Tobi Lou is growing into the artist he wants to be
“My goal this year is to be the best new artist"
“My goal this year is to be the best new artist"
“Ya’ll gat about, what time is it?… Ya’ll gat about seven days left to listen to ‘Non Perishable’, after that, I’m deleting it from the internet.” Those were the words the Nigerian-born, LA-based rap artist Tobi Lou spurted cheekily in a video he posted on Instagram, just after he released his recent 11-track mixtape, ‘Non-Perishable’.
The announcement threw his cult following into a full-blown frenzy. From wistful satirical videos on TikTok begging him not to delete it, to making the topic a top trend on Twitter for days, to getting the album into 3 categories on the Billboard, to helping the tape snag the top spot on the iTunes Hip-Hop Album chart. They moved mountains, shifted the needle of his career and asserted to the world how powerful the artiste’s loyal fan base is.
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I’ve been on a Zoom call for a little over six minutes, waiting for Tobi Lou to appear. I had been joined by his public relations manager and two other members of his team earlier, who had cordially exchanged pleasantries with me and assured me that Tobi would soon join us. A calmness hovers over the virtual nucleolus we share. As I look at their avatars transfixed on a slice of my Zoom window, I visualise them as menacing guards poised to pounce on me if I put Tobi in an uncomfortable situation. The same calm gives way to an eeriness—my connection tapers for a second, the tableau on my screen flickers, static filters through my headphones. Silence.
“Heyy,” says Tobi, his bass-inflected voice thunders through my headphones, bringing a fresh gust of vim into the room as the corners of his lips slowly fold up into a spirited smile.
“Yo! What’s up bro”
He apologises for being behind schedule while fiddling with his camera to get a good angle “Sorry for the lateness, my eh.. Zoom wasn’t working.” As for many of us slowly adjusting to the vagaries of a fast-paced post-pandemic reality, domestic life for the LA-based multi-hyphenate artiste has gotten tricky. Life has gotten especially tricky for him considering that he just dropped a mixtape. “I feel good, I think I’m doing so much right now, it’s hard to really feel things”. Just like most of us, however, he looks like he’s getting along just fine, at least judging from the slice of reality visible through our shared virtual window. Framed against the backdrop of a picturesque living room, he’s draped in a pastel-pink sweatshirt, which hangs low enough to reveal a svelte glistening chain adorning his neck. He dons an off-white cap worn to the back, which stealthily functions to accentuate his unconventional nature.
As I speak with Tobi Lou, it becomes obvious why he has amassed a ride-or-die fan base—he has the uncanny ability to weave words with astute dexterity, whether it’s through a conversation or the lyrics in his music. He welds words suavely to enrapture you in whatever offering he puts forward.
Tobi Lou has not always toed the music arc professionally. He used to be a talented baseball player, playing for the Joliet Slammers. But even then, he was always doing music in the background. After practice and in-between periods of respite from actively playing sports, he channelled his energy into music, splitting the limited time between woodshedding and actively making music. The career inflexion point for him came when he suffered a hamstring injury and was forced to give up playing baseball. Following this, music naturally became his prime interest. “I think the only thing that changed was that I no longer had any time constraints around like my job per se, I could sit at the computer all day and investigate music, experiment, make songs, make beats,” he tells me.
While this shift came with its perks for him music-wise, it also came with unforeseen baggage. For one, instead of the fixed schedule he had during his baseball days, Tobi Lou now had all the time in the world to make music, which meant he often found himself lost in the whirlpool of music-making, often forgetting to take the breaks.
His relationship with music, however, started at a young age. In grade school, he often wore the hat of being the class clown, stringing together cleverly fashioned cheeky rhymes to entertain his classmates. By sixth grade, he had recorded his first song. He speaks about this moment with a palpable childlike enthusiasm: “It was like magic almost, like the fact that my voice was now rapping over the same beat we would hear on the radio.” After this momentous epoch, he religiously started making music at home on his computer, tinkering with keys and buttons to make his music sound the way he envisioned it in his mind. This pattern of making music still trails Tobi Lou till this day; he finds it most comfortable making music from his home.
Even though he had pursued other interests, the way he sees it, he was born to make music and everything that played out, culminating in him becoming a musician were as a result of the seemingly invisible yet powerful hand of destiny.
In the mid-2010s, the sonic direction of Hip-Hop was taking a new turn, as younger artists were starting to lean towards more experimentation, shredding the standard rap rubric to shreds and putting it together in new inventive ways. It was in this period Tobi Lou had his big break, and in many ways, he encapsulated the zeitgeist of the time, with his avant-garde look, his Lo-Fi pixelated sound and his aesthetic informed by his nostalgic love for films and animated shows.
In 2016, Tobi made his debut with “Game Ova”, a viral single that racked in more than 1.5 million streams on SoundCloud. Pressed about how this single came about, his face takes on a spirited aura and he grows loquacious. He tells me how he got sent a pack of beats from a Detroit producer. While perusing the pack of beats, he liked most of them, but when he heard the “Game Over” sample, he was instantly enraptured by it. “I heard that sample from ‘Game Over’ from the Super Nintendo, and my eyes just lit up,” he says. He credits this moment as one of the key forces that shaped his artistic trajectory and defined his musical vista. Today, when people think of Tobi, they envision a suave blend of digital Lo-Fi aesthetics and sounds, and “Game Ova” was the start of this legacy.
