The Drop Zone, a modest recording studio in downtown Houston, has two rooms: the studio itself and a small foyer that’s crammed with equipment. Between the rooms there is a hallway, and in that hallway sits a large bowl filled with a pillowcase’s worth of gummy candy. Peach rings, sour worms, Welch’s fruit snacks — big bags, not the Halloween fun-size stuff. Across several days, the only person who will touch any of this candy is Bryson Morris, a rail-thin 14-year-old and the Drop Zone’s center of gravity.
It’s 10 p.m. on a mid-December Thursday — a school night. Behind the Drop Zone’s two gigantic monitors sits 25-year-old producer Rickey Benz, wearing browline glasses and a hockey jersey, sitting on a swivel stool, fiddling with Pro Tools. The shades are drawn tight; the only light in either room glows from the monitors. For almost two hours, Bryson alternates between commiserating with Benz, perusing the candy, and pecking at his iPhone in a corner of the room. At first, it seems like Bryson is simply zoning out, texting his friends. But soon it becomes clear that he’s writing the lyrics to the song he and Benz are here to make.
I have flown to Texas to see Bryson Morris in action, and his handlers have assured me that this trip will be well worth it — that he is a "rap god," and that his "star factor" is worth "literally, fifty to one hundred million" dollars. So far, I have had to take their word for it. Bryson has released just one song.
I found Bryson Morris the only way one can find him: on YouTube. I can’t say how I landed on the video for "Louis Gucci," Bryson’s first and only proper song — just that what struck me, and what eventually lured me to the Drop Zone, was the odd dissonance between the polish and professionalism of the song and the fact that it appeared to be the only piece of music Bryson had ever made.
That isn’t the only thing that’s odd about "Louis Gucci." There is also the contrast of a young white boy, auburn hair in a perfectly Bieberian swoop, rapping without a trace of irony over ghoulish trap production. "Everything designer / Foreign flights we grindin’," he raps in a pubescent mewl. The video for the song is both handmade and surprisingly elaborate, featuring choreography, digital effects, and a mansion with a spiral staircase. At one point, a hologram of a Louis Vuitton backpack appears on a dancer just as Bryson raps, "Louis on that backpack." The song lacks the DIY roughness of many YouTube videos and the wink-wink irony of white tween rap. "Louis Gucci" is sharp, specific, and catchy as hell.
After "Louis Gucci," the next video that YouTube loads is called "#LouisGucci [Behind the Scenes]." This is what really piqued my interest. It’s short, and it reveals nothing beyond the work that went into the making of "Louis Gucci": at least six adults, lots of time, and more money than one assumes a 14-year-old is worthy of. A link points viewers to a page where you can buy official "Louis Gucci" merch, and another to the official "Louis Gucci" dance tutorial video, to prepare you for the #LouisGucciChallenge underway on social media.
The "behind the scenes" video, the merch, and the dance tutorial implied an audience craving more: more knowledge, more "Louis Gucci," more to buy and more to wear. It implied, simply, that Bryson Morris is famous. Yet Bryson Morris is not famous. When I first encountered "Louis Gucci," the video had fewer than 500,000 views; the "behind the scenes" video had just 20,000.
I became fascinated not so much by the boy in the video, but rather by the apparatus around him — the adults putting their time and money into Bryson Morris and making the assumption that, soon, he would have enough fans to justify the effort. They were either delusional or knew something that everyone else didn’t. I called the phone number at the bottom of the dance tutorial video (since removed). Within weeks, I was in Houston, ready to see which one it was.
Bryson Morris’s origin story reads like an amalgam of clichés about fame in the internet age. In late 2015, Bryson was an eighth-grader in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, a small city three hours south of St. Louis. He liked to make videos of himself rapping, in his room or on the way to school. He posted one online, and it earned a little buzz: around 10,000 views the first night, 20,000 the next. By the end of the week, he was up to 100K. Then he rapped over Drake’s "Know Yourself" and really blew up.
Bryson raps to a heartbroken woman after she’s caught her man cheating. He consoles her, empowers her, but never tries to win her heart for himself. It’s endearingly incongruous coming from a teenage boy. "I know you want something real," Bryson raps. "All these lames so old / But focus on you / Put these lames on hold / You a bad chick, girl / Let all these dudes know." In the background, you can see an unmade bed covered with a pile of clothes. The video eventually hit 28 million views and came to the attention of a Houston A&R named Phillip Roberson, who loved what he saw.
