The Kid LAROI leads this year's 21 Under 21 list featuring a mix of young chart-toppers, TikTok stars-turned-artists and on-the-verge breakout acts, among many more making waves in the industry right now. The list will publish in full on Friday, Oct. 8 at 10 a.m. ET.
The Kid decided he wanted ice cream instead.
It’s a Wednesday in September, and we had planned to grab a late lunch in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But at the last minute, The Kid LAROI — the Australian rapper-singer born Charlton Kenneth Jeffrey Howard — says he would rather hit up Mikey Likes It Ice Cream, a shop in Manhattan’s East Village that he has visited three times since arriving in New York last weekend. He orders like a regular, asking for his usual — a flavor called Foxy Brown involving mocha, a sea salt caramel swirl and crushed chocolate wafer cookies — before bonding with the cramped space’s currently lone worker about how they both recently turned 18. Rows of small clocks with celebrity headshots as their faces line the walls, and LAROI points to one of Macaulay Culkin making his famous open-mouthed Home Alone poster face. “Look,” he comments between bites. “It’s me.”
This spur-of-the-moment jaunt isn’t out of character for LAROI — keeping up with his good-natured spontaneity is simply what it means to be a part of his inner circle these days. His rider (an artist’s set of requests for a host upon arrival) includes a ball pit, à la Chuck E. Cheese, that he can dive into during breaks on music video sets. Songwriter-producer Omer Fedi, a close friend and collaborator, says LAROI will often call from outside his house or hotel, eager to ride go-karts or head to a nearby Dave & Buster’s. On more than one occasion, his manager, Adam Leber, has found himself driving 30 minutes to a specific McDonald’s just off South Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles so LAROI can snag an elusive frozen Coke he can’t seem to find anywhere else.
Lately, there has been less and less time for such whimsical adventures — being a budding global pop star tends to get in the way, and that seems to dampen LAROI’s enthusiasm. Sitting in the back seat of a black SUV outside the ice cream shop, he intermittently tears at a cardboard coffee tray and scrolls through his phone. He groans at the idea of having to travel several hours to rural Pennsylvania later this week for a rehearsal, and more than once, he likens interviews like this one to “schoolwork.”
“I hate feeling like I’m having a forced conversation,” he says, scraping the bottom of his first cup of Foxy Brown while waiting for a second to arrive. “I just hate talking about myself, to be honest. I’d rather not talk at all.” His omnipresent box-framed sunglasses, he explains, are in part a defense against “people trying to figure out what I’m thinking.”
In general, LAROI would prefer to let his music do the talking, and right now, it’s speaking volumes. “Stay” — his amped-up hit with a Justin Bieber assist and a plucky, ’80s-inspired synth line courtesy of Charlie Puth — has arguably been the biggest song in the world since its July release. It has held the top slot on the Billboard Hot 100 and Global 200 charts for six and a record-setting nine weeks, respectively, amassing 1.87 billion global on-demand streams along the way, according to MRC Data. Before that, he had been riding the success of the acoustic ballad “Without You,” which peaked at No. 8 on the Hot 100, thanks to a remix with Miley Cyrus, and led to a May appearance with her on Saturday Night Live.
Collaborators like Bieber, Cyrus and Puth are just a few of the growing LAROI fan club members among pop’s A-list. After edging him out in the fan-voted best new artist category at MTV’s Video Music Awards (VMAs) in September, Olivia Rodrigo said in her acceptance speech that LAROI “inspires me every day.” Ed Sheeran called him “the biggest artist on the planet” in a SiriusXM interview after the two met over pizza — a sentiment Elton John echoed when LAROI appeared on his Rocket Hour radio show in January.
Fedi boils down his friend’s appeal to two core qualities: his sense of melody and a willingness to be vulnerable. “Not a lot of up-and-coming artists, or even big artists, actually talk about s--t that happens in their life,” he says. “You can hear stories in his music, and that’s why people gravitate toward him.” It was those qualities, in fact, that drew Leber, the founder of Rebel Management. “He isn’t one of these cookie-cutter artists who’s out there just taking songs,” says Leber. “It’s very rare in this day and age when an artist has a), the ability to write amazing songs in general, but b), really writes from a place of honesty. [That’s what] separates a hit song from a phenomenal artist.”
And at a time when genre-fluidity is the new normal, LAROI has achieved something else rare: the ability to freely explore styles while maintaining his credibility and keeping a foot firmly in hip-hop, which first inspired him as a ’90s-rap-loving kid and became the world in which he built a following, particularly on streaming platforms. “Stay” may be a pop playlist mainstay, but fans are just as likely to find LAROI’s hazy, guitar-driven “F*ck You, Goodbye” (featuring Machine Gun Kelly) on a curated alt-rock set or his yearning, R&B-rooted “Go” (with a posthumous verse from mentor Juice WRLD) and down-the-middle rap fastball “I Don’t Know” on those genres’ lists.
