Reneé Rapp Is So Gen Z She Doesn’t Understand “The Whole CD Thing”

The star of The Sex Lives of College Girls and Mean Girls: The Musical will release her debut album, Snow Angel, on Aug. 18.

by Ilana Kaplan

For Reneé Rapp, being anything other than a musician was never an option. “It’s just like this or bust,” she tells Bustle over the phone. “Nothing else makes sense.”

To get there, though, the 23-year-old’s pop career had to take some (very successful) detours. First, she made her Broadway debut in 2019, playing Regina George in Mean Girls, a role she’ll reprise for the musical’s upcoming film adaptation. Then she broke out as preppy lesbian Leighton in Mindy Kaling’s raunchy Max comedy The Sex Lives of College Girls. (Rapp announced she was exiting the show in July, but, citing the SAG-AFTRA strike, declined through a rep to answer non-music questions.)

Now, after whetting appetites with last year’s Everything to Everyone EP, she’ll finally release her debut album, Snow Angel, on Aug. 18 through Interscope Records. With candid lyrics about queer relationships and coming-of-age hurdles, the record showcases Rapp’s “honesty is the best policy” approach to songwriting over epic ballads and anxious alt-rock tracks. And though she’s quick to cite her love of Billie Eilish and Frank Ocean, Rapp says the biggest inspiration is “probably like a 17-year-old me, who really wanted to do this so badly and didn’t understand how it was going to happen,” she says. “But [she] was very determined to make sure that it happened and have a really carefully thoughtful sonic palette behind it.”

Below, Rapp reflects on the rap songs she was raised on, getting really into Kacey Musgraves, and her dual strategies for karaoke.

On Fans Trying To Decode Her Lyrics:

When you released “Snow Angel,” you said in a statement that it was about a traumatic experience, and a lot of listeners have tried to guess what inspired it. Do you want to clear anything up?

Putting that kind of context out with actually no context was meant to be a placeholder for when I’m ready to talk about it, because it happened maybe February 2022. So I don’t think at this point I want to talk about it, but soon, I totally would. It was just a sh*tty experience with a bunch of people I thought were my friends but really weren’t.

The songs sound different, but “Snow Angel” also builds to this big, dramatic climax like another recent pop-rock anthem: “Happier Than Ever.”

I mean, honestly, my whole life is inspired by Billie Eilish. But I didn’t think about it until recently when somebody told me that, and I was like, “Well, that’s the greatest compliment ever because I think the world of her.” They definitely have similarities.

You have a song called “Willow” on your album. When Taylor Swift released a song with that name, people joked that it was inspired by the iconic lesbian witch from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Is yours?

I actually have never heard of Willow from Buffy, but now I think I need to. I’ve never seen that. I’m very out of the loop, I guess.

You also have a song called “I Hate Boston.” Why?

I hate the familial f*cking bullsh*t that I went through in Boston. It’s about a different city, but I use Boston as an alias because it sings better.

Is there a lyric of yours that people often misinterpret?

Honestly, I don’t think so. People will be like, “Oh, what does this mean?” And I just kind of sit back and giggle. Take what you want, and if you need to make this your villain origin story, you go right ahead.

On Being A Barb And Longing To Make R&B Music:

Is there a song that you grew up listening to that you still know all the words to?

It would probably be a Nicki Minaj song like “Super Bass” — or some old Lil Wayne song.

What’s one song you can never listen to again and why?

“L$D” by A$AP Rocky. I love that song, but I associate it with an experience when I was really young with my friends: We ate this edible we thought was laced with something. I’d never done drugs before. It was insane. I thought I was dying. I was so young, and I was crying. I associate that song with that. It really is a loss.

What was the first CD you ever bought?

I don’t think I’ve ever purchased a CD. Like, ever. I don’t really understand the whole CD thing. I think it missed me a little bit.

What’s your favorite genre of music?

I idolize R&B singers. The entirety of music has pretty much been built off the backs of Black women and Black people. But for me, specifically, my entire love and inspiration for music, and the reason that I get up and breathe and want to do what I do and be good at it, is totally off the backs of amazing Black female vocalists. So I love R&B music. I think it’s shaped pretty much everything in the industry. I wish I was iconic enough to only make R&B songs, but alas, I write pop music.

Who is your musical idol?

Frank Ocean is my forever music idol. I never really understood fan culture until I saw him at Coachella. And I was like, “Oh, I get it.” I breathe and die for this man. So he’s always been my biggest inspiration since I started listening to his music. But I’ve been so into Kacey Musgraves recently. My favorite Kacey song right now is “Camera Roll.” She’s insanely talented. And my legacy inspiration is Karen Carpenter. She’s iconic. May she f*cking rest.

What’s your go-to karaoke song?

My go-to karaoke song is “In Love with Another Man” by Jazmine Sullivan, and then if I don’t want to sing sing, it would be “One Less Lonely Girl” by Justin Bieber.

On The Songs That Resonate In Unexpected Ways:

What’s the one song you want played at your wedding?

Well, it’s changed over the years. When I was a kid I wanted it to be “Best Love Song” by T-Pain, but now he-who-shall-not-be-named [Chris Brown] is a part of that song, so I can’t do that. Probably a Frank Ocean song. I go through phases of being like “I’m definitely getting married,” and then like, “I’m not definitely marrying anybody.”

And what song do you want to play at your funeral?

“Bootylicious” by Destiny’s Child. It’s thematically my song — or “California Love” by Tupac. They’re the songs I was raised on by my mom.

Is there a song of yours that you never want to play live again?

“Too Well,” but I have to play it live every f*cking second of my life. I hate that song. I’ve always hated that song. For so long, I was like, “This song will never see the light of day,” and then everyone convinced me that it should — and they were absolutely right.

What track from the new record are you most proud of?

I’m really proud of “Poison.” I wanted to write a song like that for a really long time, and I felt like this was a really great verse for that because it was honest. It’s sitting back and just being like, “All right, b*tch. If this is how you want to act, God will respond.”

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve written a song about?

I had a dream that I killed my girlfriend, and that’s why I wrote “Talk Too Much.” I was like, “Hey, by the way, I just want to let you know — like, I know we just started dating, but I did have a dream that I murdered you in cold blood. And I feel like I should tell you that because honesty is the best policy.” That’s got to be the most obscure sh*t ever.

That song really spoke to my OCD and the experience of having intrusive thoughts.

It’s so interesting talking about that song. So many of my good friends with OCD have [related to it and] been like, “Yo, dude!” I have someone very close to me in my family who has OCD. I’ve never personally been diagnosed, so I don’t claim to have it or whatever, but it has been an interesting, eye-opening couple of months of so many people being like, “I think I have OCD” [after hearing the lyrics].