"I could tell from his delivery that he really knew how to rap," said Roberson, 37, who resembles a club bouncer but speaks with a soft Texas lilt. "I could tell he really was an artist."
Roberson called a longtime collaborator, an entertainment lawyer and producer named Jordan Williams. Roberson and Williams watched Bryson’s videos together, and were convinced they’d found America’s next teen idol. In January 2016, they flew Bryson and his mom out to Houston and pitched him on their music industry expertise. By February, they’d gone all in, signing Bryson to a 15-year 360 management deal. Williams and Roberson will control Bryson Morris’s every creative output — recording, publishing, merchandising, you name it — until he is nearly 30 years old.
Last May, Bryson graduated middle school. He is now home-schooled so that he can focus on his music. Five months after a stranger in Houston saw him on YouTube, Bryson Morris became, for all intents and purposes, a professional rapper.
A story like this belies a substantive shift in the opportunities available for up-and-coming musicians. It is easier than ever, via social media, streaming, and YouTube, to cultivate a fan base. But because all of these platforms don’t cost listeners anything, it’s harder than ever to make money from that same cultivation. For the rare artist who can make big money from touring and endorsements, this model is hugely effective. It provides countless ways to continuously engage fans that will pack arenas. But for those still on the rise, or even just moderately popular, this new terrain is not as fertile as it appears. You may have a lot of people who like your music, but far fewer who are willing to pay for it.
One effective solution to this problem is digital marketing — converting all of that online attention into money through targeted ads and partnerships with large companies. There are many versions of these techniques, but most of them operate in basically the same way: They use our web browsing, social media activity, and online shopping habits to tailor web ads with unprecedented precision. It’s one thing for Toyota to surmise that some people who watch The Big Bang Theory might be interested in buying a Prius, and to then run an ad during the show. It’s another thing altogether to whittle that audience down to the slice who have also recently Googled "Sierra Club" and ordered vegan jerky from Amazon Prime, and target them directly on their Facebook pages. Good digital marketers specialize in the latter, turning our online activity into one gigantic, constantly updating focus group.
Digital marketing’s relationship with music, however, is marked by a paradox: The techniques that would allow artists to capitalize on their viral fame in a tangible and immediate way — not just as an unpaid stepping stone to possible stardom — aren’t readily available, because it costs a lot to hire people with the necessary skills. And this, in turn, is a problem for online marketers: Independent music remains an untapped space for them precisely because emerging artists can’t afford their services.
When Williams — who is the principal investor and head honcho of all things Bryson Morris — signed Bryson, he enlisted two friends, Derrick Dixon and Hugo Aviles, to work on this problem from opposite ends. Dixon — "D-Reck" or "Reck" to anyone who knows him — is the founder of Wreckshop Records, an independent rap label that, during the late ’90s and early aughts, sold millions of records and helped popularize Houston’s chopped-and-screwed sound with talents like the pioneering DJ Screw and the rapper Big Moe. Dixon’s hybrid role, running Wreckshop’s business while also crafting its sound, is reminiscent of a smaller-scale Master P: a savvy entrepreneur who turned a regional sound into dozens of bankable artists. (Dixon later comanaged Erykah Badu.) Along the way, he befriended Williams, who often negotiated deals for Wreckshop.
Running the label, though, began to take a toll on Dixon, a former football player with an easy confidence. "I was up all night, literally — we’d be in the studio, and then we’d have meetings in the morning. I might still have my white cup," he said. "We’re all sipping syrup — we was living that shit. It was a party, but it was a hard-ass grind." In 2007, Big Moe, the first artist Dixon ever signed, died after suffering a heart attack. "Had he not passed away, he would have been the Biggie right now," Dixon, 47, said. "We was gonna do some Puffy-Biggie shit." Eventually, he left music and started a bail bonds company.
But a few years ago, Dixon felt the urge to get back into rap. And while his musical acumen was intact, the internet had left the business side of the industry nearly indistinguishable from the glory days of Wreckshop. Gone was music’s middle class, where nonsuperstar artists could make a nice living selling albums.
"You’re going from here to here," he explained, making a ladder with his hands. "Up here, it’s a ton of fucking money, but it’s a long ride with no money. I ain’t taking the long ride with nobody." As he considered a comeback, Dixon told me, the question became, "How can we make money on the way up?"
