tobi lou (which he lowercases tobi lou) doesn’t fit into boxes well. Since moving to L.A. a couple of years back, he hasn’t had to. Instead, he has doubled down on his creative vision. Eclectic musically and visually, the rapper/producer has attracted considerable buzz thanks to songs and videos for “Game Ova,” “Troop,” as well as his recent EP releases for tobi lou and the Moon and tobi lou and the Loop.
Growing up in and around Chicago, lou, who was born in Nigeria, never thought he would actually be here. Not too long ago, playing baseball professionally consumed most of his time and energy. But music stayed on his mind. “Even though I was pursuing baseball, at the time [and] I had chances and hopes of playing professional, I always thought music would be something I did after I turned pro.”
When an injury ended his field of dreams, though, lou turned to music. lou got confirmation that he’d made the right move very quickly by making it through the doors of a label. Even before he left Chicago, his SoundCloud uploads were attracting attention while coming to L.A. showed him just how truly legitimate those connections actually were. They definitely gave him an advantage. “I basically was in sessions every day, kind of living the dream,” he explains. “[It was] not knocking on doors but actually holding the door open with my foot and being in the room with a lot of creative people and a lot of people who had a long list of accomplishments in the industry.”
And those connections were fruitful. They were enough to keep him going and helped him support himself along with working as an Uber driver. “My first break came when I wrote a song that appeared on a Jeep commercial. So it was like a nice, big first check,” he says. “It wasn’t like enough where I could hang anything up but it was really nice to not have to Uber for a couple of months.”
Chicago never left him and, being in L.A., actually sharpened his voice. Chicago in itself has set a high bar for artists. Chance the Rapper, Common and Kanye West are three huge names in HipHop that also happen to be from Chicago. Not surprisingly, of the three, West has been one of lou’s biggest musical influences. It was West, the superstar rapper and producer–not the present-day Trump supporter and future presidential candidate–that got lou open to becoming a rapper in the first place. “I didn’t actually rap or think I could rap until I heard Kanye,” he says.
In addition to West, lou counts Michael Jackson, Biggie and N’Sync among his musical influences. “I was just like an MTV head so I loved Pop culture in general,” he explains; which is evident in his music, especially in his videos. There is a whimsy to them that director Glassface, who really got the industry’s attention with Lil Yachty’s “1 Night” video, brings to life. Glassface credits lou for being the very first artist to pay him to do a music video. Both lou and Glassface love cartoons so there is a lot of animation in their collaborations. Interestingly, the two creatives met on a Kanye forum. An ode to Kanye West’s trademark Dropout Bear is omnipresent in the “Troop” music video.
West’s imprint can be directly found in lou’s music as well as that of Andre 3000. “I think they shaped a lot of how I do music as far as [connecting] the humor side of it to the real problems. When I first heard “Hey Ya,” I really didn’t understand what was going on. But, when I looked back at it, then I realized here was this happy feeling song but he was talking about the saddest thing in the world, which is divorce,” he says of 3000.
“And Kanye, he would be talking about pain and then enters the joke,” he continues. It’s just so interesting how you could be going through depression, going through some real stuff like some of the stuff I went through, but still see the humor to it.”
The musicality of lou’s songs is also disarming. They are so melody-drenched and hint at touches of the soulfulness and house music for which Chicago is known. Because a number of lou’s songs sound so R&B-ish and sweet, it is hard to hear the grit and aggression in many of them. Take “Game Ova” for example. “Hello motherf*ck*r what ya know about me/Howdy-doo nigga ooh what you know about me/Give a f*ck what ya heard what ya know about me/Hold up, hold up/Your bitch look good what she know about me?” are very aggressive lyrics but the laidback and easy-paced production is very deceptive because the track could easily be found in the Quiet Storm mix.
lou is big on depth and packages it very unexpectedly. “Solange” illustrates this. “Hair long like Solange or hair gone like Solange” is more than wit; it also points to Beyoncé’s little sister as a symbol of freedom and self-expression. lou says it’s about “kind of like being who you are and not worrying about anything else. I feel like for so long Solange was just kind of looked at as Beyoncé’s little sister and you can imagine trying to find your place in this world when your sister is Beyoncé.
“For her to accomplish that album [A Seat at the Table] . . . . It was her shining moment of being herself, being Solange, no longer being Beyoncé’s little sister. And I feel like, in a lot of our lives. we’re all always maybe comparing ourselves to someone or trying to live up to something we see, whether it’s a sibling or whether it’s actually the people on social media. It’s about having the confidence in just being whoever you ever want to be, however you want to be and taking control of your life.”
And lou has definitely taken control over his. The kinked-out buns he rocks atop his head are a look that suits him, not a trend he follows. Whether he dons a pink hoodie or a simple t-shirt, lou comes across as easy, effortless almost. This past year his trees have really bore fruit. “I think I’ve gotten over 20 or so placements as far as TV shows,” he says. “We had a song on Criminal Minds, which I thought was crazy because I couldn’t think of a situation where a TV show like Criminal Minds or Law and Order would ever need my music. But, of course, they used it for a pizza party for friends where they end up getting killed.” He’s also had a placement on the breakout hit Grownish starring Yara Shahidi.
Working on his debut album is even bigger than that. tobi lou’s debut album is coming out on ArtClub International, an LA based label that spawned hits like Omarion’s “Post To Be,” Anderson .Paak’s “Malibu” and hits for Jhene Aiko. So far the dreams he didn’t even dream are coming true with Chicago legend No I.D. (who got a lot of nods for his imprint on Jay-Z’s 4:44), executive producing lou’s debut. It’s a full circle moment for sure.
“That was kind of like crazy to me because I still remember first hearing Kanye talk about No I.D. on The College Dropout on the last song,” lou says excitedly. “I love sped up samples in music and Kanye learned that from No I.D. so it’s just kind of crazy to me. I would never imagine that type of thing happening.”
BY RONDA RACHA PENRICE