In Tobi Lou's world, anything can happen.
Inspired by the limitless possibilities of cartoons, the young Chicago artist is fueled by playful creative freedom. "There's something about a world where anything is possible, and it can be as crazy as you want or as real as you want," he says. "I feel like some people lose that magic when they get older. We're dealing with real shit, so I get it. But even when dealing with real shit, you've still gotta have a sense that anything can happen as if your life is a fuckin' cartoon."
His career is still in its early stages, but Tobi has figured out that his creativity can spread far beyond the music itself. He's built an inviting world full of cartoon characters, whimsical visuals, and a unique personal style. Of course, none of this would matter if the music wasn't great. After gaining early buzz with songs like "Pretty Please" and "Game Ova" in 2015, he kicked this year off with an excellent three-song EP called tobi lou and the Moon that showed off his ear for melody and an ability to write clever, relatable songs.
We've had our eyes on Tobi Lou for awhile now, but today feels like a major step forward with the release of his video for "TROOP" featuring Smino. A song about enjoying the reality of being by yourself, this might be his best work yet. Director Glassface—who's been collaborating with Tobi on all of his videos—agrees. "We've made a lot of videos together but I feel like 'TROOP' is the most special," he says. "We tried to make the greatest video of all time. 'TROOP' is a mixed media trip through Tobi's imagination."
Watch the premiere of "TROOP" below and continue for our full interview with Tobi Lou.
Can you catch me up on your background before the Tobi Lou stuff started?
I came to Chicago from Nigeria when I was like two years old. Then I ended up playing in an independent professional baseball league. It was basically equivalent to Class A ball in the minor leagues. I was in Joliet for awhile with the Slammers, then I went to Mexico and got injured.
I came back and tried to work for like a year, but it just wasn't working out. I was still living at home and my mom said I either had to go to school or leave. I didn't want to go back to school, so I decided to pack my bags and move to LA. Now I'm out here and that's kind of where the Tobi Lou stuff started. I feel like I came out here to figure out how to do what I want to do with music, so I can make my way back to Chicago. Now I'm back and forth between Chicago and LA.
I found a joy in talking about sad shit sometimes and having fun being sad.
Was there a point that you remember finding your style as Tobi Lou?
Finding my sound and style was kind of tricky. Sometimes to this day, I don't even know if I have it. I like to record when I wake up, so I'll just get up and go with whatever I'm feeling that day. I feel like I have honed in on it better, though, and that just took time. I was making music in Chicago, and you know that's such an amazing, soulful, inspirational city. We have so many amazing artists there with so much soul: Chance, Vic, Saba, Noname, the list goes on and on. But I just felt like any time I made something, I was getting compared to anyone from Chicago and I just wanted to be me.
I always felt different. Kanye West was the reason I started making music. When I first saw him on the TV and radio, I heard this voice that I'd never heard before. When I heard him, I thought, "Wow, okay, so different people like me are allowed to make music."
From there, I started using melody more and tried to figure out what my rapping style was. I made a song a couple years ago, and I thought I was rapping on it, but everyone told me, "Wow, that's such a good R&B song." And I'm like, "Wait, what?" That song was called "Game Ova," which was the first song that got me any kind of attention. At that point I started honing in on my sound more.
Lots of your songs are upbeat and fun and give off a positive energy. What attracts you to that kind of music?
Winter in Chicago is terrible. No one really goes outside, and if you're outside, everyone's just battling the elements. So you don't really see smiles or anything. Then I came to LA in February and it was bright as fuck. I was walking around and it felt so different. Of course it was sunny, but I just realized everyone was smiling, too. I was like, "What the fuck?" Then I figured out, oh, that's because they don't have to battle zero degree weather.
So in LA, I was feeling a vibe of happiness and freedom. I was couch surfing at a friends' house, so it was still tough, but when the sun comes up, it makes you feel like you have a chance. I feel like that made me start in my little quote-unquote "happy shit" Tobi Lou stuff.
But on the other hand, one of my favorite songs is "Hey Ya!" by OutKast. Most people don't know that André 3000 is talking about the saddest shit on that song, because it's masked with happiness. He's talking about divorce and why love doesn't last and shit, but he's like, “You don't want to hear me, you just want to dance.” So I found a joy in talking about sad shit sometimes and having fun being sad. I kind of adopted that in my early stuff. I'm still doing it now, but I do have some sadder sounding shit that isn't as upbeat and happy, too. I just haven't put that out yet.
Kanye West was the reason I started making music. When I first saw him on the TV and radio, I heard this voice that I'd never heard before. When I heard him, I thought, 'Wow, okay, so different people like me are allowed to make music.'
I’m really impressed with all your visuals. How do approach that side of being an artist?
I watched artists like Kanye West and Missy Elliott make videos when I was younger—anybody who really took their time with it. Today you have the same with artists like Kendrick Lamar, Janelle Monáe, and Beyoncé, but videos used to really mean something. It got to the point where they meant less. I mean, I fuck with crazy mobbing in the street type videos, too—it’s just about what fits the vibe. But I always felt that videos were a chance to put everything together. I always thought they were really important.
Glassface is the key for me being able to unlock the things I do visually. Without him, I couldn't do shit. For videos, I'll have an idea, or sometimes he'll have an idea, and we'll come together. Then he'll take it even further with shit I'd never think about. My mind really thinks musically and I can put a story together, but the shit he does with my visuals really takes it to another level.
You've known Glassface for a long time, right?
