words • Jake Krez
Over the last few years, 26-year-old Chicago crossover artist Tobi Adeyemi has been on a long journey for a new sound that has taken him far across the country and deep within himself.
Adeyemi, better known as Tobi Lou, is a story I’ve been meaning to write this story for just over a year now. Since first hearing an early single, “New Bish” in late 2016, the Chicago-born crossover artist has been a mainstay in playlists and radio shows. In a world where true creativity is often overlooked, Lou has spent the last few years developing a unique, bouncy sound that skims the grey area between rap and R&B. Since first entering my radar with that initial single, he’s set about underlining the audio texture as his own, in turn delivering a sound that is unmistakably him on his initial release, Tobi Lou & The Moon which dropped last week with distinct, defined sonics existing somewhere between R&B and rap.
That calling card flow didn’t come easy though.
“Believe me it was not always fun, I felt happy that people were paying attention to me finally, but even when they were paying attention to me it seemed I couldn’t get what I wanted,” he said, months removed from opening for 6lack as part of Red Bull’s 30 Days in Chicago. “It was like ‘alright we’ll pay attention to you but we want you to do this and do that and this, we think you could be a less corny Flo-Rida if you just did this’ and you have these people with money telling you things so you want to listen to them but then after awhile I just said fuck it, ok I’m done with everybody. I’m gonna do what I want and thats it.”
Having found variable success on the blog and websites like Complex under the moniker Wonda, he became increasingly frustrated by the comparisons his music was drawing to artists in his periphery. His rise coincided with the likes of Chance The Rapper, Mick Jenkins and a sub-section of soul-leaning, singing-heavy flows that grew from a premise similar to what Tobi had been working on for some time. Not wanting to be compared to anyone or able to stand on his own.
Feeling stifled in his hometown, Tobi headed out west to Los Angeles in 2014 in a desperate attempt to discover a sound that at once fit correctly while also setting him apart. Outside looking in, a unique sound may seem like something innate, something that simply occurs, especially in the contemporary copy/paste pop culture model that has vaulted the most redundant of Soundcloud rappers to Billboard lists. For Tobi though, the goal was never to sound like anyone but himself and he poured his all into the journey to do so. Deciding to take the road less traveled isn’t often easy and for his part, Tobi describes many sleepless studio nights and stressed out writing days wondering if he would ever figure it out for himself. Much is made of end-products, but few ever get to see the pain and energy devoted to it’s creation. For an artist like himself, the process, as hard as it was, turned out to be exactly what he needed to feel comfortable with his work.
Having set out west to find room to grow, he couldn’t escape the far-reaching tentacles his hometown scene has grown over the last five years. Both a gift and a curse, it was during some of his first months out west that he teamed up with Social Experiment collaborator Cam O’Bi. The pair spent countless days and weeks tinkering with new concepts and melodies, ultimately crafting a project that has since sat on moth balls, save for the single “A.R.O.K” released late last year. That single in particular was victim to his need to sound different and create something unique.
“Even while finding my way, I made ‘A.R.O.K’ and people were like ‘this is dope, this sounds kind of like Chance,'” explained Tobi. “And I immediately just got sad again, like ‘fuck, I dont want to sound like anyone.’ I know people are going to compare you no matter what, but if you’re just biting youre not going to be successful just biting, well I guess some people are pretty successful from biting, but it wasn’t who I wanted to be, so I put it away for awhile.”
With a couple years spent back and forth between L.A. and Chicago, the time finally came to make something happen last year. Armed with a slew of new singles, a new appreciation for melodies and a renewed penchant to share his work, Tobi stopped overthinking it and started releasing his music. “Game Ova” released as a single at the end of 2016 and as a video in the middle of last year proved to be the initial spark for Lou to find his fire. His first taste of, as he explains it “seeing a song take off” it served to prove to himself that there was a market and an audience for the music he was making and it spurred a 2017 that saw a steady stream of singles that built one upon the next, resulting in his name becoming a popular, buzzing act mentioned around his hometown and beyond.
“I had never had the experience of watching a song of mine take off or whatever until I made ‘Game Ova’ and I was like ‘oh wow this is what it feels like, I can actually do this shit,'” said Tobi. “And thats one of the moments where I felt like somebody.”
At the end of the upcoming video for his single “Troop” featuring Smino, Tobi finds himself in a sort of B-movie torture scene. As seemingly arbitrary numbers are laid before him on a table while he sits restrained in a straight jacket, a booming voice demands “where are the numbers Tobi?!” As the screen pans back to the numbers and eventually to his face, worn and weary with tears in his eyes, his voice cuts in. “I just started believing in myself,” he sings over a familiarly bouncy beat. “You don’t know how good that shit feels.” For an artist who has struggled internally to find a sonic aesthetic that he feels right sharing with the world, it’s obvious that the music he’s making now, and whatever he has up his sleeves in the next few months, is a real breath of fresh air four years in the making. While certainly not the easiest epoch for the young artist thus far, the lessons learned have him primed for a breakout year in 2018. And he knows it.
“This year actually feels different. I’m actually feeling like the magic or the energy in the air that I haven’t felt in the past couple years,” said Lou. “I think before I didn’t have that kind of energy as far as showing the world shit. I think when it comes to me I know my music is different. This year is a visual year for me and I’m not hiding and I’m like ‘yo, here’s another thing and another thing’ it makes the space I’m at like so good and I just feel really good about things right now.”