As he looked for an answer, Dixon found Aviles, who, along with Dana Blickensderfer, is the cofounder of iBoss Advertising, a Tampa-based digital marketing agency. iBoss had worked in a variety of industries, but never music. "The opportunity cost isn’t there, with music, for people like us," Aviles said. "Established artists don’t need to understand this model, because they’ve already created markets [for themselves]. … We know some of these media teams at some of these large labels, and they have no fucking clue what they’re doing."
When Williams called Dixon, he was looking for an established industry veteran to mentor his new artist. And in giving Dixon a chance to invest in Bryson, he figured he was offering a longtime friend the opportunity of a lifetime. Dixon, though, was underwhelmed.
"I looked at [Bryson’s YouTube videos] and I didn’t jump up and down," he told me. "They got so much gimmick shit out there. So, little white kid in the backseat of the car, kind of halfway carrying a verse is cute, and it might have got 20 million views. But … you know, motherfuckers like when a motherfucker fall off the back of the goddamn car. That shit might get 150 million views, because it’s funny or it’s cute. Old man, 80 years old, white guy, sitting with a pipe on a porch, busting a fucking dope-ass freestyle? That shit probably get 200 million views. But if he put out a rap song next week, is that going to work?"
Though skeptical, Dixon was still intrigued enough to run the idea of the partnership by Aviles. Where Dixon saw a gimmick, Aviles saw a gold mine. iBoss conducted an audit of the 14-year-old’s online presence, and found that Bryson had 80,000 Facebook followers, all of which he’d gained organically, without marketing or advertising of any kind. (Bryson’s Facebook page was hacked after he signed with Williams, and his team reposted only one of his original videos, the "Know Yourself" remix, online.)
Aviles was most excited not by the size of Bryson’s fan base, but by its makeup. His core audience was precisely the group that digital marketers covet the most: young kids with poor impulse control and their parents’ credit cards.
"The audience that has a significant amount of purchasing decision power happens to be the same demographic that likes Bryson Morris. They’re the ones that buy everything online," Aviles said, before putting it more succinctly: "These are little girls that buy shit online."
Aviles, a 34-year-old Marine, was born in Ecuador. In person, he’s one part Silicon Valley disruptor and one part Daytona Beach party boy. He often cites obscure economic principles. At one point, he asks me, earnestly, if I remember what postcards are.
In Bryson, Aviles found what he’d long been searching for: an artist with both a legitimate need for his services and — thanks to Williams’s sizable investment — the money to make iBoss’s participation worthwhile. It seemed like an unusually low-risk, high-reward situation. If Bryson became a superstar, they’d all be rich; if he didn’t, Aviles could still squeeze some money out of his fans.
Aviles sold Dixon on Bryson by convincing him that this kid from Missouri was, oddly enough, the smartest way to get back into music. Instead of making chopped-and-screwed songs for devoted hip-hop heads, Dixon could market a young white rapper to the suburbs. Dixon laughs at this new chapter. "It’s a long way from Big Moe," he said. But he couldn’t resist. After talking to Aviles, Dixon called Williams and told him he was in.
And so this crew — Roberson, Williams, Rickey Benz, D-Reck, Aviles, and Blickensderfer — formed Team Bryson. Six adults whose professional lives now revolve around the rap career of someone who was born during the same summer that Nelly released "Hot in Herre."
Roughly once a month, Team Bryson convenes in Houston for Bryson Week, six consecutive days of writing, recording, and strategizing. Bryson and his mom travel from Poplar Bluff and stay with Williams and his wife and kids. I arrive in Houston just as the last Bryson Week of 2016 is kicking off, and go straight from the airport to the Wreckshop offices, which are located in a massive office park on the outskirts of the city.
Every member of Team Bryson is here save for Roberson. Also here is Alex Johnson, Dixon’s longtime friend and business partner, whom everyone calls Dollar. Williams wears a power suit; everyone else is in jeans. When I enter the room, Aviles pats me down and quips that I might be wearing a wire, a joke everyone seems to get except me.
Bryson is small for a ninth-grader — maybe 5-foot-2 and not much more than 100 pounds. When he talks, it’s often in a raspy near whisper. He loves fashion, but seems to wear only variations on a single outfit: ludicrously distressed designer jeans, a Gucci belt, Jordans, diamond earrings, and a large cross necklace. He is unfailingly polite, in a Southern, God-fearing sort of way.
