Before 'Hrs and Hrs,' Muni Long spent years and years working for others
This is part of a series of features from All Things Considered on first-time Grammy nominees, ahead of the February 5 awards. Read the profiles on Molly Tuttle and Omar Apollo.
To hear Muni Long tell it, the success of her hit single "Hrs & Hrs" owes much to a coincidence of timing — and one of mistaken identity on TikTok.
It's a love song — a celebration of a deep connection, like the one she shares with her husband. "Yours, mine, ours / I could do this for hours / Sit and talk to you for hours," she sings, detailing various intimacies of extended duration, chaste and carnal alike. And it arrived late in 2021, after a wave of pandemic restrictions had lifted and, she says, a lot of single people were openly acknowledging their isolation, and their desire for connection.
"The song came at a time where people really were not afraid to say, 'I want to be loved,'" she says.
Her friend — the musician and actor Bre-Z — was one of the people who connected with the song. Bre-Z and her now-wife, the makeup artist Chris Amore, used the track in a video celebrating their relationship, including scenes from her marriage proposal. And Muni Long posted it to her own TikTok account.
Because the song title (pronounced "hours and hours") is stylized "Hrs & Hrs," some in the LGBT TikTok community read it as an abbreviation for "hers and hers" — and a sapphic love song. That prompted rumors that Muni Long and Bre-Z were romantically involved.
They let it play out.
"There was this rumor going around like, 'Oh yeah, Muni Long. We have our first lesbian artist,'" she says. "And I'm just like, 'Yeah, sorry guys.'"
"And then I talked to Bre-Z about it. She was like, 'Just let it rock.' Like, 'Don't say nothing. Let 'em let that story keep moving.' Her wife [Chris Amore] does my makeup sometimes, so it's like, we're really cool. And that's how it started. And then everybody else started, you know, joining in."
"Everybody else" included a lot of people. The song rose into the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100, and grew omnipresent on commercial hip-hop and R&B radio stations. It earned Muni Long her first Grammy nominations, for best R&B performance and best R&B song. That and her LP Public Displays of Affection: The Album earned her a nod for best new artist.
Muni Long isn't exactly a stranger to the Billboard charts, or to the spotlight of the music world. Under her given name, Priscilla Renea, she's released two other albums, and has written plenty of hit songs for other artists.
But her reinvention as the R&B singer Muni Long is what netted her Grammy recognition, which — as a long-time voting member of the Recording Academy that decides the Grammy Awards — she takes to heart.
"The people who are out here working every day with the same goal of like, 'We want something that's gonna impact the world' — they heard my songs, and they decided that I was among the best of whatever came out last year," she told NPR over lunch at Jon and Vinny's in Beverly Hills, Calif. "And what does that feel like? Feels amazing."
An early education in songwriting
Priscilla Renea Hamilton grew up on a farm outside Vero Beach, Fla. That meant fishing, hunting, gathering yard waste for bonfires. She described gathering eggs from chickens, and picking oranges and sugar cane.
"We were never hungry," she said. "If we were poor, I didn't know, just because there was an abundance of fruit."
Music was also abundant. Between her mother who also sang, the house piano, music lessons, singing in church, and being trotted out to perform at funerals and weddings and the national anthem at baseball games, she doesn't remember not loving music nor having a choice in the matter.
As a teenager, she'd post videos of her songs to YouTube; her attempt to sing dictionary words over a track by Fergie brought her a first brush with viral fame. That exposure opened up a deal with Capitol Records and a debut album with a single ("Dollhouse") that cracked the Top 40. But it still wasn't as successful as hoped, and it didn't lead immediately to a career as a performer.
"I think the reason why is because it wasn't genuine," she told NPR's Michel Martin in 2018. "It wasn't — I was 18. I was trying to live up to the expectations of these major-label executives, and I was afraid to speak up for myself."
Not wanting to go back to "dirt-road country" in Florida, she pivoted to songwriting. She became very good at it. ("Now I can write an incredible song in 30 minutes to an hour," she said.) Songs she's written or co-written have been singles for Ariana Grande, Kelly Clarkson and Mariah Carey; "California King Bed" by Rihanna and "Worth It" by Fifth Harmony were platinum hits; "Timber" by Pitbull featuring Kesha was a global ubiquity.
But in hindsight, she describes the songwriting phase of her career as an intense and relentless period, and "not a very fun time." As a means to an end — of launching a career as a performer — she wouldn't recommend it.
"If there was another way for me to get here, I probably would've never done that in the first place," she said. "Although I don't regret my journey."
She likened it to continually moving the finish line further back.
