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With A New Single, "Freckles," And Upcoming Album 'Pity Party,' Curtis Waters' Year Only Gets More "Stunnin'"

Curtis Waters

Photo by Hassan Rashid

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With A New Single, "Freckles," And Upcoming Album 'Pity Party,' Curtis Waters' Year Only Gets More "Stunnin'"

The TikTok-famous performer reflects on his smash-hit year and looks ahead to what's next

GRAMMYs/Sep 1, 2020 - 08:04 pm

Four years ago, a heavily depressed 16-year-old Nepali immigrant living in Calgary named Abhi Bastakoti was told by his grandmother to hang in there, because she had looked at his future, and had a feeling his life would take a turn. She even made a prediction: that her grandson's best year would come at age 20.

That’s the kind of woman you want picking your lottery numbers. Because four years later, only months after turning 20, Bastakoti’s ship came in. Under his artist name Curtis Waters, he became one of this challenging year’s breakout stars. When most of the world had gone into COVID quarantine, he expertly employed the viral powers of TikTok to tease out the impending release of "Stunnin'"—a sly, raunchy, hilarious and insanely catchy two-and-a-half minute collaboration with Canadian pals Harm Franklin and Declan Hoy that has, no cap, changed Waters' life.

The star-making powers of TikTok were on full display when those teasers caught fire, priming the pump for the May release of the song, which was a monster. "Stunnin'"s numbers lived up to its name: 700,000 streams a day by early summer; 70 million plays on Spotify alone as of late August; hundreds of thousands of TikTokers have posted their own clips to the song, including platform superstar Dixie D’Amelio; and an irresistible D.I.Y. music video featuring a tux-clad Curtis busting some moves and a cameo from his younger brother Albert has, to date, 11.6 million views.

To borrow one of "Stunnin'"s lyrics, Curtis busted quick, and sure enough, the labels came circling. Even before the song's release, based solely on the TikTok buzz, industry players waved lots of deals with lots of zeros. But rather than opt for a quick payout from people who, Waters sensed, were more interested in a dozen more "Stunnin'"s than in the totality of what he wanted to do as an artist, he and manager Chris Anokute (an industry vet, former A&R for Katy Perry and Joss Stone, and the founder of Young Forever Inc.) opted for a more artist-friendly license-only deal with BMG.

Waters soon proved himself much more than that one viral hit, with two summertime follow-up singles, each dramatically different from "Stunnin'"s horny flex. In June there was "System"—a pugilistic, electro-punk indictment of both music biz commodification of artists and the cancer of racial injustice that America was once again confronting with the killing of George Floyd; followed by July's "The feelings tend to stay the same," a shimmery, sentimental pop reflection on a college romance that had to end, with a misty, Wes Anderson-worthy video to match.

Now Curtis, who says he loves upending genres and "pushing boundaries," adds yet another chapter to an eclectic image, in the new single "Freckles." The first taste of Waters' upcoming album Pity Party is a bright and tender ode to a survivor, and it was the first song that made Anokute interested in working with Waters. The manager happened across it via an algorithm in February, when both "Freckles" and the entire album were briefly online (Pity Party was soon taken down, but gets its official release next month).

"I think it probably says more about me than 'Stunnin'' to be honest,” says Waters of "Freckles," which was born out of a friendship with a girl he met when he was in a mental hospital, and her determination to carry on in the face of numerous traumas. The artist's own mental health struggles have long informed his music. He's been making beats since he was 14, started making songs for himself a few years after that, and a visit to his Soundcloud page reveals plenty of earlier songs that vary wildly, from trap to straight pop-punk—including a first album, 2018’s Prom Night—which, despite being consistently upbeat and often funny, mine themes of depression, anxiety and inadequacy.

Waters was born in Nepal, moved to Germany at 4, Canada at 10 and North Carolina at 17, where in 2019 he was diagnosed as bipolar. That led to a slippery slope of over-medication and a sabbatical from college—a chapter of his life that will be chronicled on Pity Party. He hopes his candor about those struggles will reach other young people in similar situations, and it’s one topic we touched on with him over Zoom in mid-August. Also discussed: his conservative parents (academics with multiple degrees) and what they make of his rawer lyrics; the glory of the Smashing Pumpkins’ "1979"; the complexity of Curtis’ musical hero Kanye West; and Waters' challenging musical ambitions, which go far beyond "Stunnin'."

Congratulations, man! What a crazy last few months it's been for you, and what a year for it to happen in.

Thanks! It’s only been I guess, six months?

