Summer Walker began singing when she was 15 years old: inspired by Erykah Badu, Amy Winehouse and Marvin Gaye, the Atlanta native started uploading clips to Vine before switching over to YouTube and posting covers beginning in 2016. “I started singing because I wanted to figure out ways to make money in [a] comfortable and creative way,” Walker tells Billboard.
The first synthesis of her influences to gain wider attention happened to be a mash-up, a 2017 melding of Drake’s “Fake Love,” Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles,” Ginuwine’s “Pony” and Beyoncé’s “Yes.” The clip, which features Walker singing alongside two guitarists, has earned more than 400,000 views to date. “People [are] still discovering me from that cover to this day,” she says.
Two years later, Walker has become one of the most promising new faces in popular R&B — and after mashing up part of a Drake hit to earn a YouTube breakthrough, the 23-year-old has collaborated with the hip-hop superstar himself, and crashed the Billboard Hot 100 thanks in part to his feature.
Following the Drake-assisted remix of her track “Girls Need Love” peaking at No. 37 on the Hot 100 earlier this year, Walker scored her first solo Hot 100 hit with the sultry “Playing Games,” which bowed at No. 87 on the tally. Both songs, along with the recently released “Stretch You Out” (featuring A Boogie Wit da Hoodie), will appear on Walker’s Over It album, out this Friday (Oct. 4).
When Walker was still releasing covers online, her talents were discovered by… another woman named Summer Walker, who was working as the studio manager for Atlanta-based LVRN at the time. (She discovered the singer while Googling herself.) Within a year, Walker became the first woman to land a recording contract with LVRN, which in 2016 had signed a joint-venture deal with Interscope. “I really liked their creativity and how they just don’t operate like a regular label. I feel like everyone’s really chill and they always come up with dope ideas for stuff,” Walker says of signing to the label, which also boasts artists like 6lack, DRAM and Boogie as clients.
“[Summer Walker] was a no-brainer to sign because of her ability to recreate a fresh spin of R&B and the juxtaposition of being edgy and punk but still soulful,” adds Justice Baiden, co-founder and head of A&R for LVRN.
In October 2018, Walker released Last Day of Summer on LVRN/Interscope, and in January delivered the EP Clear, recorded live in an Atlanta treehouse she found on Airbnb. “It was one of those famous Airbnbs,” Walker says. “But it was cold as fuck. And I got sick, you can even hear me sniffling on some of the songs.”
With each new release, Walker has gained a new confidence in her lyrics, but it was the airy R&B late-night jam “Girls Need Love” — Last Day of Summer’s lead single — that showcased the singer-songwriter’s increasingly unrestrained lyricism (“I just need some dick, I just need some love”) and ultimately introduced her to the mainstream. “Girls Need Love” caught the attention of Drake, who heard the song at a bowling alley earlier this year, and DM’ed Walker, saying he was a big fan. “So,” she says, “I asked him if he would get on it — and he did.”
Walker says the success of the single, and the response she got from releasing Last Day of Summer, helped her form a strong bond with her fans. “I really see how we all really be going through some of the same shit,” she explains. “Like, I didn’t know my music was so relatable until after the project dropped.”
In July, Walker signed a global publishing administration deal with Warner Chappell Music, and she says that roughly 80 percent of Over It — which she considers her debut album — was produced by her boyfriend, London on da Track (Drake, French Montana, Post Malone). Following Drake’s co-sign, Walker has recruited a ton of A-list talent across the album’s 18 tracks, including Bryson Tiller, Usher, 6lack, PARTYNEXTDOOR, Jhené Aiko and A Boogie wit da Hoodie.
Following the release of the album, the self-proclaimed introvert will embark on her First and Last Tour, which kicks off in the U.S. on Oct. 26. Baiden says that LVRN is currently “figuring out a proper tour strategy that pushes what is expected of new artists but still making [Walker] comfortable to create and stay inspired.”
For Walker, who’s much more comfortable singing in a studio than onstage, touring will be the next mountain she has to climb professionally. “Performing gives me so much anxiety,” Walker says, adding that she travels with a stuffed animal named Friend. “I would be more at peace if I could just record music and slide it under the door.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the Sept. 28 issue of Billboard.