"I was under the impression that the more hits you have, the more No. 1s you have, the sooner you'll be able to be an artist," she said. "That's what I was told, but really that was just like the carrot at the end of the stick to get me to keep doing it. And once I had reached all those milestones and still nothing, I'm like: 'Wait a minute, this isn't what you said.'"
Her own label. Her own way.
So she made bets on herself. In 2018, she released Coloured, her second album as Priscilla Renea — a far more heartfelt album, touching on family and racism, and a professional and personal background in country music. Writing for NPR Music, Jewly Hight called one song on the record "an act of deliberate, class-conscious line blurring."
At the time, she didn't sound like she was aiming for chart-toppers. "I'm just a storyteller," she told Michel Martin in 2018. "It's not about who's around right now to consume it. It's about who's going to be here for 50 years, 100 years listening to this music when I'm gone."
But in 2019 she doubled down, starting Supergiant Records, her own label. And she started redirecting the attention she invested in creating pop hits to songs she would sing herself. In November 2020, she had put out a new EP, Black Like This, with a contemporary R&B sound — and a new moniker: Muni Long.
The name and the concept appeared new, but she doesn't exactly see it that way.
"On the outside looking in, most people see one path, but I see multiple timelines where I've jumped," she said. "This piece of me that was kind of tucked away and hidden for so long, finally now gets the stage and gets to express."
She described Muni Long as who she is when she is truly herself, at home or with her friends — a person who's no longer afraid to try new things or challenge the status quo.
"I just look at the world completely different," she says. "Whereas before I was afraid to do things because 'Oh, that's just not the way that they're done now,' I see it like anything is possible. Why not? All of this stuff was made by man. Like, let's make a new rule."
Even the alias Muni Long (pronounced "money" long) combines the old and new. She took inspiration from a historical figure she encountered in her reading — "muni" is the term for an ancient Indian sage — and a hit rap song.
"My team was like, 'Muni needs a last name,'" she said. "And then I heard the 2 Chainz song ["I'm Different"]: 'Hair long / Money long.' I was like: Yes, that's it. Muni Long."
After her first EP in late 2020, she continued to put out music: a seven-song EP in the summer of 2021 and another eight-song EP in November of 2021. The latter release contained "Hrs & Hrs," which soon after caught wind on TikTok.
It's not lost on Muni Long that "Hrs & Hrs" beat the odds — that it "blew up in the fourth quarter [of the year] from a 33-year-old independent Black woman in R&B." She said she's faced plenty of doubts about her age, her skin color and body type, her stylistic choices. But as Muni Long, she learned simply not to divulge all her plans.
"It's just about keeping your energy small, meaning 'protected,'" she said. "Dream big, but don't run around telling everybody your ideas, 'cause they'll chip away at it."
Keeping her cards close
The year 2022 brought Muni Long a deal between her Supergiant Records and the hip-hop and R&B powerhouse Def Jam Recordings; an expansion of her late 2021 EP into the full-length album Public Displays of Affection; appearances on late-night TV talk shows; new singles; and those three Grammy nominations. In the spirit of keeping her energy small, she wouldn't say exactly what was next — but it definitely features Muni Long.
"I pay attention to what my supporters are asking me for," she said. "I pay attention to what is missing in the marketplace. And I try my best to fill that void. ... What does Muni need? Do you know? As long as I get to keep expressing myself without limitation, that's really it."
She noted that she was only 34 years old, and that she has "many, many years of creation" left in her. She spoke with pride of having reclaimed her own career by reverse engineering it from an end goal.
"A lot of people are waiting for someone to magically come along and say, 'This is what you need to do,' but you need to figure it out," she said. "It's like, OK, you wanna make a sandwich, next time you're eating a sandwich, open that b**** up and see like, OK, there's meat, there's cheese, there's lettuce. Now let me go find those things for myself — and make my own recipe."
And she spoke of the hard times in getting there: of driving up the Pacific Coast Highway or through the Malibu canyons crying with the car windows open, of years working for others while doubting her own potential.
"By no means am I saying it was easy," she said. "I cried and I screamed, and I had many, many days where I was like — I used to do this thing where I would take out the ice tray from the refrigerator and throw the ice and break it because it gives you the same effect of breaking a glass."
But from the other side of that struggle, the Muni Long persona has finally given voice to Priscilla Renea Hamilton's ambitions. It just happens to be her own voice.
"I don't usually do this, but," she sings, in the "Hrs & Hrs" intro. "Can I sing to you?"
Want more? Read profiles on the first-time Grammy nominees we featured last year: Barlow & Bear, Saweetie, Arooj Aftab and Jimmie Allen.
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