During my time in Houston, I hear Aviles refer to Bryson as the following: "a stock," "a startup," "an app," and "a technology company." Often, these descriptors are used while Bryson and his mom are in the room. During one of Aviles’s spiels, I watch the technology company in question eat a box of popcorn chicken very carefully, so nothing gets stuck in his braces.
When he talks like this, though, Aviles, intentionally or not, is gesturing at the defining quality of Bryson’s career. Depending on how you look at it, Bryson Morris is either hugely successful or not successful at all. In this way, Bryson is best understood through Silicon Valley jargon. Specifically, like a promising internet startup with lots of VC funding but no revenue.
Williams’s investment, though, is starting to pay off. Chameleon Entertainment — the boutique label of Breyon Prescott, head of urban A&R at Epic — has just offered Bryson a record deal on the strength of "Louis Gucci" and a handful of unreleased tracks. No one mentions this to me until I get to Houston, at which point Williams unveils it with an almost theatrical understatement, knowing full well that this fact adds legitimacy to some of his bigger claims, and basking in the intrigue he’s just manufactured.
Hugo Aviles is working with Bryson Morris because he thinks the music industry is filled with pathetically outdated approaches and ripe for disruption. He thinks, for instance, that it is dumb for artists to record entire albums without knowing if any of the songs will resonate with consumers. Aviles’s vision, instead, is a model that harnesses the real-time feedback of the web to tell artists what’s working and what isn’t. An artist, he explains, could post a video that gets lots of views, but has a high bounce rate — people clicking away before the video is done.
"They might have been intrigued by the title or whatever, but once they watch, they’re like, ‘This shit sucks,’ and they leave. But once we see that they’re watching two minutes and 60 seconds of a three-minute video, we’re like, ‘We have something here,’" he explained. Then, he said, "You can follow through on the qualitative side."
What Aviles envisions is a kind of Moneyball for music — letting internet data, rather than creative intuition, reveal which artists and sounds are worth investing in and pursuing. "We don’t want to fall in love with Bryson," he said. "We want to fall in love with the numbers, with what it can be if everything is properly executed." There’s little room in this model for artistic integrity. The market decides what kind of artist you are — specifically, the slice of the market that you can most easily monetize.
This, however, is not how D-Reck, Williams, and Roberson are used to making music, and so Team Bryson’s approach will be a hybrid of these two philosophies: the industry veterans will cultivate Bryson in the traditional way, releasing music, shooting videos, and, eventually, touring. Meanwhile, iBoss will give them feedback on the micro-level success of every song, music video, and studio selfie, allowing Bryson and his handlers to tweak — and monetize — as they go along. "Our job," said Williams, "is to deliver content, and Hugo and Dana turn it. They generate numbers, and then, from the numbers, sales and money, and we split that."
For this model to work, Bryson needs to be deft enough to pivot in the ways Aviles and Blickensderfer suggest without a major dip in musical quality. For this task, Bryson is perfect. As an artist, he does not have a sound so much as a mission: make hits. His forthcoming, yet-unnamed EP sounds like it came not from a single musician, but rather what would happen if you asked Watson, the IBM supercomputer, to make a collection of songs that span the range of popular mainstream hip-hop. "Crazy," a saccharine, up-tempo love song, sounds like Trey Songz with a Wale feature; "Yeah Yeah" feels like Fetty Wap over DJ Mustard production; "How" is a three-minute chest thump that finds Bryson rapping with Desiigner-like speed and Rick Rossian imperiousness.
Bryson pulls this off because, while his songwriting is unremarkable, the malleability of his delivery is impressive. He can do Drake’s moody pitch modulation, Quavo’s rapid pitter-patter, Flo Rida’s Jägermeister-soaked fist-pump incantations. This medley approach aligns perfectly with the sensibilities of Bryson’s target market — kids his age, who have never known music without streaming. They think in playlists, not albums.
Teenagers, though, have long used artist worship for identity creation, and can do this more easily than ever via social media. Today’s perfect teen idol, then, would have a wide-ranging sound but a streamlined brand. And this is exactly what Bryson’s handlers are shaping him to be.
Absent from this mission is any pretense about a higher purpose or broader message.
"He does two things: He likes to have things, and he’s going to be a ladies’ man," Williams told me. "He’ll have a message here or there — ‘Stay in school’ or something — but it’s not really about that."
I note that "stay in school" may not be the best message for a kid who’s no longer in school himself. Williams laughs. "You talking about the damn school?" he cackles.
