Armani White recalls a life-altering afternoon six years ago during his hometown tour stop. “Me and my dad were at odds — it wasn’t anything big, but we weren’t talking,” White explains. “I was like, ‘Let’s put it all behind us, I’m gonna pull up on him and invite him to my show.'”
As the then-19-year-old rapper slowed down at a stoplight, he noticed a frail, bald man sitting on the front porch of his father’s home. “My dad was a muscular guy, [and] at some point, it hit me — that was my dad. He was very sick [with] cancer and I didn’t know. I sped off to the nearest Chinese store parking lot and I just started crying.”
A few days later, on his father’s birthday, White built up the strength to pay him a visit. “We hugged each other and cried for a solid 30 minutes. At that point, I let go of everything I was doing musically and sat with my dad [for three months] until he passed.”
Reflecting on the life-altering period of his life, White shares the words of his late father. “By the time you reach a peak, you should find a new mountain,” he says. “That’s my mentality a lot of times.” This year alone, the 25-year-old wordsmith has reached his fair share of peaks, including the viral hit single “BILLIE EILISH,” which samples N.O.R.E.’s “Nothin'” and has racked up nearly 43 million streams on Spotify alone. The track gained traction on TikTok before its release, boasting millions of views on a teaser video White posted, leading the social media savant to continuously tease the track until the sample was cleared.
“TikTok was almost majority of my campaign,” he explains.”I tested “BILLIE EILISH” everywhere at first but TikTok was where it really found its footing and took off, so I doubled down.” Soon after, the savvy rapper was named YouTube’s artist on the rise, and later signed to Def Jam Recordings.
White says when deciding on whether on not to sign, he considered a label’s understanding of his vision and focus on the long term, rather than a standalone buzzing single. “Tunji [Balogun] and the team checked all those boxes,” he says of the Def Jam CEO.
With the rise of his “happy hood music,” comes newfound success and an increased pace of life — something White relates back to the loss of his father. Despite hectic tour schedules, interviews and appearances, the burgeoning artist says he still finds time to visit with loved ones amidst the madness (recently he visited his mom, gifting her with a tin can filled with $100k, in cash). “I didn’t realize how impactful those moments are and how much they mean to me until what happened [with my dad].”
The time spent with his father inspired his 2019 debut album, Keep In Touch, which White says tells the story of how his parents met and the ways it changed their trajectory. Much has changed since the album’s release, White slowly stripping away his “underdog” title as mainstream stardom feels more within reach.
“I’ve been the underdog for so long that I find comfort in it,” he says. “It’s like, I want to be underestimated so I can over-exceed expectations. I want to keep surprising myself with what I can do. Just raising the bar for what’s possible.”
White caught up with Billboard to talk about his record deal, rise, dream collaborations and whether or not Billie Eilish herself has reacted to “BILLIE EILISH.”
Congratulations on signing to Def Jam! How are you feeling these days?
My mentality for a lot of things is like, just don’t stop. Don’t look back, keep going, keep going, keep going. There’s benchmarks that I have set up in my head where I’m like, “When that happens, I’m gonna take a break.” I keep saying that, but I just keep working. I think once I have a plaque — that solidifies all the hard work that we put in over the last couple of months — that’s when I’m gonna breathe for a second and be like, “Wow, I might cry my eyes out.”
Let’s talk when you get that plaque, because I have a feeling you’ll be gunning for the Grammy.
My dad told me, by the time you reach a peak, you should find a new mountain. And that’s my mentality a lot of times. I work until I reach whatever my peak is, by the time I get there, I’m like, I want that now. I’m not unsatisfied; I’m very happy with what’s going on right now. I found a really good label partner and team around me [after] the success of [“BILLIE EILISH”]. But — I won’t even say but — and, I know there’s other things on the list that’ll be just as cool.
When did you know that music was your path?
Since I was in the second grade, I was like, “I’m going to be a rapper.” I wanted to be able to express myself. It wasn’t for any big, overarching goal of money or fame — I just liked doing it. Over time, as more rappers got through the door and I didn’t, it was kind of like, ”You’re good at this, but this is who we’re paying attention to.” I had to grow, adapt, and figure out what works for me. I didn’t want to conform to whatever rapper was cool at that point. Now, this might be a drill rapper, back then it might have been trap. I didn’t want to do whatever everybody else is doing to succeed. I felt like if I just stayed true to myself, I would have a way higher return of investment.
