On an unusually warm and breezy February afternoon, Roy Woods sauntered into the Warner Bros. office in New York City and plopped down on the mahogany couch in the middle of the makeshift living room space.
Woods was dressed in a blue and pink pastel camo tracksuit with a heap of accessories accenting the look. It was the last few days of New York Fashion Week, so you’d be forgiven if you thought the Toronto rapper was dressed up to make his rounds at the coveted fashion shows. But according to him, the ensemble — loud, vibrant colors with a slew of embellishments — has become his go-to style. And just like his sartorial taste, Roy Woods has a knack for embellishing his music with glossy, colorful synths and a mélange of sounds that make up his “experimental” musical style.
On his debut album, Say Less, Woods finds himself expanding his usual ambient, atmospheric sonic palette to tap further into his reggae roots while seamlessly flipping between funk, R&B, and electronic-tinged sounds from start to end.
“I never want to limit myself to making just one song,” he tells Billboard. “I’m still experimenting. I’ll always be experimenting. I can go from hip-hop to sappy songs; I just make whatever I want, basically.”
Ahead of his upcoming tour, Roy Woods caught up with Billboard to discuss his debut album, experimental sound and growing up in Toronto.
When did you get into music?
Music was something I loved. I just loved listening to music and being able to relate to it — jamming out and feeling whatever I’m supposed to feel from the song — I always loved it.
Who made you fall in love with music?
Michael Jackson, for sure.
Everybody loves MJ. What’s your favorite MJ song?
“Rock With You.”
So what did Michael Jackson mean to you?
Everything. He sang so gracefully. You know Walter Payton?
Yeah, football dude.
Yeah, the way MJ sang was the way Walter Payton ran — just so gracefully. When you see it and experience it, you see something that you don’t normally see and it’s something that makes you so intrigued and you try to figure out like what the f— is up with this guy? [Laughs] How is he doing this?
You actually started off rapping. What made you decide to merge your love of rapping with singing?
I was always singing but it was just that I had to learn how to make a song so rapping was easier for me. I taught myself how to rap and then after that, I still wanted to make music so I had to learn how to make an R&B song because I still wanted to sing and make that type of music. I did remixes all the time to work on writing. Even to this day, I’m still working on it in order to master it so I’m still working on my art like how I can mix the rap with the singing — it’s still a new discovery to me.
How has your own style evolved since Exis until now?
I always wanted to make great music — I wanted to be different and not sound like everybody else but I didn’t initially know how to. So I worked on what I like and making music that I like to hear or that sounds good and other people could appreciate it too. I would listen to my songs and see what ways I can grow, what else can I do with the song, what other sounds can I experiment with — I’m always experimenting.
Was there anyone, in particular, you were listening to at the time you were trying to find your sound?
A lot of The Weeknd, PARTNEXTDOOR, The Boy [Drake], A$AP Rocky, [A$AP] Ferg, Joey Bada$$. I listened to a lot of old-school hip-hop like Big L, Big Pun, a lot of old-school R&B like H-Town Boyz, my likes varied. I listened to everything.
You’re from Brampton and Toronto is this melting pot of cultures, but there’s definitely the heavy Caribbean influence, which is heard in your music as well as other artists from that area.
It was just natural. Growing up in Brampton is very different but still similar to Toronto. It’s not just the Caribbean influence that’s strong, there are different cultures that are bigger than the Caribbean culture like the Indian population is huge; the Asian population is huge and we all feed off of that as well. Everyone is feeding off each other to the point where it everything feels natural, it’s not forced because I’m used to this, this is what I grew up around. I’m used to going to school and hearing my Caribbean friends how they talk. For example, I know a little bit of Polish — not from school or anything — but just having someone in my personal life that was Polish. So its very cultured and our slang comes from this mixture of cultures.
You’re also Guyanese.
I talk to my family in Guyana all the time. My mother doesn’t always see them so she always encouraged us to stay connected to our family, to always know about our family roots. I’ve gained a love for my family even though I’ve only seen them twice in my life time, my mom instilled that love in [me]. I listen to them talk over the phone and my mom’s Guyanese accent comes out at times when she’s mad so then the accent and the culture just became a part of me. You go to school and all your friends are talking like that to the point where white girls are talking like that but it’s weird but that’s normal — that’s life in Brampton.