Tobi’s art transcends rapping. Rap is the spiky piece of the iceberg piercing through the water, under the water is a giant mass buoying the iceberg. For Tobi, this subtle mass upholstering of his artistry, which functions to deliver the 360-degrees-Tobi-experience, comprises his genius outré production abilities, his cool conversational delivery style and his cutting-edge artsy visuals. These qualities mirror his strong creative personality. He started recording before producing, but early on, he got curious about music production and the holistic process of creating music from start to finish. He’d hear a sound or think of a melody and want to bring it to life, that gnawing yearning guided him into learning music production.
When he got more serious about making music, he quickly figured out that he was not the most prolific vocalist or the sharpest lyricist, production was a way to elevate his craft, engineer a unique experience and seer his brand on every song. Artist-producers like Kanye West and Pharrell Williams were among his mentors, and by effect, their 360-creative process crystallised the idea of being involved in the creation of a song from start to finish.
Scrolling through his Instagram page reveals an elaborate virtual labyrinth of enigmatic photos and videos such as tiles of bold avant garde visuals expertly superimposed against each other. It could pass off for a futuristic virtual museum in the metaverse. Pressed on this he says, “I always wish I went to an art school but I think in general—like I have two sisters, we’ve always had the craziest imaginations. I don’t think we needed any formal training, I think the only thing we needed was to grow, and this is what everyone needs—to grow into the type of artist they’re gonna be”.
Tobi is very conversational, we’ve been talking for over 30 minutes, and he’s been very open with me, replying to my questions with affable vim. He provides elaborate replies to my questions, while punctuating the session with spirited laughs, elaborate gesticulations and occasional pauses to gulp his bottle of water. This astute conversational dexterity bleeds into his music, on every song, he paints a vivid picture with his characteristic casual conversational tone, paired with accentuating sound effects and a fitting production.
“One of the first things I learned when I came out to LA from Chicago, I was sitting in like meetings and sessions with producers, A&Rs and stuff like that, and a lot of it was pop-based sessions, and they taught me how to speak in a pop formula,” Tobi tells me of a period in his learning curve. “That the things I’m trying to say shouldn’t be hard to reach, think about how you talk to somebody, some of the things that we’ve said in this conversation can be used as lyrics.”
Tobi Lou just put out his third project, a mixtape which he cheekily dubbed ‘Non-Perishable’. The project has earned him the biggest commercial reception since the start of his music career. “You know, I wish I could say I planned it,” he says of the project. ”I don’t know what triggered it, I just know the thought came to me. I always wanted to drop a project out of the blue but I don’t have enough awareness to do that, and it finally got through my head that, ‘hey! you can’t just be an artist you have to market yourself.’”
“Non-Perishable came about in a different way than any other tape, or project that I’ve released because with the other projects, I knew I was working,” Tobi Lou says of the spontaneous process for the mixtape. “Like, say on ‘Live On Ice’, which I released in 2019, I knew I was working on it. ‘Non-Perishable’ is the only project I didn’t know I was working on. I was actually working on another project called ‘Perish Blue’, and a lot of it took place over 2020 and 2021. That project was so deep and emotionally draining that I was exhausted, and I made a whole different bunch of stuff that didn’t make the album. I just remember talking to my sister, because I make so many different styles of music, and ‘Perish Blue’ was kind of long and had so many different styles. She’s just like ‘Yo! What if you just focused on giving people an organised, put together energy, for each project?’ So when she said that, I was able to take a lot of the fat off of ‘Perish Blue’ and then I realised I had three projects and ‘Non-Perishable’ is the one that I just released.”
At this point, he starts looking jaded and reaches to his bottle for a huge gulp of water. I make mental notes and start preparing to roll the curtains. Instead, I somehow steer the conversation into a more sunny arc and talk about how excited I was, when I heard his collaborative effort with fellow first generation Nigerian-American artist Chika. His face lights up and he gives off a wide smile, struggling to control his mirth. I ask him if he has plans on working with Nigerians in the future. “Yeah, definitely! It’s kind of long overdue, and it’s something I’m excited to do”.
The conversation gets breezy and relaxed, so I press on.
“If you could work with any Nigerian artiste from the entire talent pool we have for now, who would it be?”
“I’ve always wanted to work with Wizkid because I think he is such a pioneer, but then I heard Tems’ voice and I just kind of fell in love with her voice. I’m a producer, so I imagine people in different sonic environments. If you put me in a session with Tems, oh my gosh! I just would imagine what would come from it. I would say it’d have to be a tie between Wizkid and Tems. But I have respect for all Nigerian artistes because they’re all doing something different. If I end up being in a session with Santi, that is a win in itself, cos it’s something new and different coming from that.”
Tobi is still loquacious, speaking passionately about how vibrant the Afropop scene is now, but he looks visibly tired, so I hint at the interview drawing to a close. For a few seconds, he pauses to catch his breath. Seeing him still, as soft amber-hued light filters creamily through the window behind him, I’m struck by how he is as much a genius in real life as he is in his music.
He tells me about his plans for the year. In a couple of months, he’ll be touring in the fall, rolling out more music videos, he also plans on rolling out three more projects this year. He announces with brazen confidence “My goal this year is to be the best new artist, to be like when you look up and say ‘what happened this year?’, and like, all that happened was, every time someone looked up, I was there.”