The Kid LAROI | Steve Cannon

The Kid LAROI Has the Streaming Numbers of a Superstar. Now He’s Figuring Out How To Be One

The Australian artist has gone from having “nowhere to record” to collaborating with pop’s A-listers in a span of a few short years. With one of the year’s most anticipated debut albums, is he ready for everything that accompanies global success?

The Kid LAROI is about to explode. All the evidence you’d need is littered throughout his Instagram page, which is filled with shots of platinum plaques, recording sessions with pop superstars and cryptic messages about imminent new music that score hundreds of thousands of likes. His booming list of co-signs has helped to quickly make the rapper a household name in his native Australia — and, increasingly, across the globe.

That said, The Kid LAROI is also very much still a kid. He’s 17 years old — for reference, he was born nearly a year after Kelly Clarkson won American Idol. He lives with his mother and younger brother in Los Angeles, and in conversation, he’s very much a teenager, his demeanor switching between inspired to inquisitive to indifferent, often at a moment’s notice.

Sometimes, his response indicates he’s eager to fully experience the luxuries of adulthood (for his 18th birthday in August, he wants to return to Australia to get drunk). Other times, he responds in a way that shows he’s interested in simply moving along the conversation (“no, that’s the only thing I want to do,” he says, with a passing half-laugh, after being asked if anything else is on the birthday agenda).

There are also instances when his tone noticeably perks up, and he launches into his well-rehearsed vision for his future. “I want to be one of the biggest artists in the world before I’m 21,” he tells Billboard, and then he repeats it a beat later, almost as if to simultaneously manifest the goal. Each time he says it, it feels more destined to come true.

And make no mistake: LAROI is already well on his way. Last July, he released his debut EP, F*CK LOVE, which launched at No. 8 on the Billboard 200. When he followed it up fewer than four months later with a deluxe edition titled SAVAGE –complete with seven new tracks — the project catapulted to No. 3 on the chart, which tied Iggy Azalea as the highest-peaking entry from an Australian hip-hop artist. He also littered the Hot 100 with eight entries throughout 2020, both via posthumous collaborations with his mentor, Juice WRLD (“Hate the Other Side,” “Go,” “Reminds Me of You”) and with genre-blurring solo hits. His most recent, the pop-leaning acoustic ballad “Without You,” is currently at a No. 31 high in its 17th week on the chart.

It hasn’t taken long for the rest of the music industry to notice, or attempt to hitch itself to his success, either. In January, Elton John sang LAROI’s praises on his Rocket Hour podcast — which, if nothing else, helped his grandparents “grasp how crazy what I’m doing is,” LAROI says. He has strengthened his business ventures too, inking separate deals with both UTA for worldwide representation (except in Australia, New Zealand and Asia) and Sony Music Publishing in February. And he’s quickly becoming a pop culture fixture, scoring his TV debut on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, teasing forthcoming collaborations with Halsey and Miley Cyrus, and guesting on Justin Bieber’s new full-length album, Justice.

LAROI tries to downplay such achievements, noting that he doesn’t like to “think about the stuff I’ve accomplished because I feel like it [doesn’t] motivate me to keep moving” — though he lets on that trying to wrap his head around his ever-growing platform can feel daunting, too. “It’s interesting,” he stammers, thinking through the answer. “Everything is coming at me kind of quick, so it’s a little overwhelming.”

LAROI only arrived stateside in 2019, and in that short span, has gone from a relative unknown to something of a representative act for the next generation in Australian music — a surging list of globally streamed breakouts, alongside Tones and I, and more recently, Masked Wolf. But at the same time, he’s had to adjust to living in another country, which he deems like “being inside a whole other realm of the world,” and in lieu of any sort of break, he’s experiencing his formative years under an enhanced public lens. When asked about the outlets he’s found to briefly escape the pressure, LAROI only offers, “Sleeping.”

With the release of his debut album later this year on Grade A Productions/Columbia Records, a steadily growing streaming presence and a return to touring on the horizon, stardom for LAROI seems to be less of a matter of if than when. The bigger question remaining is if he can find the specific stepping stones to reach the full extent of the spotlight he seeks to attain — he says he wants to do for Australia “what Drake did for Toronto” — and whether he’ll fully embrace it when it arrives.

