When Tobi Lou tells me that one day he dreams of having his own cartoon, it comes as little surprise. This is, after all, the Nigerian-born pop star who wears a shiny, holographic star under his right eye; who rocks purple, glitter-flecked shorts; who designs K-pop-inspired light sticks with his fans over Twitter. Tobi’s illustrated avatar, which graces his cover art and videos, is named “Little Lou.” He has a song named after Sailor Moon. He borrows unabashedly from the iconography of Graduation-era Kanye West, the playful sensibility of Korean pop groups, and the nostalgic haze of ’90s Nickelodeon cartoons. His musical and visual identity is a kaleidoscopic vision of everything he loves.
Tobi also has a sense of humor, a playful sincerity that defines everything in his catalog. His video for “Goaty” is a good example. In it, a shirtless Tobi Lou frolics with a group of goats in his trademark pair of sparkling shorts. The end of the video features clips from a viral news report, which shows a herd of goats wreaking havoc on a suburb in Boise, Idaho. Tobi took to Twitter to claim responsibility for the liberated goats. When I asked him during our interview if he really did set that herd of goats free, he said that he “was legally advised not to speak on the matter.”
Tobi Lou moved from Nigeria to Chicago when he was just two years old, and he comes from a family of like-minded creatives. His sister is the novelist Tomi Ademeyi; her fantasy novel Children Of Blood and Bone has been a breakout literary hit.
It’s about to be Tobi’s breakout year, too. He released three EPs in 2018, and his debut LP is slated for arrival sometime in the near future. No I.D. is the executive producer on that project, and for a young artist who grew up idolizing Kanye West, that’s a big deal. “One of my favorite things about Ye was the sped-up sample production,” Tobi said. “When I found out that No I.D. was the one who taught him how to do that…it’s a weird full circle.”
Billboard spoke to Tobi Lou about his his love of cartoons, his forthcoming album, and the uncanny experience of nearly being recruited to BROCKHAMPTON.
You and your sister are both blowing up at the same time. What is it like having a sibling whose work is getting so popular?
It’s amazing, actually. For a while, even though I was in my room making noise and music, and she was in her room writing, and our rooms were right next to each other – we were always doing something – but it’s just amazing that she kind of finally took that great leap, that step to really do it.
For her to quit her job, and then just like, go for it, was kind of magical. It made me make sense of things. Like yo, this is why we go for our dreams. Because shit like this happens. You never hear about it happening to anyone who you know really, but when it happens to your own flesh and blood, it validates all the things you’ve been thinking about the last year.
What is it about having a unique visual style that’s really important to you?
I think it comes from standing in front of the TV whether it was watching wrestling, WWF, or watching MTV, like a music video like Missy Elliott. Or even watching the intro to Fresh Prince, even that’s visually entertaining.
It kind of set itself in stone when I saw Kanye West make his art. I got introduced to it with Missy and Busta Rhymes and all these crazy dope videos, and then when Kanye was doing it – I was just like “wow.” I just want to make things. I wanted to make music always...but there’s nothing more magical then why you pair something with music and you get it right. Whether it’s just watching a movie and a scene comes on, and what’s happening in the scene is great and the score is great . It could be Disney On Ice.
Me and Glassface, who has done all my videos, I’ve always told him: people can think whatever they want about my music in general. Like, they can say “he can’t do this,” or “he sounds like this,” or “I hate this” – but you can’t say much about my visuals.
How did you come up with the Little Lou avatar?
[The artist’s] name is Goodnight Meesh. I would want to say she’s an artist first and foremost, but she does so much. She does set design. She styles. She actually styled my sister for Good Morning America. She recently had a production credit on “Goaty.” She’s almost too creative. She has too many talents. But first and foremost, she’s an artist.
When I started releasing music for Tobi Lou, it was 2016, ’15. I always knew from the cartoon aspect, I loved animation and cartoons. It was my whole world. I still watch cartoons to this day. Growing up a big Kanye West fan, that bear just resonated with me. So I knew I always wanted like, a little person. I would have done an animal, but like, before I found out I was a goat, there was no other cool animal to do besides the bear.
Basically I was just like, let’s do a little version of me but I don’t want it to be any regular version, I want it to be as if this was a cartoon coming out. That’s how dope I want it to look. When you see Hey Arnold!, when you see Spongebob [Squarepants]— that’s the show. I wanted people to see the Little Lou stuff and be like that would be a show I’d watch. The ultimate goal is to have that one-day.
Like you said, there’s a lot of references to Graduation-era Kanye in some of your videos. What is it about that Dropout Bear that appeals to you so much? Is it the fact that it’s such a recognizable thing?
I’ve always felt different. I was born in Lagos, Nigeria. But then I moved to Chicago when I was like two. So I didn’t get the full Nigerian upbringing, as far as being in Nigeria. Then we moved to the suburbs when I was like five. And I was like the only black kid amongst all these white people. But I was still 100% African, being raised African at home. I always felt kind of different – I’m African, so I didn’t fully fit in with the black crowd. And being Black, I didn’t fully fit in with the white crowd. But I got along with everybody.