It’s no accident that he has been able to explore diverse sounds so nimbly: LAROI and his team have made the most of his short time in the spotlight, orchestrating each release so that his audience is primed to come along with him. Thanks to a few savvily timed repackagings of his three-part debut, F*ck Love, LAROI has kept introducing new listeners to the full range in his catalog. The initial installment dropped in summer 2020, with a deluxe edition called F*ck Love (Savage) coming that November. When F*ck Love 3: Over You arrived this July — which expanded into its own F*ck Love 3+ set four days later with six new tracks — the project reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 for the first time, buoyed by the series’ entire 35-song tracklist on streaming services.
“People don’t consume music the same way anymore,” says LAROI. “People want to listen to a 12-song project, at most. They chew stuff up and spit it out really quickly. Imagine if I had put ‘Tragic,’ ‘Without You’ and ‘Stay’ all in a 30-song thing [at once]. Who knows if any of those songs might’ve even caught?” The success of the F*ck Love franchise is the culmination of an “always on” approach that has embodied Columbia Records’ strategy for LAROI since chairman/CEO Ron Perry personally signed him in 2019: have content ready to engage the fan base now and make sure to tee up something that will be ready when it comes back for more.
Leber is determined to ensure that doesn’t translate to burnout. “I think where a lot of mistakes are made — especially with new artists — is trying to do too much, too soon,” he says. “It’s easy to get enamored with all the opportunity coming your way and lose sight of the most important thing, which is the music. Honestly, my goal right now is to take as much off his plate that isn’t locked in so he can really focus on making his next great body of work.”
That may prove harder than anyone anticipates. As LAROI prepares for both a world tour and, in 2022, the release of his official debut album, he has also been navigating major changes behind the scenes. In late September, Billboard broke the news that after just four months he had parted ways with his management at SB Projects, where he had worked directly with president Allison Kaye, and had signed on with Leber. In August, LAROI began working with high-powered attorneys Kenny Meiselas (who represents The Weeknd and Lady Gaga) and David Jacobs, his colleague at Grubman Shire Meiselas & Sacks who happens to work with Lil Nas X — another Leber client.
Amid all that, LAROI’s ascent hasn’t shown any signs of losing steam; if anything, he’s rising even more rapidly. Right now, on Spotify alone, he appears on curated all-genre hits playlists not only in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and his native Australia but in locales as far-flung as Mexico, France, Italy, India, Chile, the Philippines, Sweden, Indonesia and Poland. And hardly three years removed from a mixtape titled 14 With a Dream, LAROI himself is still trying to wrap his head around how, exactly, he got here.
“I have no clue,” he half-whispers, pushing up his sunglasses just enough to reveal a peek at his bewildered eyes. Then, soon after, he repeats himself, even more hushed: “I have no clue.”
Deep in the network of tunnels and halls within Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, The Kid LAROI and Justin Bieber are walking together, arms clasped around each other’s backs. It’s the day before the VMAs, and they’re about to rehearse their show-opening rendition of “Stay,” complete with prop mountains they’ll climb down after descending from the ceiling in harnesses. Once onstage, they’re in constant communication, breaking into side conversations, applauding each other between takes and offering thoughts on how to improve the next one. After their third run-through, Bieber murmurs into the microphone to remind LAROI to exchange a handshake once the song ends. On the night of the show, LAROI goes for a hug.
Bieber first reached out to LAROI earlier this year on Instagram, and the two became fast friends. LAROI is a frequent presence at the Bieber household, where the duo can be found playing pickup basketball and doing improv acting sessions, and LAROI recently appeared on Hailey Bieber’s Who’s in My Bathroom? YouTube series — which her husband briefly FaceTimed into — introducing her to classic Australian snacks. A source close to Bieber says it was he who initially broached the idea of bringing LAROI into the SB Projects fold.
Around that time, LAROI was being managed by Grade A Productions, the label co-founded by early-2010s Chicago mixtape staple Lil Bibby and his brother, G-Money, perhaps best known for their work with the late Juice WRLD. (Interscope Geffen A&M signed the rapper to a joint-venture deal with Grade A in March 2018, and the labels continue to release his music posthumously.) The brothers were involved with Columbia in the first two installments of F*ck Love and had seemingly found their next star.
