When you take photos of Rome Fortune on a busy street in Austin during SXSW, people are going to look at you. Or, more accurately, they’re going to look at him. The the 27-year-old Atlanta rapper, born Jerome Fortune, is over six feet tall, wearing a floppy hat, an aquamarine beard, and no shirt save for a denim jacket. He’s also wearing jeans, and his denim-on-denim look is done so well, one can’t help but worry the average passerby will convince himself he too can pull off a Canadian tuxedo.
Fortune is that rare kind of rising star that makes it all — the music, the look — seem effortless. Later that night, at an unannounced Fool’s Gold Records show, Fortune will swagger across the stage above hundreds of screaming fans drunk with exhaustion, humidity, and Lone Star. He looks like the kind of rockstar you’d never see slumming it at street level, but this kind of public attention is a relatively new addition to Fortune’s life.
His most recent album, Jerome Raheem Fortune, is a deep dive into his struggles as an artist and as a person. He calls the album "the story of my life," and much of it deals with the mental volleying that comes with being kind of famous, but not as famous as you want to be. On "Alone Tonight," he sings," I'm tryna find the time to find my sanity / I'm walkin’ on the thin line of vanity / I've held on to nothing for too long / Are you understanding me?" Several of the tracks feel like the work of a man trapped inside his own head, trying to figure out if anything he’s experiencing is really happening.
Fortune describes making music as "release therapy," a deeply personal process in which he can work through the noise building in his brain. "I’m talking [on the album] about my relationship and making sacrifices," Rome says, "and the specific sacrifices I’m making for my two sons. I’m thinking about, ‘Is the pressure getting to me as the levels of buzz around me grow? Is that what’s making me crazy, or am I overthinking it?'"
"Is that what’s making me crazy, or am I overthinking it?"
This mental agitation isn’t surprising, because Fortune has come a long way quickly. It was his 2012 mixtape Lolo that catapulted (or gently nudged) him into the spotlight, but it wasn’t until 2013 and 2014’s one-two punch of Beautiful Pimp and Beautiful Pimp II that things really started to change for Rome. Since then he’s worked with the likes of Four Tet and Toro Y Moi, and last year he signed to producer / DJ A-Trak’s label Fool’s Gold. But Rome Fortune isn’t the kind of guy to be satisfied with the particular breed of fame that gets you blog recognition and a blue checkmark on your Twitter account. He’s got some high-level aspirations (including making a video for every track on his new album), and he’d probably be okay if he wound up being your mom’s favorite rapper. "I just want to have my music everywhere," he says.
But for now, he’s standing in an alleyway posing for photos, trying to make sure the dumpsters aren’t in the shot. He gives off an air of practiced nonchalance, so that it never looks like he’s actually trying to pose, even though you’d be forgiven for thinking he was a model. His girlfriend Anna Boulais joins the shoot, and she’s the only one who can bring out his crooked, endearing smile, which he quickly hides by nuzzling his face against her shaved head.
In the face of all this, it might be hard to convince you that hanging out with Fortune feels entirely normal. We talk about streaming services (he only subscribed to Tidal to listen to Kanye’s The Life of Pablo — blue-bearded rappers; they’re just like us!) and Snapchat, where he takes selfies, films himself eating lunch with friends, and sometimes shares unreleased tracks. "My Snapchat vibe depends on what I’m doing," Fortune says. "I have different modes. I have rockstar mode, I have Daddy mode, I have studio mode. So you can catch all sides, depending on what nights you watch." He’ll play another show tonight at SXSW, so he’ll have to switch to rockstar mode again before he goes back to just being Rome, or maybe someone else.