I saw you tweet the other day, "Usually I wake up so anxious but lately I have felt so fking good, waking up every day excited to make music."

And I have been making a lot of music too!

In one of the Nepali papers this summer you said, "I see myself as more of a producer who knows how to make myself sound good," rather than a great singer or rapper.

Yeah. I only started making music for myself when I was 17, with vocals? But I’ve kind of finessed my way into knowing how to produce really well over the years. And I’m getting better at singing. I want to challenge myself to make more acoustic, stripped-down almost folk-type songs too. But so far it’s just been like—I wake up every day and I make like five beats a day. I’m just always working on stuff. So I don’t think I am an amazing singer by any means, but I think I’m—I kind of know how to write songs, and I know how to make cool stuff. You know what I mean?

Having a breakthrough year in this crazy pandemic year—it’s got to be great and a little weird. But you said your grandma predicted this would be the year for you back when you were 16?

Yeah. I was going through a really difficult time. I had left high school because of my depression. And I was just looking for hope. And I was talking to my mom, and my mom told my grandma without really telling me, and my grandma went and saw a fortune teller. And for years I wasn’t religious or superstitious, so it was hard for me to be like, "Oh, things are gonna work out one day.” But she said 20 will be the year where I start finding happiness, and things will really start looking up. It was always this like self-fulfilling prophecy where I was like working really hard to making sure something would happen by the age of 20. But then also knowing something would happen because my grandma said so.

Since "Freckles" is the new single, tell me about that one first and we'll work our way backwards. It was the first song Chris [Anokute] heard and made him want to work with you?

Yeah, a hundred per cent. I don’t think Chris ever really cared for "Stunnin'," to be honest. It’s not his type of song. Honestly, even for me "Stunnin'" is—it’s a fun song? But I don’t really listen to music like that most of the time. I mean, of course it’s been awesome for me because I get to live out my dreams. But "Freckles" was a song that I had my heart in.

You had posted "Freckles" online early this year, before "Stunnin',” along with the whole Pity Party album, and then took it down?

Yeah, from the very beginning I was like, "Okay I don’t have any industry connections, but I know my music and is gonna get slept on and I don’t know what to do about this. I made this entire album in my bedroom, mixed and mastered, everything, but I just don’t know how to get it out there." And you know I would send it to these A&Rs, these label people, and finally I was like, "Fk waiting." I knew in my heart it was amazing, thought people were gonna love it and whatever happens, happens. And it kind of did happen. Chris found me randomly, just really naturally because of a Soundcloud algorithm, he heard the record and just loved it so much.

"Freckles" is sweet, but there is this intense line about "Band-aids on your arm/ Your scars they remind me/ All that you’ve been through/ But you’re still here smiling." Is there a story behind it?

Yeah the whole album kind of started because I was in a mental hospital and I was diagnosed with bipolar [disorder], and then I came back home. And it relates because this girl I met in this mental hospital, I reconnected with her, maybe like six months after I came back home? And she was just telling me about traumatic things that were happening, but like the whole time we hung out, it was such a pleasant conversation. She was just so strong, and so happy. And so much happened in her life, but she still had such a positive mindset. She was like, "I’m gonna become a flight attendant," and she was just excited about her future.

And another girl was at the heart of your recent single "The feelings tend to stay the same"—which may be the most sentimental thing you’ve put out. Definitely a world away from "Stunnin'."

What’s interesting is for me, now—I’m sort of playing catch-up. Because people are finally hearing the stuff from the album, and I’m already thinking about what’s next, right? So people are discovering "The feelings tend to stay the same," whereas really that’s what I was feeling back like a year ago, when I wrote it. But that song is probably the best look into where I am most right now—emotionally.

And it’s got this great video out on a lake, in a field…

Yeah that was in the park around where I live. My brother’s in it, and my friend Fallon that I went to prom with in high school, and my friend Jailyn from college. So it was easy, because it was all friends.

Speaking of high school friends, I actually retweeted you recently when you talked about your love for the Smashing Pumpkins' "1979"— which is truly one of my favorite songs of all time.

Oh, I love that song!

So great. It’s such a quintessential teen-years song. I told [Billy] Corgan years ago that as far as I’m concerned that song is so perfect it would be like "Drop the mic, I’m done" after writing that.

I love that video too. I want to capture—that’s what I want my music to be. Like, what I feel when I listen to that, that’s what I want. It’s like—I know how to make beats, I know how to do this, right? But I’ve been making more stuff like that recently, for sure. Regardless of sonics and stuff, that’s the emotion I want to really hone in on.