Grade A helped then-15-year-old LAROI acclimate to the United States in the months following his move from Sydney, before his mother, Sloane Howard — a former talent manager who promoted her son’s burgeoning career — and younger brother, Austin, settled in with him in Los Angeles. (The three still live together, though LAROI says he’ll probably get his own spot “in the next couple of months.”) LAROI tagged along with the team for Juice’s Death Race for Love Tour, often staying in adjoining hotel rooms with Grade A partner Peter Jideonwo. But the relationship soured, though Columbia declines to comment on why, and Jideonwo stopped responding to Billboard interview requests. LAROI, when asked about Grade A, says, "we won’t talk about them," and when I ask if he’s at all in touch with Bibby anymore, his publicist shuts down the conversation.
Once Kaye heard that LAROI was no longer affiliated with Grade A, she agreed to set up a meeting. An awkward Zoom pitch followed; LAROI jokes that SB Projects founder Scooter Braun simply told him multiple times, “I’m the best, man.” But following an in-person second meeting in which the two outlined a more defined career plan, LAROI agreed to a deal over Memorial Day weekend. On paper, it certainly seemed like a logical match for the company synonymous with Bieber: another teen sensation from humble beginnings abroad, exploding to megastardom at light speed.
A source says that LAROI and his team found the reality of the arrangement different, however. After Braun made “a promise” that he would be directly involved with LAROI, the source continues, there was not enough participation from him, and LAROI had “significant problems” with Kaye, including feeling she was making decisions without consulting him.
“LAROI is a brilliant artist, and I wish him and his family nothing but the best,” says Braun. “I’m proud of the historic success we had together in our short time — I am rooting for him always, and he knows that.”
The source says that LAROI spent a month trying to work things out with SB Projects, including speaking directly with Braun, before ultimately signing on with Leber — a move that was “a very easy pivot.” Leber had spent an intensive two weeks with LAROI leading up to his Saturday Night Live appearance with Cyrus (his longtime client before the two parted ways in August) and was wowed by how the then-17-year-old “knocked it out of the park” with his first live televised performance. He had also been, says the source, one of five managers LAROI and his team had first considered when he departed Grade A. (Leber declined to comment on his client’s split from SB Projects.)
Leber sees LAROI as utterly distinct from Bieber and Juice — the former an artist he’s often compared to, the latter a crucial mentor whose shadow seemed to follow LAROI during his time with Grade A. And though he acknowledges LAROI’s good looks and palpable star power don’t exactly hurt the young artist, he’s more drawn to his personality. “He’s the kind of guy you can sort of sit down with and talk to for hours on end,” says Leber. “He’s witty and engaging. He has a great sense of art and culture. He’s a bit of an old soul — he’s heavily into artists like [INXS’] Michael Hutchence and Kurt Cobain. He just has great sensibilities.”
It’s clear that LAROI is eager to build those into his own stand-alone narrative. When we first start to discuss his forthcoming album, he perks up and interrupts mid-question, rubbing his hands together, then clapping while letting loose three yelps of joy. He’s already planning future projects, too, including something bigger that he won’t delve into quite yet, but that he says will explain the details behind the name LAROI itself — a nod to his mother’s Indigenous Australian heritage. And as he continues to grow, he hopes, those comparisons to other artists will just dissipate on their own.
“I understand that’s what happens in the beginning of [a career],” he says. “I feel like as I keep going, people will start to see me more for me. I think that’s already happening. Hopefully with this album, people will really start to separate me as my own person.”
“Just follow me!”
It’s three nights before the VMAs, and LAROI is playing a pop-up show at New York’s recently renovated Irving Plaza when he suddenly pauses mid-set: He has brought Columbia’s Perry onstage and has just informed him they’re both about to stage dive.
As LAROI launches himself deep into a sea of screaming voices and waiting arms, Perry sheepishly waves to the crowd, as if to say, “We’re not really going to do this to each other, right?” But sure enough, LAROI surfs his way back onstage in time to see it through. (He tells me Perry is “the coolest label dude ever,” though the crowd doesn’t quite buy in: The executive barely makes it past a few rows offstage before getting pushed back.)
When Perry met LAROI in New York three years ago, he signed him to Columbia on the spot. They both say they’ve worked together closely ever since to strategize how best to promote the artist’s music. “We speak almost daily,” says Perry. “He’s really humble with brilliant instincts, both musically and culturally. Nothing gets by him. He understands all aspects. That’s quite unusual.”
The two seldom disagree, says LAROI, though even when they do, they make the best of it. At Irving Plaza, LAROI introduces Perry by telling the crowd “Stay” would have come out sooner if not for the latter’s input; in June, the artist jokingly tagged Perry in a since-deleted Instagram post in which he and HYBE chairman Bang Si-hyuk were photographed holding a cardboard sign reading, “LET LAROI DROP STAY!” (HYBE purchased Braun's Ithaca Holdings in April.)