The first objective of Bryson Week is to map out the video for "Crazy." This will be not just Team Bryson’s second music video, but also its first chance to redefine Bryson after "Louis Gucci." The concept for the video is a group date, and everyone quickly and excitedly decides to stage it at an arcade.
Dixon, though, wants to slow down. He’s less interested in the logistics of the shoot and more concerned with the broader optics of the video. Specifically, he’s concerned about race. "We’ve got to decide, like, what color the girls will be," he says. Bryson, Dixon points out, was "damn near the only white kid in the ‘Louis Gucci’ video." Even the race of Bryson’s love interest will signal to viewers what kind of artist he is, and Reck wants to strike a balance that allows Bryson to cross between rap and pop without seeming out of place in either.
"If you look at most of the artists right now that are having success," Dixon told me, "they’re not Tupacs — they ain’t even Snoop Doggs. They’re fuckin’ poodles, puppies, and little friendly guys that’s dancing around. And white kids rapping." Save for Aviles and Blickensderfer, every member of Team Bryson is black, and they’re all aware that Bryson may initially look, to many, like a poseur. They say that perception is unfair.
"He’s so authentic," Dollar told me. "Bryson is almost like a little black kid in a white kid’s body. It’s not a put-on." Dixon agreed. "That’s the dynamic part about him. He’s not like the little ‘bad’ black kid. That’s why it’s real. He’s more like a little suburban black kid. He’s like my son."
"The next song," Dixon says, "has to be something that our target market might appreciate. And that’s young females, 13 to 22, suburban. So I really want to fuckin’ see — because if they don’t like Bryson, we’ve got a problem."
The team decides to put out a casting call for girls of all races in the Houston area, and possibly use footage from that casting in the video. "Even if 10 girls show up," Aviles says, "you can smoke-and-mirrors it and make it look like 100,000 girls showed up."
It’s easy to look at Bryson’s contractual situation — his youth coupled with the extreme length of the deal he’s signed to with Williams — and see a boy exploited by adults far savvier than him. Thus far, though, Bryson and Rickey Benz are the only ones who have seen any money. Bryson received a lump-sum advance when he signed, and "all of his expenses get taken care of," Williams told me. "Whatever he wants, he gets."
"We had to pay him that money, man. His daddy made sure," Williams said. Bryson’s family, he explained, is financially comfortable and didn’t need to sign for a quick infusion of cash. But the family was wise enough to negotiate for a strong deal. "They have money. They have car dealerships," Williams said. "We had to come with that money, man." Bryson’s mom, Sherry, seems to have all the determination of a stage parent without any of the hovering intensity. She barely knew that Bryson liked rap when Roberson first called, but now she’s all in on his career.
It is Williams whose situation is the most precarious. He’s invested a sizable amount of money in the career of a kid who could not pan out, or, perhaps worse, decide at any moment that he no longer wants to be a rapper. "They can stop at any time — you put all these resources in and it stops and you’re out of luck," he said. Bryson’s music hasn’t generated any revenue, and yet the costs — Benz’s salary, studio time, payments to other engineers and producers, video equipment, Bryson’s expenses — keep piling up.
Williams refers to recouping his original investment as "coming back." I ask when he expects to do this, and his answer spans the emotional range of an early-stage business venture: doubt, confidence, anxiety, grandiosity, hope. He seemed to be talking as much to himself as to me.
"Am I coming back? Absolutely. And it’s going to be bigger than I ever thought," he said. "Now, did I get my initial investment? No. Am I still forking out? Yes. But I feel 100 percent confident.
"I’ll be honest with you, I’m not that well off. I’m taking from my family to a certain extent," he said. "My wife was like, ‘What the fuck? What are you fucking doing?’" Williams steadied himself. "Me and Reck, we live well. Does it hurt when you blow through [that money]? Yes. But we were in Hawaii last week."
Then Williams regained his usual swagger. "I know I’m coming back. I’ve done 40 albums in the past 15 years. Shit, I’m a monster. I’ve never lost, man. By the grace of God, I’ve never lost," he said. "Don’t get me fired up, man. Don’t you talk about Hugo and Dana, my secret weapons. If it brings tears to my eyes, you know I’m coming back. … I’ll put this on it: Bryson is going to come back a million-fold."
