So much can change in a year. When I first met Melii last summer, she was a wide-eyed and giddy rising rapper/singer  geeking out over Rihanna co-signing her viral single "Icey." Fast forward to now, and the bilingual East Harlemite has tempered her bubbliness with a cool demeanor.

Since that summer, Melii has experienced the bright side of fame: a record deal with Interscope, an appearance in a Fenty Beauty campaign and one of the most praised features on Meek Mill’s Championships album — “Wit the Shits (W.T.S)” — which led to her opening on the rapper’s tour. But she’s also had to plow through the bitter side too. The 21-year-old has shared her trauma after accidentally shooting a close friend a few years ago, opened up about her suicidal thoughts on one-off songs like “Who Changed,” got caught in the middle of a testosterone-riddled label battle between collaborators Tory Lanez and Meek Mill, and eventually decided to exit Mill’s tour.  

The weight of these events is evident throughout Phases, her March debut album. Melii is more selective with her thoughts and with whom she chooses to open up to — but don’t mistake her new reserve for weakness. “I want to set an example to upcoming females and to anybody that feels too afraid to just stand behind having strong morals and ways of carrying themselves throughout the industry,” she tells Billboard. “As women, we're placed in a lot of situations where either we take the L or we stand up for ourselves.”

Below, Melii tells the stories that led to her debut, how she maintains her authenticity and why she keeps her fans, the “Melii Mob,” so close to her heart.

What's been the most frustrating thing you've had to deal with following the release of “Icey”?

People discrediting my work and my struggle. They give credit to other people and don’t see the amount of work that I put in. I’m realizing that the more I bring on people to work with me, [I have to] keep a balance where this is still Melii brand and it’s not falling under anything else.

Do people think you don't write your rhymes? What are people not crediting you for?

I honestly feel like people are [asking], “Who is this?” They're hearing me from features and stuff. Even when I had A Boogie on my song [“HML”], people thought I came up because of him. So it's more so accepting that not everybody's going to know who I am.

Is there anything you've heard people say about you that you're like, "No, this is not true."

Yeah, definitely. The social media frenzy [following the Meek Mill and Tory Lanez label drama] that was going on [where people called me] a snake and all that. I'm just a woman where I stand on how I feel and I'm very strong-minded. And I want to set an example to upcoming females and to anybody that feels too afraid to just stand behind having strong morals and ways of just carrying themselves throughout the industry. As women, we're placed in a lot of situations where either we take the L or we stand up for ourselves. Either we have to embrace the positive that comes with the negative or just be quiet so that we don't have to face the negative things that come with it.

I don’t like that people look at female rappers and engineers — all the women in the studio — and expect you guys to not say anything. I commend you for being very vocal about it.

I feel like other people do speak out in such an aggressive manner, I think that's taken more [seriously] by other people [compared to] how I handle things. I like to be classy about it, not say too much, or just say enough. I’m a woman who doesn't need to step out of character to prove a point, or to let anybody know what my business is. It's a struggle being in the industry where as I said, I just feel like I'm very different. I’m [learning] how to deal with things that come along with the position that I've taken, and I'm making sure that people know [me] through my music and how I present myself.

Anytime I have a conversation with my friends talking about female rappers, your name doesn't come up. Have you noticed that? 

Yeah, I do see that. And it's actually great that you're saying that as somebody who's involved in all of this, because I do feel like I get discredited a lot — or maybe people turn a blind eye. But God shows you people’s true colors and what's going on. Something that can't be taken from you is your purpose and who you are. Yeah, sometimes I feel salty like, why am I not in these conversations? I'm a woman's woman, why [is my name] not coming out of their mouths? I stopped asking why and I've just accepted it, because at the end of the day I have a talent. I'm busting down doors regardless if you mention me or not, and I'm highly favored and blessed. So there's going to be a point where you're going to have to put me on your magazines, you're gonna have to talk about me — and I'm fine with that. When that day comes, I know exactly how to treat people accordingly.

On more of a positive note, what's been the most rewarding moment since the success of "Icey”? 

Seeing my team come together and be stronger as one. My team has realized the importance of communicating and protecting Melii in general. At the end of the day, you always need a strong foundation and now more than ever, because things are happening fast — and it's only the beginning. I've been blessed with the love from my supporters.

I love that you didn't say fans. The Melii Mob goes hard for you for sure. 

Yeah, I hate saying fans. I always stop myself. There is an unconditional love that we have. The mob is like a little army, but it's going to grow stronger. And they’re all bad bitches! [Laughs.] They're like my homegirls, and that’s the best type. I have a personality that goes in so many ways and I feel like I attract those people. So when I finally get to meet somebody who [listens to my music], obviously we have something that we both agree on.

How do you feel about the reactionto Phases

Phases is well-rounded — a good balance, you know. Even one of [my haters] said, "I don't like you, but your project is fire." And I'm good with that! You don't have to like me — just like my music. But I've lived with it already, so I'm kind of tired of it. I'm ready to make and put out new music. But when I listened to it when it was still new and fresh, I was like, "Wow, they're going to enjoy it." Seeing the feedback from it, it's just positive. 

There's a line in “Way Out” where you talk about grinding for a better life. Do you feel like you're at a place where you can look back and say, "Okay, I made it out?" 

No, I'm still working. I feel like people have this idea of artists who are signed and they're doing good. It doesn't necessarily mean that we got it all figured out. The same way that you have a job, I have a job too. What things might look like is not always what they are. 

One of my favorite lines on that track is, “Now all these rap n—-s wanna fuck with me.” There’s still issues with rappers not respecting women, period.

With women in general, there is a disadvantage — especially when you're good-looking. You can be taken advantage of because all they see is a pretty face. Sometimes our talents aren't really taken in as seriously or worthy, you know? But when it comes to rappers and stuff, a lot of rappers like me and that's just out there. My fans always find out these little clues [from these men], but I don’t fall for them. [Laughs.]

“Copy” is my favorite song on the album. What’s the story behind it?

Some bitch that’s been copying me. There’s a lot of them! Some went natural, like me, dyed their hair the same color as me — like, GIRL! I’ve peeped a lot of stuff. My style has been ripped off and my old ad-libs are going into [other artists’] new songs. There’s a way to be inspired by somebody and not rip them off completely. That’s me with Jhen√© Aiko, Rihanna, Amy Winehouse, Sade — I’ll always tell you who I’m inspired by. But when you’re doing shit word for word, it’s just lazy. It’s not even artistry anymore.

What about “Trip”? Tell me about those moments where you just want to escape.

There’s times where I just want to be a songwriter and not be seen. I’m still getting used to [fame], but there’s never getting used to not having privacy. But what keeps me from stopping is definitely Melii Mob and my team, which is like family. You work so hard to try to create a connection with people, so it’s selfish to just take that away once you have it. I’m a very impulsive person so there’s times where I just want to throw it all away out of frustration. But I have to calm myself down, take a breather and then apologize.

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