LAROI’s approach to teasing songs has become an important part of rolling out his biggest releases. He says he’ll often post snippets on social media just to “see what’s going on,” but once something sticks, he begins to play into the hype, stoking fan anticipation until it reaches a boiling point. It’s an approach he shares with his labelmate Lil Nas X. “I actually get an education watching artists like LAROI and Nas use their skill set to present their art to the marketplace,” says Leber. “When you’re dealing with an artist who understands how to speak to their audience, it lets me sort of throw gasoline on the fire when they have an idea and a direction for what they want to do.”
In March 2020, for instance, LAROI posted a song snippet on TikTok with lyrics centering on the platform’s third-most-followed influencer, Addison Rae, figuring it would go viral. After Rae filmed her mother’s reaction to it, which quickly drew millions of likes, LAROI dropped a full version simply titled “Addison Rae” less than two weeks later that has since compiled 67.7 million on-demand U.S. streams, according to MRC Data. Now that “Stay” is out and thriving — with its official release coming more than nine months after he first teased it on Instagram — the rueful “Thousand Miles” appears to be next on LAROI’s list: He has been tweeting lyrics from the song and performing it at his live shows. At Irving Plaza, he offers to teach the crowd its chorus, but it’s immediately clear that the audience knows all of the words already — as it does for essentially every song in his set.
That may not seem surprising, considering his chart accomplishments, but it’s a revelation for LAROI, who has anxiously waited through the pandemic to get an actual, live grasp of just how big his fan base is. “Seeing all of the kids sing the words to all the songs is crazy,” he says. “You don’t get to see that on the internet, necessarily. You don’t get to see that through the streaming numbers. You don’t really realize it until they’re in the crowd.”
Following the release of F*ck Love 3, LAROI gave a free performance at the Hollywood Palladium, one he now calls his favorite show to date, despite his initial worry that people wouldn’t show up. Standing on the roof of the venue in late July, he brought out Bieber, Machine Gun Kelly and G Herbo. (Polo G was a last-minute cancellation due to a delayed flight.) As he flashed his pearly white smile, his wavy, blond locks bouncing along to each song, it felt like a moment of arrival — a new prince of L.A. looking out over his adoring public.
“I looked him in the eyes, and I saw that he was like, ‘I’m f--king ready,’ ” recalls Fedi, who played guitar throughout the set. “Just as a fan of LAROI, I was happiest on the songs that I didn’t play because I got to see him perform. Sometimes, you stop and you’re like, ‘Damn, this guy is good.’ ”
He’ll soon embark on his recently announced End of the World Tour, hitting 27 stops in North America between late January and early March 2022 before kicking off a leg in Europe in the spring. And while LAROI likely has the draw to fill larger rooms already, he wants to keep crowd sizes limited to just a few thousand people at most venues in an effort to duplicate the intimate atmosphere that he achieved at places like Irving Plaza and OMEARA in London.
“The biggest priority to me is to create something that people can feel like they’re stepping away from reality for a minute to come and be a part of something that’s different from everything else,” he says. “And [to] make sure that people want to come back and do it again.”
He’ll also, of course, have to deal with the kind of “schoolwork” that goes along with any new artist’s first major tour: interviews, yes, and the promotional stops that build good will along the way. Still, Leber is determined to help LAROI maintain a healthy balance.
“I’m very cognizant of how grueling touring is, especially for an artist who’s 18 and going on his first world tour,” says Leber. “When you dump radio and promo visits on top of that, it can be a recipe for disaster. It’s a massive priority for me to make sure that while he’s playing these shows, traveling, trying to fit in some promo and radio station visits, he’s heavily rested and has time to actually be a human and be a kid.”
Following an almost monthlong break at the conclusion of the tour’s European leg, LAROI will begin its third and final installment in Sydney. At the time of our conversation, he hadn’t been back in almost two years and was excited above all else just to see his friends. Things won’t be the same as when he left them, of course. Back then, he was still struggling just to get by; now, he’s something of a hometown hero, already receiving daily messages about new Australian artists to look out for.
As his Irving Plaza set nears its end, LAROI sneaks offstage, only to reemerge from the VIP section. He’s near his family and girlfriend of over a year, influencer Katarina Demetriades, on the balcony, one leg hanging over the glass railing. He then swings his other leg over, his heels barely still touching the surface as he launches into his set closer, “Without You.” He looks as cool as ever, moving to the beat on his precarious perch, as his head of security maintains a steady grasp on the back of his shirt — ready, if needed, to pull him back down to earth.
Additional reporting by Melinda Newman.