I loved so much, whether it was Kanye West, or Biggie, or Maroon 5. I loved so much stuff that I knew I was different. And the only person who did something different while I was in my early formative years was Kanye. Everyone else was putting themselves on the cover of anything. And here’s Kanye, as loud and as in your face as he is, he had this bear. That represented him. And I love cartoons and stuff in general, so that whole pairing of you being something, and having something stand for you just really stood out for me.
And I think the way Takashi, the artist who drew it, the way he drew the bear as far as the expression, the eyes – that’s why I saw the Graduation one. The eyes just really got me. Like damn.
When we were doing the “TROOP” video, I came to Glassface and was like “Yo, if we did a That 70’s Show vibe, but had no real characters, just animated cartoons with people in costumes — when we were trying to figure out what to put other than LIttle Lou, who would be there? What animal?” But we keep going back to a bear, fuck it. Let’s just put the Graduation bear in there…let’s do a little what’s up to the Graduation bear.
You’ve talked a lot about how Kanye is pretty much the reason you make music. And No I.D. is producing your first album is that right?
Yeah, he’s executive producing it..
And No I.D. was Kanye West’s mentor. It’s all weirdly coming full circle for you in a way that feels unbelievable. What has that experience been like?
Meeting No I.D. for the first time, the talk I had with him was so real. He said that he listened to the music and he liked it. But even more than the music, he liked what I was. He liked what I represented. What he said was, “you know what you’re doing, and that’s really attractive, as far as putting everything together with the music and the visuals.” He said he wouldn’t fuck with the music if it wasn’t good. A lot of people make good music, but they don’t know what they’re doing, they don’t have a vision.
I’ve always had a vision. I’m very picky. Very perfectionist. I’ve always had a vision of what I wanted things to look like and what I wanted to do. it was always “how can I do that?” Oh, we don’t have enough money to shoot this video, what can we do with what money we have?”
How is working with No I.D. changing your process? Do you struggle at all retaining the style you’ve had so far, with what you’re doing now? Or is he helping you further craft that style?
He’s helping push along whatever vision I have. He did come in at a time where I was finishing a lot for the project anyway, but he’s helping perfect it. To polish it up.
It is a little different when I get in actual studios with all this gear. It’s like, “oh, so we’re in the studio. Let’s make a song” type of deal. I usually just wake up in the middle of the night at 3 A.M. and just start making a song. I usually write songs in the shower or when I’m driving. There’s something about being in the shower –
You get your best ideas.
Yeah, and also when I’m driving. When I was ubering, that was the only really best thing about it. Besides being able to pay some rent. It was also being forced to drive so I would listen to music and always be like, “okay. I think I’ll write this, or I’ll change this part.” You know, just coming up with new ideas.
What other artists are you into right now? I know you’ve mentioned BROCKHAMPTON before. I think they met on a Kanye forum. And I know you and Glassface also met on a Kanye forum.
It’s funny. I haven’t really told anyone this [but] I met Kevin [Abstract] on that forum too. He asked me to feature on a couple songs. He also asked me to be in the group –
Yeah, they were called ASF, Alive Since Forever. And BROCKHAMPTON was actually gonna be the name of Kevin Abstract’s first album, because it was the street he grew up on. And he asked me to be in ASF. At the time, I was like “umm…I’m playing baseball.”
And musically, I was focused on myself. Which was kind of selfish anyway. I just didn’t think I had the time to be like let me be in the group too. It was no diss to them or anything, I still fuck with Kevin. Like I said, I did a feature or two for him. And when he first came out to L.A., I had just moved out to L.A. also, and I pulled up on him to the studio for the MTV thing. It was kinda cool. So I don’t really talk to him much anymore, but I talk to Romil.
Seeing them now its so dope. I’m just like, damn, that’s crazy he asked me to be in this. I was in a different place in my life. I always wonder what it’d be like if I was in there. But I’m happy they’re doing what they’re doing, and I’m also happy I’ve gotten to the point where what I’m doing is making its own waves right now too. So it’s cool.
That’s what’s exciting, there’s so many new artists who are carving their own path. I genuinely can’t think of any artists that sound like you.
You know, the funny thing about that too is, I spent a lot of my time trying to sound like the people I liked. Shit that I think is lit, whether it’s like a Drake song or a crazy Lil Uzi song, I preach all this shit about being yourself and there’s too much conformity and everyone sounds the same, but low-key, I’ve tried that. The music is not good when I do it. So I literally have no choice but to sound like how I sound. That’s how the songs sound good. I’m unbiased enough to know when something’s not working and when it’s working. Trying a Migos song over a trap beat, that sounded like whatever, and I’m like – okay, let me just do what I do. That’s how I ended up just being me.