You’ve been really open about your mental health and being diagnosed as bipolar. Do you still have high highs and low lows?

This year I’ve controlled it. I’ve controlled it way better. I mean I am a stable guy, for sure. But like when I was younger, it was really hard. Even when I was writing this album it was really hard. But at this point—I hope nothing goes wrong where I go completely off the track again? But I am in a good spot for sure, at this point.

No celebrity has been more open in recent months about his own bipolar condition than one of your personal musical heroes, Kanye West. What are your thoughts on his artistry, his openness about that side of his life and his more divisive political involvements?

It's hard. You idolize certain people, and then at the end of the day they're just like you. And that can sometimes be good, and other times you can realize they’re just as flawed, or just as incoherent, or they’re just winging it. I don’t know. All I can really say is I hope he finds happiness. I hope he finds stability. Sometimes I just feel like, none of this shit matters. Just be with your family, be happy, be healthy, you know? But he’s changed my life, with his honesty. And the thing about honesty is, you’re not always gonna like it, right? I don't agree with everything he says. I don’t support a lot of things he says. But I can’t ignore how much [he] impacted my way of thinking and my life, and how it liberated me, creatively and as a human, growing up.

Who knows if we would be here talking if it weren’t for "Stunnin'." So much has been said about the TikTok campaign. But what do you remember about that song coming together? It was your friend Declan [Hoy] who did the beats?

Yeah he sent me the original beat, and I played the chords on it, and I rapped on it, and I did the chorus and I rearranged it and all that stuff. Usually I make the beat, and finish everything myself. But this time I took what he sent me, made my version of it, and at first I—I kind of hated the song. [Laughs.] I sent it back, he was in the same city with my friend Harm Franklin, and he sent me his version back. I put Auto-Tune on it, mixed and mastered it, finished the song. And I just didn’t know what I was gonna do with it, because I was really trying to do songs more in the realm of "The feelings tend to stay the same," just reflecting all this stuff that I had been going through emotionally, right? And then I had "Stunnin'," which felt like a detour from where I was trying to go artistically. But, then corona happened, and so I was like, "Okay, no more sad music. Everyone’s already sad. Let’s cheer people up." So I teased it, saw the response, and then I was like, "Wow, okay. This is not a bad song. People love the song." It got such a crazy reaction. 'Cause usually the people who react to my music are a certain demographic, you know? I mean, I know who likes sad, emo pop-punk, whatever you wanna call the type of energy I’m on usually. And "Stunnin'" was a different energy, and it was like—not to say "normies," but the casual listeners were really in for it. So, you know, when it’s reaching the casual people that’s when you know, it’s like, "Okay. This is not just for me."

I thought of your now-infamous "Good p*ssy sound like pasta" line when Cardi B talked about hers being like "Macaroni in a pot" in "WAP"! You guys were in sync there!

Yes sir! Known fact! [Laughs.] But the thing about that is—the shit that I say in "Stunnin'"—that doesn’t have to be me. You know, I could be an actor in a movie and do all this crazy shit, and no one’s gonna be mad at me, because I’m acting, right? So I can just take on this dickhead character in a song, where I just say vulgar stuff. You know what I mean? But sometimes people message me like, "I can’t believe you said this!" And I’m like, "Why would you believe that—I'm not…! It’s just a fun song!" It’s entertainment.

But lines like that one, or "I can go slow or go faster, if I bust quick that’s a bastard"—you can play that stuff for your parents?

I don’t think they even understand most of what I’m saying. Uh…which allows me to get away with stuff? But there’s like an unspoken rule where, if there’s some lyrics that are questionable, we don’t talk about it? You know, they listened to "The feelings tend to stay the same" and they read the lyrics and they were like, "Yeah this is amazing" and they loved it and we talked about it. But we’ve never talked about "Stunnin'" lyrics and I hope we never do. [Laughs.]

This year alone you’ve shown a lot of variety. You think it’s reductive to call Curtis Waters just a hip-hop artist?

I don’t think any label is accurate. I don’t know what I am—I’m finding out every day. Some people will tell me "You’re a pop artist" or "You’re a hip-hop artist," you’re this, you’re that. I’m just a dude making stuff that I like every day. I mean the way I think about my albums is like, eras of Kanye, or eras of Tyler, the Creator. You know what I mean? I mean I am already thinking, "What is the next era?" And not even albums—even just songs. Those three songs—"System," "Stunnin'" and "The feelings…"? For me, those are completely different songs. I don’t know what genres they are. And I love that. You know, I want to keep doing that. I want to keep challenging, pushing myself, pushing whatever boundaries there are already. I feel like my music is not even weird enough right now. I want to get weirder!