How old were you when you adopted this mentality?
Um, about fifth grade. That mentality helped me with learning how to accept myself. I was one of those kids that was always in trouble. I was always doing some dumb s–t. After a while, I’m like, “Yo, why can’t I go a day without getting in trouble?” Over time, I just had to adopt that level of love, trust and care for myself. That extra level of saying, “Yo, you’re really weird. You’re really strange, but there’s something there. There’s something in that big pot of weirdness.”
How did you develop your own sound?
I call it “happy hood music.” I grew up in West Philly. I used to record at a place called Batcave Studio. Meek [Mill] went there, Gillie [Da Kid], every rapper that was in Philly was in that studio, [rapping], “I’m gonna shoot you in your head!” [Laughs.] When I was just making this strange music. I [was inspired by] music that I could close my eyes and imagine the artist being a weird kid in a rough area, but still saying, “No, I’m gonna just be myself.”
“BILLIE EILISH” samples N.O.R.E.’s “Nothin'” — did you know Noreaga before that record?
No. Between my team, we all had different relationships around Noreaga and Pharrell — those are the people we had to go through to get it cleared. But I didn’t even know how to clear a record in the first place. I met N.O.R.E. after the record took off and was around 10 million streams. I went to Pharrell’s Something in the Water fest, and [Noreaga and I] seen each other backstage, and I was like, “Yo, man, I appreciate you for clearing the song.” He was like, “Wait what’s your name?” I said, “Armani White.” He said, “Oh, man, I love that record!” It was a cool moment.
Speaking of reactions to the song, did you ever hear from Billie Eilish herself?
Her team and mine have been in communication throughout this whole thing, and they’ve all been super supportive. I’m still waiting on the FaceTime or Duet video from [Billie], though. [Laughs.]
Tell me a little bit about how the Def Jam deal happened.
There’s a quote that I keep messing up: a rising tide lifts all ships, I think. That’s how I look at my career — and even somebody like Tunji [Balogun]’s career. Over the years, I kept planting small seeds and I’m like, “One day, this relationship is going to really mean something.”
When I got my little wind in 2015, Tunji [Balogun] bought me dinner one night. The dinner wasn’t for me specifically, there was a big celebration with way too many people at the table. And he was like, “Well, I’ll take care of this kid.” Nobody had ever bought me dinner before, so I always remembered that. Over the years, we kept in touch and every time I had a little moment, he would drop some fire emojis.
When he [became CEO of Def Jam], it was like, Chadwick Boseman stepping out of Wakanda. It felt like one of them kind of things where everybody leaned in, and was like, “Yo, we gotta support and stand behind him. And I think he did the same thing for me. I was independent for so long. I’d say, “If I want to be at a label, I want to do it as a partner with people that really understand me and care about the long term music rather than just a hot song.” Tunji and the team just checked all those boxes.
Speaking of long term music, what do you have cooking?
I’m thinking about music like content. In today’s world, we digest music the same way we digest, TV shows, movies, tiktoks, et cetera. So instead of doing it the Netflix way, where we drop the whole season in one day and you want another season by next week, why don’t we drop this episodically? Like a TV show, we just give you sprinkles of the project. And then by the time season one is complete, you have an entire project. “DIAMOND DALLAS” is a real soundtrack to what’s going on in my life right now with with this new signing. In five years, I want people to look back and be like, “Yo, remember he signed to Def Jam? He dropped this song to be the soundtrack to that moment.”
Random question: You have a lot of the color blue in your branding. What’s the story behind that?
I’ve never heard somebody pick that out — you really pay attention. But blue is my favorite color! 10 years ago, there was this Justin Bieber concert in like the middle of nowhere, California, and everybody was wearing purple. I just happened to ask one girl like, “Was there a memo that I missed? Why is everyone wearing purple?” And the girl was like, “Well, it’s Justin Bieber’s favorite color.” I said, “Oh, shit. That’s intense.” Like, for y’all to go back crazy to chalk all nuts to me. So you know, I guess maybe I’m subconsciously trying to get everybody to wear blue.
Any collaborations you’re aspiring towards?
Tyler, The Creator. Ed Sheeran. I’m a big Ed Sheeran fan. Childish Gambino, Trippie Redd and Cardi B.