That they’ve even recorded a song like "Crazy" is a coup for Williams and Reck. When he signed Bryson, Williams thought he had landed the next teen heartthrob. Bryson, however, had dreams of being the next Gucci Mane. So Williams let him make "Louis Gucci" as a sort of initial peace offering, to let Bryson get a trap song out of his system. This turned out to be an inadvertent break: It was "Louis Gucci" that landed them a meeting with — and, later, an offer from — Breyon Prescott. Bryson, Williams said, "wants to trap all day. [But] he’s a young, white 13-year-old Justin Bieber look-alike, and [Prescott] doesn’t want to hear this trap crap. … But I have to keep him happy at the same time."
It was Prescott who finally convinced Bryson that he couldn’t subsist on trap alone. As part of their deal, though, Chameleon has plans to get some big names on a "Louis Gucci" remix. "But when we come back with the next one," Williams said, "we’re not coming back with that trap mess and get laughed at and made fun of."
As Williams recounted his struggle to make Bryson amenable to bubblegum, he started to bounce with giddy relief. "I was scared to death," he said. "So now, I floor it. Since I made it past that first dice roll, you can’t catch me now. We gon’ go up there and make some pop music now. I’ma get you. I got you now."
It’s just us in the room, and it’s unclear if the "you" in his sentence is me, Bryson, or the "little girls who buy shit online."
"Louis Gucci" may have landed Team Bryson a meeting with Prescott — who has worked with Kanye West, Drake, and Jamie Foxx — and their new songs may have proved that the first wasn’t a fluke. But it’s not the music alone that has Prescott intrigued. Rather, it’s the apparatus that Williams has built: Reck and Roberson have the experience and credibility; Rickey Benz is signed to a full-time, in-house production deal to make tracks for Bryson; and Aviles and Blickensderfer are there to tell them what is and isn’t working. (According to Williams, the deal with Chameleon would be essentially a 50–50 joint venture between Williams and Prescott.)
All of this, it seems, comes from a prescient recognition that Williams and Roberson made when they watched those first YouTube videos: that the internet could provide a way to take the most qualitative yet most important part of artist development — the recognition of the "it" factor — and make it quantitative.
Williams didn’t need to convince Prescott that Bryson will be a heartthrob during a 30-minute sit-down. He could show him, objectively, that kids already love Bryson — that 80 percent of his audience is female, that his Facebook traffic is consistently high throughout the school day, and that he is unusually popular in Thailand.
Thanks to Aviles and Blickensderfer’s "proprietary traffic intelligence tools," Williams can show Prescott all of the data they’ll use to market Bryson effectively: that Bryson’s fans’ favorite TV show is SpongeBob SquarePants, that their favorite place to eat is Subway, and that roughly 30 percent of them come from families with over $100,000 of total annual income. When it’s time for Bryson to go on tour, they won’t need to guess where it might be smart to book a show — they already have a list of cities where he gets the most online buzz.
"It’s sickening," said Williams about Aviles’s work. "The key to our success. We have to have a good product, but Hugo is the key. That’s the wild card. Because he understands the matrix and the analytics. And how to go inside of [Bryson’s] demographic, his following, and manipulate that."
"I will serve that matrix," Williams told me. "I’ll serve that with good product."
What Williams and Roberson also found in Bryson, however, is a kid who feels unusually — at times, almost unsettlingly — built for celebrity and fame. Bryson is preternaturally mature.
"He’s 20 times more amazing when you meet him in real life," Roberson told me. During their first meeting, "he was asking me so many questions that usually a 13-year-old wouldn’t ask." Roberson, Williams, Reck, and Dollar all have children who are right around Bryson’s age. I watched them address the kids like kids, but change their body language and tone when they talked to Bryson. The adults talk to him like they talk to each other.
"I can’t treat him like a child when we’re talking at three or four in the morning, in my kitchen, like a grown-ass man," Williams said. Rickey Benz, too, sees Bryson as a collaborator, not a child he has to chaperone. "Beyond color, beyond age, we’re one," he said. "He’s, like, the oldest kid I’ve ever met in my life, which is what people said about me."
Lots of kids are mature and charismatic. What makes Bryson unusual is that, in addition to his social ease, he has trained himself to talk and act like a marketable star. Bryson has already perfected the art of sound-bite diplomacy. On the election, he said, "I didn’t necessarily want Donald Trump to become president; I didn’t necessarily not want Donald Trump to become president. … I’m just gonna pray, and hope that he does right." He is conspicuously polished, almost Taylor Swiftian. Later, I asked Bryson if he studies the industry as much as he studies rap music itself. "More," he said. "More than I do the music. I study the music industry so much — that’s why I’m so adapted to everything that’s going on."
