As a longtime pop songwriter, Priscilla Renea is familiar with the need to adapt to the demands of the music industry. In studio sessions, “You are just there to assist” an act, she says. “You don’t show up trying to be the star.” When working on demo tracks to pitch to artists, she makes sure to tone down her singing as well, wary of intimidating a potential buyer. “Being a pop writer in L.A., they don’t want to hear [vocal] runs,” Renea explains. “You sing straight, dry, bland, hit the note, give me a little character, and get out.”
There’s not much that’s dry and bland about Renea’s “Hrs and Hrs,” a decadent R&B ballad — shot through with honeyed, high-wire runs, acrobatic ad-libs, and references to three different kinds of showers (champagne, thunder, traditional) — that went viral over the holidays. The track feels like a refutation of all those years when she felt she needed to hold back her voice. She announces her intention right at the start of the song, first through corkscrewing, wordless lines, then through a question. “I don’t usually do this,” Renea warns during a brief spoken intro. “But can I sing to ya?”
The answer from many listeners appears to be an emphatic yes. “Hrs and Hrs” hit Number Two on Apple Music’s daily chart recently, and it’s high on the Spotify Viral 50 as well. “Funnily enough, the runs on this song are what everyone loves,” the singer says. “The ad-libs at the end are what everybody references.”
But there’s a twist: The single is not credited to Renea; instead, she has climbed the charts as Muni Long. She felt like assuming a new identity was necessary to distance herself from her past. To an outsider, this might seem surprising, because that past encompassed a wildly successful run as a first-call songwriter — she has landed cuts with Rihanna (“California King Bed,” “Watch n’ Learn”), Ariana Grande (“Imagine,” “Fake Smile”), and Mariah Carey (“Infinity,” “A No No”), among many, many others.
But the music industry tends to pigeonhole songwriters, even the successful ones. While many are brimming with talent and harbor dreams of working on their own artistic projects, few are given the latitude and support to do so. “For the longest time I felt like I had to do a departure from Priscilla Renea because everybody knew me already,” the singer explains. That meant the songs she put out under her own name were often dismissed out of hand in the music industry — “Oh, that’s just Priscilla.”
So she started plotting her reinvention. “I was just trying things for a second, and none of it was working,” she says. “I had changed my name to Melrose. In 2018, I put out this country record — let me switch genres, let me see if that helps.” After that release didn’t take off, she started another country album, determined this time that she would not try “to impress the good, old boys.” But, she says, “Somewhere in that process, it wasn’t clicking.”
Around that time, her co-manager Rashad Tyler proposed another zigzag. “‘Don’t chew my head off, don’t curse me out,’ ” Renea recalls him saying. “‘But I think you need to sing R&B.’ ” While she had written for her fair share of R&B singers, she had never attempted recording the music on her own. She settled on a new name, initially just Muni, inspired by a Filipino phrase but pronounced like “money,” then Muni Long, an aspirational pun. And she plunged into a new genre, debuting her first single in the fall of 2020, and following up with a pair of short releases last year, July’s Nobody Knows and November’s Public Displays of Affection.
The second EP was actually already done when Renea encountered the “Hrs and Hrs” beat on the internet. “I hate cleaning up — hate it, hate it, hate it, hate it,” she says. Searching for some music to make chores go faster, she stumbled on the instrumental underpinning “Hrs and Hrs,” a slinking, ticking beat — made by Beathustle’s Dylan Graham and Ralph Tiller — that follows the form of classic R&B ballads. Renea liked it enough that she started freestyling, which took some of the sting out of washing dirty dishes.
She finished the track off with Kuk Harrell, one of the most in-demand vocal producers in the music industry (Beyoncé, Usher, Justin Bieber). The two originally met years ago during Rihanna recording sessions and are kindred spirits when it comes to feeling that “nobody wants to sing” right now. “Everybody wants to do a cool, conversational thing; everybody’s afraid to use all the tools they got,” Harrell says. But, he continues, “You can only get so much emotion with linear melodies.” The pair worked to fill “Hrs and Hrs” with the vocal equivalent of barrel rolls and nosedives. This was made easier by the fact that, as Harrell puts it, Renea “has nothing but great control over her voice at all times.”
“Hrs and Hrs” was tacked on to Public Displays of Affection, which came out right before Thanksgiving. But it didn’t reach millions of listeners until the end of December. The track revels in vivid scenes from a passionate relationship, and TikTokers started to use it in videos in which they “showed affection and intimate moments with a significant other,” Renea says. Within a week, “Hrs and Hrs” breached the Top 10 on Apple Music.
Renea’s reinvention has been thoroughly successful — so much so that it’s started to confuse old collaborators. In her past life, she placed songs with Monica, known for classics like “Before You Walk Out of My Life” and “So Gone.” The R&B veteran liked Muni Long’s new track “Sneaky Link” and brought her down to Atlanta, excited to work with what she thought was a new act. It wasn’t until the two took a break from the studio and made a trip to Waffle House that Monica realized that Long was, in fact, Renea, and that she’d cut her songs in the past.
Renea laughs at that one, but she’s in a much stranger position with record labels: Music executives who once thought of her only as a songwriter are now eager to be in business with her artist project. “That’s a bit overwhelming,” she acknowledges. “‘What happened? I’ve known all you guys for years. All of a sudden I have something and now you’re interested?’ I’m trying very hard not to be pessimistic about that.”
The irony, of course, is that after releasing songs under a different name in the hopes of shaking the music industry’s impression of her, Renea ended up experiencing a breakthrough moment without any help from the music industry at all. She self-released “Hrs and Hrs” through her own label, Supergiant Records.
Now it’s a sought-after track. But Renea already enjoys a fair amount of economic security, thanks to her long list of songwriting credits. That means it’s hard for her to see the value of turning the song over to a major label and cutting a deal, at least for now. “I’m not trying to go backwards, go back into that dark system,” she says. “And [maintaining] ownership is where the world is going. We don’t want people telling us what to do.”
“She knows what she wants to hear, she did it, and those records have found a home,” Harrell adds. “They’re working [commercially] without all the trappings that everybody gets tripped up in, the label and A&R people going, ‘You shouldn’t do this,’ restricting every creative person.”
Renea is delighted that after a decade of “Can I write for ya?,” she’s now finally able to ask, “Can I sing for ya?”
“I love when I have a feeling about something and then everyone else feels the same way,” she says. “It’s confirmation: I should always follow my instincts.”
From Rolling Stone US