“Let the world know that I’m the best artist alive,” says Tory Lanez. The phone line goes dead.
During our short transatlantic phone call, Lanez delivers his responses like mantras. Deliberate, honest, and clear; even stock phrases lifted straight from a hip-hop almanac seem profound. Every answer he gives is designed to demonstrate that his come-up is not the work of chance. The title of his debut album, ‘I Told You’, is to show his situation now is as it always has been in his head; his destiny is beginning to manifest.
Born Daystar Peterson, the 24-year-old was nicknamed Lanez as a child for his attraction to danger, and a worrying penchant for playing in traffic. He’d adopt “Tory” when he started rapping as a teenager, in tribute to his idol, The Notorious B.I.G. Even from the start, setting out with a moniker taken from one of the rap game’s immortals, Tory armed himself with a goal of acquiring his own legendary status.
Like Biggie, Tory had a turbulent upbringing. He lost his mother aged 11 to a rare form of anaemia, and spent a large part of a frustrated youth following his recently ordained father on evangelist missions around the US. Settling for brief stints in Atlanta, Miami and Queens, New York, Tory eventually returned to his native Toronto to live with his grandmother. With visions of grandeur holding him back from working a nine-to-five, he turned to petty crime and ended up getting kicked out. He began fending for himself; hustling to buy groceries, and at some points spending nights on park benches. Lanez, even as he remained obsessed with creating a better life for himself, was being swallowed up in the dark underbelly of Toronto.
This period in Tory’s life - the trials he faced in love, comradeship, crime and hope - provided him somewhat of a wake-up call, and is the basis of his first LP. ‘I Told You’ is laced with dramatic interludes intended to draw the listener in to its autobiographical narrative. On ‘Dirty Money (Skit)’ he breathlessly reflects: “I knew I was in too deep / Things was just getting out of control / My lifestyle, it was creating a conflict between my girl and my music / At that point I had to let some things go and learn to love from a distance.”
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Music, inspired by the truths of his past, would be the tool to realise an imagined future, and so he began releasing material in 2009, aged 17. Back then, ‘letting the world know’ was more of a mission statement that an actual claim. Untrained and inexperienced, he began to forge a style that fused rap sincerity and R&B sentimentality, but his journey through the industry became a minefield of leg-ups and setbacks. A prospective deal with an interested Justin Bieber fell through when Biebs was deemed too young to be signing artists, and a subsequent record contract with Sean Kingston ended up going nowhere.
By the time his official debut single ‘Say It’ dropped via Benny Blanco’s Interscope imprint, Mad Love, in 2015, he was 13 mixtapes deep into his career. ‘Say It’ was an RnB banger with ’90s stylings, but more importantly, a huge hit that would be the beginning of a slow cocking of Tory Lanez’ middle finger, which over the next 12 months would reach increasingly skywards.
His belligerence was further propelled by the success of his Caribbean-flavoured follow-up single, ‘Luv’, which proved that he was here to stay, acting both as a booming ‘fuck you’ to his doubters, and the ideal precursor to his debut album. ‘I Told You’ is a painstakingly crafted walk-through guide to young Daystar’s journey to becoming the man many said he would never be: “A lot of artists dream of the day they can release an album,” he says. “For me, more than anything else, the project just had to come out.” It’s a record that builds historical context around the formidable ego that Tory has cultivated, recounting his commitment to determinism and how, throughout his trials, he has never placed a limit on just how far music could take him.
The enormous success of the album’s lead singles cemented his potential. Instead of sticking with a winning formula, Tory remains defiant, steadfast in the faith he has in his own creativity. As a result, he’s not prepared to stay in one lane: “I make different types of music for different times,” he offers, nonchalantly. “I make some music for me, some for the Internet and some for radio. There’s multiple sides to me.” Different is the optimal word here, and his multiple sides are reflected in the various sonic identities he adopts across his recent releases.
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Vocally versatile and comfortable working with numerous production styles, Tory is able to adapt to changing musical landscapes, and does so with unnerving regularity. His chameleon-like ability sees his flow meander through dancehall-infused R&B, soulful slow jams and straight-up trap bangers. As admirable as his technical skill is, the multiple styles that penetrate his music have left many with the perception that Tory is still struggling to find his sound. His seat on staple US radio show The Breakfast Club was barely warm when host Charlamagne Tha God began addressing him as “Drake-lite” and “Tory Tiller” in reference to some of the names he’s commonly likened to.
Whether an imitator or simply a multi-faceted artist, it’s obvious that Tory is at least striving to stay unexpected: “I’m a Leo, and so I thrive off progression,” he explains pointedly. “I don’t want people to feel like they know my sound. I’m going to work on changing it up. If they don’t like it, they don’t. I don’t give a fuck!”
Despite the rebellious posturing, his album divulges a great amount of insecurity and intimacy. When asked what compels him to express such stone-faced truth, he breaks from the clichés and unveils an almost-audible moment of introspection. “I’m always going to keep it honest,” he promises. “Part of my music and artistry comes from the times when I feel vulnerable. People appreciate me for the things I say, which they can’t say themselves - and I want my music to always be like that.”
A display of artistic range or poetic expression, ‘I Told You’ articulates much of what popular R&B and hip-hop are missing, but does so almost without meaning to. Tory Lanez doesn’t profess to getting a thrill from pushing boundaries, and there's a certain purity in the singular nature of his intentions. He explains: “There are things that you say to people that they won’t believe. When those things come to pass as you said they would, there’s not many better feelings in life.”
Tory Lanez gets his buzz from revelling in four words that many of us try to avoid saying, and when he is the best artist alive, he’ll be the first to say: ‘I told you so.’
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Words: Robbie Russell
Photography: James Robjant
Fashion: Vincent Levy