“At the end of the day, I’m doing the best that I can do,” he says. “I’m making the best music that I can. I can’t really give a f–k what [other] people have to say because it’s not stopping me. I’m still making money and I’m still making my family proud. That’s all that matters to me.”

Born Charlton Howard, LAROI moved around different parts of Australia throughout his childhood, from an inner-city suburb of Sydney to the countryside feel of Broken Hill to a brief stint in Adelaide for boarding school before moving back to Sydney. He remembers a distinct interest in rap music, largely thanks to his mom keeping a steady rotation of ‘90s hip-hop acts — including Tupac and Fugees — playing around the house.

“As a kid, you pick up whatever is around you musically,” he says. “That was a big influence just because when I started going through a lot of different stuff, I started relating a lot of the lyrics to my own life.”

From an early age, he worked tirelessly to find spaces to create his music and to build his platform by playing it for anyone who would listen (including NBA star and fellow Australia native Ben Simmons). His first manager, Ziggy Annor, helped him to accomplish both goals — the two have since parted ways, though LAROI says he can’t discuss the situation in detail — after they linked up following LAROI’s split as part of a short-lived duo.

“He had been hitting us up as a group and we just never ended up linking with him,” LAROI says. “But when the group split, I was like, ‘I’m solo, I don’t know what to do, I have nowhere to record — do you think you could help me out?’”

The Kid Laroi | Steve Cannon

As a solo act, Howard first took on the stage name The Kid LAROI, a nod to his familial history as part of the Kamilaroi tribe — part of the larger Aboriginal community in Australia. His great-great-grandfather was part of the Stolen Generation and “was always told that he was Spanish because of his darker skin [complexion],” as LAROI explained in a 2017 video.

“[Knowing] your background and where your family comes from is very important,” he says now of the stage name. “It’s super important to carry that and be proud about your heritage.”

In 2018, LAROI and his then-manager decided to submit the former’s languid demo “Disconnect” to the triple j Unearthed High competition — which spotlights young, undiscovered talent in Australia — mere hours before the deadline. Of more than the 1,100 total entries, he finished in the top five, with his announcement as a finalist coming with a shoutout from the station. He saw his Instagram follower count jump from 500 to more than 3,000 and quickly acted, uploading the demo to SoundCloud the same day. Less than two weeks later, he released the song as part of a full EP, 14 With A Dream.

The five-track project notably included “Blessings,” which leans on the flute rap trend that dominated hip-hop in 2017 and showcases LAROI’s melodic strengths in the chorus and more traditional hip-hop instincts in the verses. Before long, the song caught the attention of Grade A Productions co-founders, brothers and current managers Brandon “Lil Bibby” and George “G Money” Dickinson. Bibby, a Chicago mixtape staple in the early 2010s, had launched a label with his brother not long before — and signed Juice WRLD through a joint venture with Interscope in March 2018 — and G Money reached out to LAROI on social media.

“It was his versatility — we saw potential just off one song,” remembers fellow manager and Grade A Productions partner Peter Jideonwo. “Bibby always [praises] the way he attacked the beat at an early age without too much training. If you’re a professional team like us, you know what you can do with that.”

According to Jideonwo, the trio of Grade A executives spent the next several months on “hours and hours of FaceTime and phone calls to him and his mother,” tapping him as an opening act for Juice WRLD on a few January 2019 tour dates and outmaneuvering the competition — “every label at some point was interested,” he says. LAROI ultimately reached a partnership agreement with Grade A and Columbia Records — with chairman/CEO Ron Perry personally doing the A&R work and signing him to Columbia, according to the label — in April 2019.

“I obviously needed money,” LAROI says with a laugh. “But not only that, I needed somebody who was going to help me build and keep growing with me. That’s the biggest thing.”

In the months that followed, LAROI moved to the U.S., living with Jideonwo and Juice WRLD for the better part of a year before settling into his own place with his mother and younger brother. During Juice WRLD’s Death Race For Love Tour, the then-15-year-old LAROI accompanied the team from one stop to the next. He’d stay in adjoining hotel rooms with Jideonwo in every city, oftentimes leaving the manager tasked with striking a balance between babysitter and mentor in the interim.