Curtis Waters' "Freckles" is out now. His album Pity Party is set to drop Oct. 9.

Read more: Dua Lipa Talks 'Club Future Nostalgia,' Working With Madonna And How She's Navigating The Music Industry In The COVID-19 Era

Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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Poll: From "Dreams" To "The Chain," Which Fleetwood Mac Song Is Your Favorite?

Fleetwood Mac in 1975

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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Poll: From "Dreams" To "The Chain," Which Fleetwood Mac Song Is Your Favorite?

"Dreams" experienced a charming viral moment on TikTok after a man posted a video skateboarding to the classic track, and now it's back on the charts, 43 years later

GRAMMYs/Oct 16, 2020 - 04:00 am

In honor of Fleetwood Mac's ethereal '70s rock classic "Dreams," which recently returned to the Billboard Hot 100 thanks to a viral TikTok skateboard video from Nathan Apodaca, we want to know which of the legendary group's songs is your favorite!

Beyond their ubiquitous 1977 No. 1 hit "Dreams," there are so many other gems from the iconic GRAMMY-winning album Rumours, as well as across their entire catalog. There's the oft-covered sentimental ballad "Landslide" from their 1975 self-titled album, the jubilant, sparkling Tango in the Night cut "Everywhere" and Stevie Nicks' triumphant anthem for the people "Gypsy," from 1982's Mirage, among many others.

Vote below in our latest GRAMMY.com poll to let us know which you love most.

Related: Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" Back On Charts Thanks To Viral Skateboard Video On TikTok

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Poll: What's Your Favorite Van Halen Song?

Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

Joan as Police Woman

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Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors

GRAMMYs/Apr 7, 2020 - 07:21 pm

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors. Today, singer/songwriter Joan Wasser of Joan as Police Woman, whose forthcoming covers album, COVER TWO, includes tracks by The Strokes, Prince, Talk Talk, and more, shares her Quarantine Diary.

Thursday, April 2

[10 a.m.-12 p.m.] Went to bed at 4 a.m. last night after getting drawn into working on a song. Put on the kettle to make hot coffee while enjoying an iced coffee I made the day before. Double coffee is my jam. Read the news, which does not do much for my mood. Catch up with a few friends, which does a lot of good for my mood. Glad it goes in this order.

[12 p.m.-2 p.m.] Make steel cut oats with blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, fresh ginger, fresh turmeric, a sprinkling of cinnamon and cardamom, and of course, coconut butter to melt on top. If you’re not into coconut butter (sometimes marketed as coconut "manna"), I’d suggest just going for it and getting it (or ordering it) and putting it on your sweet potatoes, your oats, anywhere you’d put butter. I’m not vegan but I do enjoy hearing the tiny scream uttered by a strawberry as I cut into it. 

Contemplate some yoga. Contamplate meditating. Do neither. Resume work on the song I want to finish and send today. I have a home studio and I spend a lot of my time working on music here. The song is a collboration sent to me from Rodrigo D’Erasmo in Milano that will benefit the folks who work behind the scenes in the music touring system in Italy. 

[2 p.m.-4 p.m.] I traded in a guitar for a baritone guitar right before all this craziness hit but hadn’t had the time to get it out until now. I put on some D’Angelo, plugged into my amp and played along as if I were in his band. Micahel Archer, If you’re reading this, I hope you are safe and sound and thank you immensely for all the music you've given us always. 

[4 p.m.-6 p.m.] Bike repair shops have been deemed "necessary," thank goodness, because biking is the primary way I get around and I need a small repair. I hit up my neighborhood shop and they get my bike in and out in 10 minutes, enough time to feel the sun for a moment. 

I ride fast and hard down to the water's edge and take in a view of the East River from Brooklyn. There are a few people out getting their de-stress walks but it is mostly deserted on the usually packed streets.

[6 p.m.-8 p.m.] Practice Bach piano invention no. 4 in Dm very, very, very slowly. I never studied piano but I’m trying to hone some skills. Realize I’m ravenous. Eat chicken stew with wild mushrooms I made in the slow cooker yesterday. It’s always better the second day.

[8 p.m.-10 p.m.] Get on a zoom chat with a bunch of women friends on both coasts. We basically shoot the sh*t and make each other laugh. 

Afterwards I still feel like I ate a school bus so I give into yoga. I feel great afterwards. This photo proves I have a foot. 