Yeah, we met on a Kanye forum. At the time it was called either KanyeTalk or KanyeLive. Now it's KanyeToThe. I was posting shit under my first musical name, Wonda. He reached out, said he fucked with it, and started doing cover art for me. He doesn't do the cover art for me now, though. Right now, Goodnight Meesh does that.
She's actually the reason why my hair is in buns, too. One day, she was putting my hair in braids and she always puts it in buns before she separates it out. I was looking at it in the mirror and I was like, "Um, the buns look kind of cool." I hate getting my hair braided, so we just stopped there. Then I went to the beach and got a bunch of crazy looks, but I felt good, because I was the only one like that. But yeah, she's a brilliant artist and created Little Lou basically. I owe it to her and Glassface for bringing my vision together.
I want my own cartoon. I want that shit so bad. It's what I'm building towards and why I’m incorporating all these worlds, sort of like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where it blends cartoons and reality.
I noticed that you use animation a lot in your artwork and videos. Did you grow up watching a lot of cartoons?
Not only did I grow up watching cartoons, but I still watch that shit. I don't know why, but my mind really reacts to animation. Hey Arnold! was one of my favorite all-time cartoons. I used to love Doug. And Avatar: The Last Airbender—I like anime, too. I just love animation. There's something about a world where anything is possible, and it can be as crazy as you want or as real as you want. BoJack Horseman is a really crazy show. I want my own cartoon. I want that shit so bad. It's what I'm building towards and why I’m incorporating all these worlds, sort of like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where it blends cartoons and reality.
I feel like some people lose that magic when they get older. We're dealing with real shit, so I get it. But even when dealing with real shit, you've still gotta have a sense that anything can happen as if your life is a fuckin' cartoon. I really like that shit.
That's exactly what you achieve with the video for "TROOP." How did that come together?
I was high, watching That '70s Show before I fell asleep. Then I woke up and saw the classic smoke circle. I was just watching and thought to myself that it would be crazy if I was in the smoke circle with fuckin' cartoons and random ass shit.
Then I was like, "Wait, can we do that?" I always say that, because of course you can do anything, but we don't have money like that. To make things happen, we have to be creative and lean on talented friends. When we shot "Game Ova," we shot it in the arcade where Kid Cudi shot "Day ’N’ Nite." To shoot there was a crazy amount of money, so we told them we were in art school and were filming a project. We just have to come up with ways to get shit done.
So, I hit Glassface up and told him the idea."TROOP" is a song about being by yourself, but you can enjoy it and think of it as being with your crew. I made it because when I moved out to LA, I was by myself almost every night. I had to kind of turn up by myself, smoking or drinking or whatever. I was my own troop. So I'm hallucinating and having a trip and I'm imagining these little cartoons and the Kanye bear. Not Kanye, but the Kanye bear. Like, "Who would you have dinner with out of anyone in the world?" The Kanye bear. It's just one crazy trip.
"TROOP" is a song about being by yourself, but you can enjoy it and think of it as being with your crew.
What kind of headspace were you in when you wrote the song?
I always made music sober. I never got high or drunk when I made music. But when I finally moved out of my parents' house and was on my own out here, I was kind of in my own space. I would try to smoke or drink a little and make music, but I was never able to. I would just end up listening to music and shit, but never made anything. It would end up just being a little party by myself. As sad as that shit sounds, I was a little depressed and nothing was going right. I didn't totally know what to do. I was like my own best friend and I wasn't really talking to my friends back home.
It wasn't a fun experience, but that's the headspace I was in. When I say, "When I'm with my troop,” that’s just me being there for myself. In that song, I say, "I've got my hair in buns, bitch I'm cute." You know how you change your hair up or you get a new 'fit and your friends hype you up? I was by myself and didn't have those people with me, so I had to be my own confidence and build myself up each day while going through that stress.
The Smino feature is awesome. How did that come together?
When I was in Chicago every day, I would go up to Classick Studios. The owner Chris "Classic" Inumerable is now Smino's manager. I would go up there and do sessions with Cam O'bi normally. Chris always fucked with me and we kept in contact over the years. I was a big fan of Smino and when I was singing the "woo woo woo woo" part of the song, I thought he would sound dope on it. I took a shot in the dark and had Chris send it to him. From what I heard, Smino fucked with it immediately and sent it back right away.
You’ve been really busy already this year, dropping lots of music and videos. Are you going to keep that up throughout the year?
Yeah. This year's about coming at the world in a visual manner. It's about the music, but the music is being delivered by the visuals. I realized that when you post a song, you've kind of got to wait for people to listen. Some people just don't have time and they'll get to it later. But when you post a video, people get to that shit. Whether they're watching on silent at work or in a classroom, it's going to catch a lot more people. So I realized that's how I have to deliver the music.
I really loved watching Brockhampton release all those videos last year. I was like, "Yeah, that's how you do it.” Fuck everything else. Get people content and make sure it's good. With the tobi lou and the Moon series, I put out short videos to lead up to this grand video, "TROOP." Then we're going to do another series that will lead up to "NUMBERS," which is the next big video.
I’ll end with a corny ass question that I always like asking: If you had to describe the ideal setting for someone to hear this song for the first time, what would it be?
I feel like an ideal setting would be watching the video. Now that we have a visual, I can't imagine people hearing it without seeing the video. Ideally, I'd like you to get home and plug your laptop into your TV with some crazy speakers. Take it in like it was a Friday night and you went to Blockbuster after school or some shit. But honestly, even if people are watching it on their phones, I think it's going to be an experience no matter what.