“As a kid that had never been to the U.S., he had to lean on us a lot to navigate and make him what he is today,” Jideonwo says. “He’s growing up now. You have to let him spread his wings and figure out life on his own while still being around to guide him.”

LAROI recalls his hiccups from time to time — including an incident of spending an exorbitant amount of money on new clothes before taking pictures in them and realizing, “Holy s–t, I can’t wear this again,” he remembers. But by and large, he was constantly fleshing out how to become a better artist. Like his mentor, he found success in recording as much as possible, and trading in prewritten verses for freestyles.

His sound continued to fade away from the traditional hip-hop efforts that steered his earlier days, and instead leaned more heavily into the emo trap sound, where Juice WRLD remained at the forefront. LAROI’s last single of 2019, a December release titled “Let Her Go,” helped build his stateside audience, thanks to its Post Malone-esque vocal runs and a music video treatment courtesy of Cole Bennett’s Lyrical Lemonade. (LAROI refers to Bennett as his “brother,” and has teased a forthcoming collaboration between the two.)

But just two days after the video arrived, the team’s family-like nature suffered tragedy after the sudden death of Juice WRLD due to accidental overdose. In the time since his passing, several intimate moments captured on video between LAROI and the late rapper have surfaced, be it the first time they met, or just a few months before his passing when Juice WRLD “gifted” LAROI a guest verse as a belated birthday present. And on the first anniversary of his death a few months ago, LAROI released the aching “Reminds Me of You,” featuring a posthumous verse from Juice WRLD — which, although about a failed love relationship, still conveys the heartbreak of the loss just the same, particularly as LAROI somberly sings, “everything and everywhere reminds me of you.”

Juice WRLD’s death is part of a troubling pattern over the past few years: the hip-hop community has lost multiple young artists either approaching or in the thick of the prime of their careers, from Lil Peep to Mac Miller to Chynna, many of whom were open in discussing their mental health states. Even as the conversation surrounding mental well-being in rap lyrics becomes less taboo — and according to one study, more common than not in the genre’s biggest hits — it’s evident that the industry is struggling to protect some of its young, flourishing acts.

The trend is not lost on LAROI, having frequently explored themes of depression, as well as drug and alcohol abuse, in his own lyrics. (“I need to pour me up a cup just to feel somethin’/I feel like I been through so much, I don’t even feel nothin’,” he raps on SAVAGE track “Feel Something.”) And as the protégé of sorts for Juice WRLD, LAROI has been forced to reckon with the impact of the former’s loss in the public eye — as well as the gravity of preserving his legacy alive, even if Jideonwo downplays such a notion.

“I wouldn’t say he feels pressure,” he emphasizes. “I would say he feels gratitude. I don’t think anyone is saying he has to be as big as Juice. He’s in his own lane and going to flourish regardless. But Juice was one of the most integral parts of what he is today.”

The Chicago rapper’s death sadly isn’t LAROI’s first experience with losing a loved one. He tries to steer clear from the weightiness of it all, explaining that he has a “weird power of manifesting stuff.” But while he grapples with the fragility of life, he’s determined to not let that stop him from living his, either.

“I direct my thoughts elsewhere every time I think about that,” he says. “It’s scary that you could just die at any minute, but you know what? That’s why every day I wake up and I do whatever the f–k I want. Because at least when I do die, I want to know that I made myself happy.”

Much of LAROI’s success, in similar fashion to Juice WRLD, has chiefly stemmed from his streaming popularity. His established SoundCloud presence in Australia translated well to DSPs in the United States as he built on the success of “Let Her Go” with other singles in early 2020 — including one named after Addison Rae, TikTok’s second most followed personality, that went viral on the app following its release in March. (The song has since been used in more than 135,000 user-created videos.)

“’Diva’ [featuring Lil Tecca] and ‘Addison Rae’ were doing around 300,000 streams a day out of the gate when they came out,” says Ned Monahan, Spotify’s head of global hits. “That’s a really a significant number. It showed there was a really dedicated fan base he’d been building.”

That presence has extended globally in droves over the past year, too. According to Monahan, LAROI had fewer than 38,000 followers on Spotify as of last February. Today, that number has jumped to over 1.56 million — good for an increase of more than 4,000%.

