'BBHMM' back then, though.”

The story continues: West gave the then 19-year-old a bed track to come up with something for RiRi, but Bourelly came up short (“I was too nervous. I f--ked up”). Thinking she tanked her audition, Bourelly took the beat home and cut “Higher,” a sublime two minutes of the best confessional retro balladry this side of Amy Winehouse, “in my moment of emotional distress and distraught life and OMG what am I gonna do ... I just figured I'd be myself because no one can be mad at me for being myself.”

“Next thing you know I'm in Santa Barbara with Kanye West and Rihanna. I play Rihanna 'BBHMM' and Rihanna goes, 'Oh my God, wait until you see the video to this!”

Two years and one controversial video later, “BBHMM” is a calling card for Bourelly, who's become the go-to artist for rhymes that land between teenage angst and slacker ennui. She ended up with three tracks on Rihanna’s eventual album, Anti — "Yeah I Said It," "Pose," as well as the aforementioned "Higher" — and penned “Camouflage" for Selena Gomez, as well as collaborating with the likes of Lil Wayne, Usher and Nas, while currently recording songs with Diplo and Skrillex.

Written compactly, Bourelly's career trajectory is an impressive feat. But within the cracks, Bourelly, who is of Haitian and Moroccan descent and grew up in Berlin with her jazz-guitarist father before moving to the States at 14, says she struggled mightily with the pressure brought on by her idol.

It's one of the reasons it took nearly two years for Bourelly to put out a collection of her own music. Following “BBHMM”’s release, she says she was “depressed for a year.”

“Having your art broadcast to so many people that quickly is overwhelming and freaked me out,” she admits. “And I'm also a self-destructive person. I'll think myself into a corner until I realize that I'm going to die some day and that it doesn't matter.”

There was also another incident. She won't go into detail, but allows that “for 19 years I believed music was this pure thing. And then I saw what the industry really was. I've never had my heart broken by a man but my heart was shattered.”

For her EP Free the Real (Pt. #1), which includes three previously released singles, Bourelly says she wrote more than 300 songs (Part 2 is coming in the summer).

“I'm not a calculated artist; I'm not a calculated person,” she explains. “I'm an obsessive person. Right now, I'm obsessed with music. I've also been obsessively addicted to cigarettes. I'm also prone to being an alcoholic.”

As she prepares to make a mark for herself, the 21-year-old says she often calls back to the moment when she figured out “Higher,” putting aside the outside pressure and just dealing with her honesty.

Two years on, she claims writing for Rihanna taught her that she’ll “never be able to control the way the outside world perceives me.”

“'BBHMM,' to one person it's a female empowerment anthem and to another person it's like, 'No bitch, you really better have my f--king money.' And to another person it's a club song."

“I don't even see it as a jump-off point. You're either an artist or you're not,” she concludes. “I have to be an artist. And if that happens to entertain people then that's great. But I'd be doing this shit if I was dead broke on the street. That's a promise. I would die for this.”