[10 p.m.-12 a.m.] Record a podcast for Stereo Embers in anticipation of my new release on May 1, a second record of covers, inventively named COVER TWO. Continue to work on music (it’s a theme).

[12 a.m.-2 p.m.] Tell myself I should think about bed. Ignore myself and confinue to work on music. 

[2 a.m.-4 a.m.] Force myself into bed where I have many books to choose from. This is what I’m reading presently, depending on my mood. Finally I listen to Nick Hakim’s new song, "Qadir," and am taken by its beauty and grace. Good night. 

If you wish to support our efforts to assist music professionals in need, learn more about the Recording Academy's and MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.

If you are a member of the music industry in need of assistance, visit the MusiCares website

Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"

Hero The Band perform at the Recording Academy Atlanta Chapter Annual Membership Celebration
Photo: Marcus Ingram/WireImage

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Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"

How sound planning for a creative future in our urban areas makes all the difference for artists and musicians

GRAMMYs/Oct 24, 2019 - 01:27 am

The future, as they say, is now. And for music makers around the world, building a future for themselves often starts at home, in their local creative community and in the city where they live. While technology has expanded communication and made the world smaller, cities continue to grow, making planning for the future a critical cultural mission of the present.

To that end, a new report by global organization Sound Diplomacy titled "This Must Be The Place" examines, "The role of music and cultural infrastructure in creating better future cities for all of us." The 37-page deep dive into community planning and development highlights the importance of creative culture in what it calls "Future Cities."

"The government defines ‘Future Cities’ as 'a term used to imagine what cities themselves will be like," the report states, "how they will operate, what systems will orchestrate them and how they will relate to their stakeholders (citizens, governments, businesses, investors, and others),'"

According to the report, only three global cities or states currently have cultural infrastructure plans: London, Amsterdam and New South Wales. This fact may be surprising considering how city planning and sustainability have become part of the discussion on development of urban areas, where the UN estimates 68 percent of people will live by 2050.

"Our future places must look at music and culture ecologically. Much like the way a building is an ecosystem, so is a community of creators, makers, consumers and disseminators," the report says. "The manner in which we understand how to maintain a building is not translated to protecting, preserving and promoting music and culture in communities."

The comparison and interaction between the intangibility of culture and the presence of physical space is an ongoing theme throughout the report. For instance, one section of the report outlines how buildings can and should be designed to fit the cultural needs of the neighborhoods they populate, as too often, use of a commercial space is considered during the leasing process, not the construction process, leading to costly renovations.

"All future cities are creative cities. All future cities are music cities."

On the residential side, as cities grow denser, the need increases for thoughtful acoustic design and sufficient sound isolation. Future cities can and should be places where people congregate

"If we don’t design and build our future cities to facilitate and welcome music and experience, we lose what makes them worth living in."

For musicians and artists of all mediums, the answer to making—and keeping—their cities worth living in boils down to considering their needs, impact and value more carefully and sooner in the planning process.

"The report argues that property is no longer an asset business, but one built on facilitating platforms for congregation, community and cohesion," it says. "By using music and culture at the beginning of the development process and incorporating it across the value chain from bid to design, meanwhile to construction, activation to commercialisation, this thinking and practice will result in better places."

The report offers examples of how planners and leaders are handling this from around the world. For instance, the Mayor Of London Night Czar, who helps ensure safety and nighttime infrastructure for venues toward the Mayor's Vision for London as a 24-hour city. Stateside, Pittsburgh, Penn., also has a Night Mayor in place to support and inform the growth of its creative class.

Diversity, inclusion, health and well-being also factor into the reports comprehensive look at how music and culture are every bit as important as conventional business, ergonomic and environmental considerations in Future Cites. Using the Queensland Chamber of Arts and Culture as a reference, it declared, "A Chamber of Culture is as important as a Chamber of Commerce."

In the end, the report serves as a beacon of light for governments, organizations, businesses and individuals involved in planning and developing future cities. Its core principals lay out guideposts for building friendly places to music and culture and are backed with case studies and recommendations. But perhaps the key to this progress is in changing how we approach the use of space itself, as the answer to supporting music may be found in how we look at the spaces we inhabit.

"To develop better cities, towns and places, we must alter the way we think about development, and place music and culture alongside design, viability, construction and customer experience," it says. "Buildings must be treated as platforms, not assets. We must explore mixed‑use within mixed‑use, so a floor of a building, or a lesser‑value ground floor unit can have multiple solutions for multiple communities."

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