That’s due in no small part due to the focused placement of his music on various editorial playlists on the platform, which Monahan calls “the bread and butter of growing somebody globally because it’s the most direct way to find audiences in different territories.” Since Spotify named LAROI a RADAR artist last October, his programmed streams — or the ones coming from playlists — have increased by 262% (and 176% across the board).

“We saw a tremendous amount of momentum grow in a variety of places he didn’t have before — Nordic [countries], the Netherlands, Germany, the U.K.,” Monahan says. “He’s turning into one of the most exciting global superstars that we have in music.”

It certainly helps that LAROI’s presence not only exists on countrywide, all-genre Spotify hits playlists (such as Hot Hits USA, UK or Deutschland) but many curated genre-specific ones. In the past year, his music has appeared everywhere from Pop Rising to RapCaviar to Alt NOW. Per Monahan, streaming data shows that despite his hip-hop background, he’s currently performing best in pop-leaning spaces. And the same applies at radio: take “Without You,” which is yet to chart on R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, continues to make waves at Pop Airplay and Alternative Airplay, recently lifting to the top 15 on both charts.

LAROI places little emphasis on being viewed as a “rapper” at this point, anyway. “I don’t tie myself to any label — I just tie myself to being an artist making music,” he says. “Whatever genre that comes out, comes out. I’m open to everything. I’d like to explore the country element.”

“In 2021, every artist is an amalgamation of a variety of different genres,” Monahan adds. “LAROI is a perfect example of that. That means whenever there’s a song that makes more sense for one space versus another, we’re going to actively go after that audience and try to bring them in.”

To Monahan’s point, LAROI is hardly the first of his peers to try his hand at many different genres en route to commercial success outside of hip-hop, even if his strategy to tap into different markets is less outwardly overt than fellow rising artists iann dior, 24kGoldn or Trippie Redd. Part of that, Jideonwo alleges, is because he thinks LAROI still has “to identify with something” and that “at his core, he excels the most at melodic rap.

“I think him being a rapper is still great,” he continues. “It’s the most relevant base right now. It’s where the kids are. The things that make social tick every day push out from the hip-hop space — I don’t hear about Taylor Swift every day, but I hear about what Lil Baby does every day.”

The public consensus seems to view him in a predominantly hip-hop lens as well — which has subsequently led to a few spats in social media comment sections over the past few months, following comparisons of total Spotify monthly listeners to other brand name talents in the rap world. It’s a flawed observation at best, since LAROI exists in numerous markets that artists like Kendrick Lamar and Lil Baby haven’t much explored, and also because, according to Spotify for Artists, the algorithm only measures “unique listeners who play your music during a 28-day period.” (LAROI benefits there from having more recently released music in bulk.) Nevertheless, it hasn’t gone unnoticed, and has drawn the ire of some hip-hop heads skeptical about LAROI’s rapid rise.

LAROI initially brushes off the backlash, simply noting that he has seen the comments, though he gradually becomes more eager to actively put it to rest. “At this point, I’m just so numb to what people have to say, whether people agree or disagree with it,” he reflects. “You can’t be mad at somebody who is just unaware [of how the data works]. People are free to think, feel and say however they want. I’d rather people talk about me than not.”

In a perfect world, he’d prefer to let others hold as much of the dialogue as possible, anyway. In conversation about his career, he frequently leans on slightly reworded variations of “do more and say less” and “just believe in yourself and f–k what everyone else has to say.” It’s something of a catch-all for LAROI, who seemingly uses it as a defense to avoid providing too many specifics on what lies ahead — whether it be details about his forthcoming debut album, or a broad-strokes idea of the label he’d like to start for Australian artists after fully establishing himself in the industry.

“You have to have a plan and you have to do it properly,” he says. “I’m working on that and have been thinking about it for a long time. I don’t want to tell everybody about my plans, if for some reason it doesn’t go [how I want].”

Even the honest sentiment that he may misstep along the way — or the idea that any sliver of doubt exists in his mind about what his future holds — is quickly rescinded. “I’m more of a doer rather than talking,” he reiterates. “But I will tell you, eventually I’m going to make it happen.”

Jideonwo reinforces the same thinking: “There has never been a deviation from the plan,” he says. “We’ve always had the mindset that, if we’re undertaking this, we’re going to make [him] the biggest walking living legend possible.”