Quick question: What’s up with the Nike Band-Aid on your cheek?
I used to play football so this was a natural thing for players to wear, but it wasn’t from Nelly. [Laughs] I knew Nelly did it, but it was just a random thing. I got football equipment because I wanted to start training again and I had bought it and one day I was just getting dressed and I love to wear accessories so I was like, “Hmm, let me try this out.”
Before Say Less, you dropped off EPs and mixtapes like Nocturnal and Waking at Dawn. What did you discover about yourself while creating those that prepared you for Say Less?
It was a discovery of what I can do when it comes to those two projects. I wanted to not only show the world what I can do but myself because I wasn’t able to hear myself say those things I said [on the previous projects] up until this point. And I still wasn’t satisfied with what I was saying and how I was saying it so I wanted to make music that was just as good as the people I’m listening to and look up to so it was really me experimenting.
You talk a lot about discovery and finding your sound. What was it that you wanted to say that you couldn’t or what did you feel you needed to work on?
I would just write what comes to my head and not really about my life like I was just saying things — that’s how I approached music. Now I’m at a point where I can just say what I want — I freestyle.
A lot of the sounds on the album are groovy, upbeat numbers like “Little Bit of Lovin” and “Something New.” How does where you’re at in life and your headspace affect the music you produce?
I never want to limit myself to making just one song, I make everything. I’m still experimenting. I’ll always be experimenting. I can go from hip-hop to sappy songs, I just make whatever I want basically. The production is just based off of my sound and feeling and what I like. Even though I’m experimenting, I still need it to be a certain way so that’s when I scout of producers who I know can make those groovy jams, like FrancisGotHeat.
When did you start creating Say Less?
There wasn’t even a time frame, to be honest. Even before I got signed, I had songs that ended up on the album that I was working on and didn’t know I was going to use it for the album but I saved it because I knew it would come in handy one day.
Did you go in with a concept?
I kind of wanted to explain different stories of mine from the past, present, and future like “talking” to someone and getting disappointed, expecting too much from people and myself, not delivering when I’m supposed to. I wanted people to see the Roy in the beginning and Roy now. The whole album is all of me, from when I was signed to where I am now.
“Say Less” can mean so many different things. Why go with that as your title?
There was a point in time where that’s all I was saying and it ironically became my album title. People say that all the time in Toronto, I didn’t come up with it but it was just natural and organic.
What other slang in popular in Toronto?
You know what “cheesed” means?
I mean, I heard the term in one of Drake’s songs.
So yeah, it means annoyed. There’s “bucket” — that means you’re moving weird, like a crackhead. [Laughs]
How’d you connect with PARTYNEXTDOOR?
Me and bro were just making music and he sent me “Back It Up” and I just went in the studio and worked on that. We were honestly just making a bunch of records and I told him I wanted to use that for my album and the collab just happened naturally. That’s my brother. The song was big for me because it was a challenge because he came so hard. [Laughs] So I was like now I really gotta go hard and I did.
Given his résumé and all the hits he’s created in recent years, has he imparted any wisdom to you about the industry or just music in general?
So much. He’ll tell me that in music and in life, you just gotta stay you and know who you are. Keeping pushing yourself, push yourself beyond, you have to make sure you believe in you because nobody will believe in you like that they do. You know what you’re capable of and you have to make sure you deliver and push yourself because it makes you better and nobody’s gonna just hand you things.
What was your mission with this album?
To kind of teach my fans to accept themselves and quit the conversation, “Say Less” you know? People lie a lot, slack, switch up but you have to accept and move on and not fret about it. There’s no need for the gossip and conversations when you can just say less and do so much more.
What’s next for you in 2018?
More music. I want to give fans a new experience every time. I’m trying to make sure you guys feel something brand new all the time because I’m also chasing that feeling. I already know I have another album to drop because I’m always working. You never heard me like this before, I’m coming completely different and I’m just gonna make sure people say “What the f— is wrong with this guy?” That’s the reaction I always want to give people. I’m just gonna say less and do more.