Bryson uses YouTube the way a quarterback studies game film. He notes the questions radio hosts ask during on-air interviews; he memorizes the bios of record label executives; he clocks footage of his favorite rappers working in the studio. Using the internet as a guide, Bryson has developed a holistic sense of what music stardom entails.
But knowledge doesn’t guarantee authenticity. "The majors, when they called, the first thing they said was, ‘Is he white trying to be black? Is this kid the truth?’" Williams said. "What they really want to know," he explained, "is his swagger — is he really that cool? His swag, is it always intact or is it really a fluke?" Williams laughed. "It’s almost like, when you’re cool like that, that’s being black."
How, exactly, does a multinational corporation assess the authenticity of teenage swag? Bryson himself seems surprised at this newfound aura. "When I first came down here," he said, "I didn’t know what I was doing. It wasn’t like this. It was like something got into me, and I just turned up — turned into this superstar."
The rallying cry of Team Bryson is a kind of tautology: Bryson is going to be a star because Bryson is a star. And it is also a palindrome: They know that Bryson is going to be a star in the future because he is a star right now — but they also know that Bryson is a star right now because he is going to be a star in the future.
The members of Team Bryson are always preparing to capitalize on success that they haven’t yet achieved. To that end, they are filming nearly every single moment of Bryson Week. Jerome, the camera guy, is rolling during the video meeting; he’s rolling as Williams leads us in saying grace over our cheeseburgers. And he’s rolling, the next day, back at Wreckshop, as people are setting up for a green-screen Q&A that will be used in a forthcoming "all access" Bryson Morris documentary.
The Q&A, though, is not going well. Aviles, off-camera, lobs questions at Bryson, but Bryson’s laid-back slouch and low, raspy voice are coming off as lethargic and uninterested. But then someone realizes that there is someone here who wants to interview Bryson anyway, and suddenly I am whisked from the back of the room and being primped in front of the green screen myself.
Bryson’s affect changes immediately when I sit down in front of him. He has seen this before, studied it, and knows exactly what to do. Each of his answers are a calculated combination of braggadocious and tactful. When I ask him how his friends back home feel about his new life he says, "It’s really dope," and then, with a smirk, "They might change their li’l mind-set when this money start coming in."
During our conversation, I notice him using a particular Brysonism over and over. Several times, Bryson says "product myself," as in "the way I product myself." It’s a portmanteau of "conduct" and "project," but also something different. To "product" oneself is to commodify oneself; to think of oneself, first and foremost, as a product.
Regarding one situation, Bryson says, "I just deal with it the way Bryson would deal with it." It feels like he’s speaking not in the third person, but about someone else entirely.
That night, after the green-screen session, everyone is back at the Drop Zone to record. Tonight’s track is slower and romantic. The chorus samples the theme song from All That, the Nickelodeon show, which started airing eight years before Bryson was born. This song is Roberson’s idea — he’s eventually going to pitch a Bryson-themed reality show to Nickelodeon, and might use this track to butter up the network. It’s got a wholesome mack daddy thing going, like a track from Will Smith’s Big Willie Style.
With Roberson taking the lead tonight, Williams has some time to kick back. I notice that Rickey Benz has written all of this song’s verses, and ask Williams if he’s worried about people taking shots at Bryson’s authenticity as a lyricist. "It’s 50–50," he says. "Bryson writes half of what he does, pretty much. In crunch time, right now, when we don’t have a lot of time, we’re going to help him." Especially, Williams says, when it comes to the romantic songs. "Serenading these women? [Bryson] don’t have that kind of game. These kids are on the phone!"
"We’ve got a team of writers, and I will clown anybody who wants to challenge that. Are you kidding me? What is he supposed to do? You think he’s going to write like that? We’re more sophisticated," Williams says, incredulous. "We’re going to be productive. For crying out loud, that takes too long."
The way Team Bryson talks about their plan toggles between bleakly transactional and refreshingly honest. "The object is not music, the object is that he’s a product," Dixon said. "He’s just another fuckin’ product. I’m not dehumanizing him — I tell him that. Like, shoot, you’re acting like Bryson, but you’ve got to act like you’re the product."
