The recently released tracklist for Nicki Minaj‘s widely anticipated new album The Pinkprint revealed a number of high-profile collaborators. Ariana Grande and Beyoncé — two artists who occupy the same small sliver of true pop superstardom as Minaj — each guest on songs in the first half of the album. Later tracks feature Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill and R&B singer Jeremih, the former a previous Minaj collaborator and the latter a singer whose “Don’t Tell ‘Em” is one of the biggest radio songs of the year. Then there’s an appearance by someone named Lunchmoney Lewis.
Lewis appears on the album’s 11th track, “Trini Dem Girls.” A cursory Googling of this phenomenal stage name turns up almost nothing — a Discogs page, a litany of incredulous “Who is Lunchmoney Lewis?” tweets and almost nothing else. But who is Lunchmoney Lewis and why (and how) is he working with Nicki Minaj? Let’s start with the more obvious stuff first.
Though his work on The Pinkprint looks to be the biggest moment of Lunchmoney’s career, his 2014 includes a writing credit on “Burnin’ Up,” Jessie J’s new single and the follow up to “Bang Bang.” Lunchmoney has two other major songwriting credits, per All Music: one on “Scholarship,” a street single from Juicy J’s 2013 solo album Stay Trippy, and another on “Set It Off,” from the recent album by Connecticut rapper Chris Webby. It’s impossible to glean much about Lunchmoney from these three songs, but there are some dots that can be connected that might explain how he hooked up with Minaj.
Webby’s “Set It Off” aside, there is one other name that appears alongside Lunchmoney’s in the credits of both “Burnin’ Up” and “Scholarship”: a songwriter named Jacob Kasher. Kasher is a cog in the pop-music machine, having written for artists like Selena Gomez and Jason Derulo, but his most starry work has come alongside industry titan Dr. Luke. Kasher helped write Kesha’s “We R Who We R,” as well as a Luke-produced song called “Inside Out” from Britney Spears’ 2011 album Femme Fatale. As a point of triangulation, Luke was the one who produced Juicy’s “Scholarship,” one of those two tracks that Kasher and Lunchmoney Lewis worked on together.
If I had to wager, my guess would be that somewhere along the line, Lunchmoney was introduced into Minaj’s orbit of collaborators via Kasher and/or Luke — a frequent Minaj partner who produced her pop smash “Starships” as well as Pinkprint singles “Pills N Potions” and “Only.”
If you prefer Twitter evidence to corkboard theories, there also this:
— LUNCHMONEY (@LunchisHere) December 2, 2014
— JKash/Idea Guy (@jacobkasher) December 1, 2014
(Kasher, for what it’s worth, appears to have placed a number of songs on The Pinkprint, based on various tweets, though it doesn’t look like he worked on the song that features Lunchmoney.)
All of that might explain how Lunchmoney Lewis landed on one of the most anticipated albums of the year, but it doesn’t actually tell us anything about Lewis himself. For that I consulted a writer named Scott Brown, who tweets under the name @blackbeanage and runs the Florida rap blog Black Beans.
Though most of us are hearing of Lunchmoney for the first time, Brown has covered him sporadically on his blog since 2011. Lunchmoney, Brown tells me, comes from a musical family: His father, Ian Lewis, and his uncle, Roger Lewis, were founding members of the early reggae band Inner Circle, which would later go on to write and record “Bad Boys (Watcha Gonna Do),” a track that became famous as the “Cops” theme song. But the musical legacy of the Lewis family reaches even further than that.
At some point, Ian and Roger converted a house in a residential Miami neighborhood into a recording studio. That studio, now run by Lunchmoney’s brother Abebe, is known as Circle House Studios, and it’s where homegrown stars like Trick Daddy and Pitbull began to launch their careers in the late ’90s and early ’2000s. Now Circle House is one of the main recording hubs for pop, rap and R&B music in Miami (and therefore, the entire country); it has been a ground zero recording hub for some of the most popular songs of a generation. Flo Rida’s “Low,” for instance, was recorded there, and its five platinum plaques hang on the wall in the studio’s foyer next to other framed records commemorating hits by rappers like Lil Wayne and Rick Ross.
If Lunchmoney, whose birth name is Gamal, grew up around Circle House, he probably wasn’t starstruck when the pop music machine spit him out into rooms with Juicy J and Nicki Minaj. But before any of that, he rapped on his own — to a little local acclaim — under the name Lunch Money. His best song — and biggest, according to Brown — is a song called “Get Grown.”
The breezy texture of “Get Grown” comes from a fleeting and relatively minor sub-genre called “jook,” which has its roots in Miami bass but, because of its emphasis on melody, feels more like an evolution of R&B classics like “My Boo” and “Love You Down.” In any event, jook was a dominant strand of underground music in south Florida around the time Lunchmoney made “Get Grown” in 2008, eventually sprouting legitimate local hits (Ball Greezy’s “Shone” and Grind Mode’s “I’m So High”) that still get spins on Miami radio stations today.
“Get Grown” was not one of those hits, but it did get its own local rapper all-star remix of sorts, featuring Ace Hood. And while jook has never fully bubbled up into the mainstream, you can hear its influence in the drums, keyboard tones and general space of Usher’s (ahem, Dr. Luke produced) new single “I Don’t Mind.” That said, it would be unfair to call Lunchmoney a “jook” rapper, if there even is such a thing — what “Get Grown,” and a few of his other solo tracks tells us, is that his style is malleable.
A great 2011 song called “Loose Change” (it’s not a truther anthem, promise) foregrounds his rapping over a more traditional, though still wonky, rap beat. The song doesn’t exactly make the argument that Lunchmoney is an especially talented MC, but he has an easygoing, everyman charisma that is appealing across his tracks. Still, there is nothing there that indicates he would pop up on a Nicki Minaj solo album alongside Beyoncé some three years later.
But twisted, unlikely origin stories like this one are part of what makes pop music so much fun to follow closely. The Pinkprint has been subject to more scrutiny and speculation than just about any album this year — who would’ve guessed that, two weeks away from its release, we would be talking about someone named Lunchmoney Lewis?