In the studio, Bryson is a worker bee. He repeats each couplet 30, 40, 50 times, until both he and Benz are satisfied, flinging his frail torso toward the mic with each punctuated syllable. His relentlessness creates a kind of hypnosis in the Drop Zone, as the lyrics and beat, played over and over, congeal into ambient noise.
Benz, who supplies most of the beats and helps Bryson improve his lyrics, is the musical fulcrum. It’s easy to see why they wanted him so badly — enough to offer him a deal of his own if he came back home to Houston. Before Bryson signed, Benz, whose real name is Jamien Graves, was living in Los Angeles, trying to jump-start a solo career. "He could be Kendrick Lamar on steroids," Williams said; Reck offered a simpler endorsement: "Benz a motherfucker." They pitched him, essentially, on the chance to raise his own profile by mentoring Bryson. "How big is saying you helped develop Michael Jackson?’" Roberson remembered asking him.
All night, Bryson has been wearing a matte-gray backpack. Around 1 a.m., after Benz tells him that he’s good for the night, Bryson emerges from the booth, sits on a table, and removes from it a huge bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. This is his reward for a night’s work, and he’s beaming. "I’m finna smaaaaaash," he announces, and is soon caked in blood-orange dust.
"Let me sit back on the soft part of my ass and listen to this full track," Williams says. Everyone starts to pack up their stuff, but Bryson stops them. He wants to redo his first verse. "It feels like it needs more energy," he says, and Benz and Williams oblige. The session extends until nearly sunrise.
The next day, the group is feeling the effects of an all-night recording session, so the plan is to chill out and play basketball. We arrive at Dixon’s sister’s house at dusk, and Reck leads the group to the backyard. It’s an unusually warm Texas winter night, and there’s not a single mosquito in the air. Dixon’s son is here, and so are his nephews, and Williams’s kids, and some of their friends.
Bryson is just as eerily mature on the court as he is off — he takes efficient shots, spreads the ball around, and is especially encouraging to the least-talented and youngest kids. Aviles, on the other hand, has changed into full basketball gear and is soaring over small children for rebounds.
We break for pizza and Gatorade near the pool while Rae Sremmurd’s "Black Beatles" plays on a sound system. Everyone else will keep hanging out at the house, but there are hits to be made, so Bryson leaves with Williams and heads back to the Drop Zone.
This is the scene of my longest sit-down with Bryson, and I’m curious to see if in this intimate environment he’ll continue to "product" himself. By the time we talk, it’s already 1:30 in the morning. I apologize for keeping him up. He laughs at the idea that 1:30 a.m. is late.
Bryson says he’s unbothered by operating in the odd space in between adolescent anonymity and music fame. Home-schooling, in particular, isn’t a worry. "I just get up, and I go to my little section where I’ve got my laptop, and I watch my classes. It’s the same thing as going to school; it’s just like I’m watching it through a computer screen," he says, a bit confused about why we’re discussing academics. "It’s a classroom, there’s students there, there’s teachers and everything, and they’re just recording it. It’s just like you’re in school, it’s just on the computer screen."
"I don’t like school," Bryson says, smiling, "so this is how I’m going to make my money."
Bryson isn’t missing the social aspect that comes with a typical high school experience either. "I’ve never really had a lot of friends," Bryson says. "I don’t mess with a lot of people. I don’t like fake people. I have the same five friends that I’ve had for four years. We’re just brothers."
Soon, he says, Bryson and his mom will move to Houston, in an apartment near Williams’s house. "I make the decisions for them," Williams said. "[Bryson’s] dad is going to stay [in Poplar Bluff], and he’s not worried. He’s looking at that money. That money bag is damn good." Bryson tells me he’s been making a particular effort to hang out with his small circle of friends as much as possible, "because I know this is about to take off, and I won’t be able to."
"I’m not ever going to be able to be a normal teenager again, whether this takes off or not," he says, without a hint of wistfulness. "I mean, even coming here, flying, being in the studio — you’re not a normal teenager.
"I wouldn’t have made those videos in my room if I wasn’t ready for this."
It’s three in the morning, and we’re ready to leave the studio. I thank Bryson for his time and compliment him on what he’s working toward. "You impressed me, though," he says. "D-Reck, Hugo [Aviles] — none of them are even here, but you’re here, three nights in a row."
The weather has turned awful. It’s hailing as I get into my rental car, and the roads look slick.
"Be safe," Bryson says, before I can tell him to do the same.