The Kid LAROI’s Debut Is A Sign Of The Times
A lot’s changed in Australian music since 2017.
That year, one of Australian hip-hop’s most important figures, Campbelltown-raised gutter rap icon Kerser, appeared on a track with Atlanta trap legend Future, as well as Nashville MC Young Buck. Australian hip-hop has had a small but notable history of rap legends appearing alongside Australian artists on tracks — Bliss & Eso have jumped on a track with Nas, while Hilltop Hoods have traded verses with Pharoahe Monch and Black Thought — but contemporary American MCs were seldom seen on the same track as their counterparts down under. ‘Total Concentration’, which was produced by Canberra’s Ghosts In The Room, was, therefore, a welcome shock.
The track was also a sign of the times. In the middle of the last decade, Australian hip-hop was getting global recognition, but ‘Total Concentration’ still felt like an aberration. In recent times, artists like Mali Jo$e, Tkay Maidza and ONEFOUR have worked with Mick Jenkins, JPEGMAFIA, A$AP Ferg and more, but in 2017, the days of American-Australian rap collaborations were still to come.
Fast forward a few years, however, and another Australian artist has appeared on a track with Future — and this time, it sounds utterly natural.
Assembling The A-Team
Kamilaroi rapper turned popstar The Kid LAROI (aka Charlton Howard) has just shared his debut album, THE FIRST TIME, and it’s pretty much a who’s who of music. There are a number of A-list rappers on this project — including YoungBoy Never Broke Again and Central Cee — as well as production from names that the vast majority of rap fans will recognise, including F1lthy, Clams Casino and BNYX. On ‘WHAT’S THE MOVE’, Future makes an appearance alongside rising Atlanta rapper BabyDrill. This time, Future’s appearance on a song with an Australian artist feels like a meeting of equals, as LAROI, Future and BabyDrill all flex their respective riches. Listening to THE FIRST TIME, 2017 seems like a lifetime ago.
For all the names on this project, though, the most compelling moments are when LAROI carries the weight of a track solo. Second song ‘BLEED’ illustrates this: not only is the swaying, heartbroken track the highlight of THE FIRST TIME, it’s arguably the highlight of his discography to date. LAROI’s natural ability to understand what makes pop music so emotionally compelling is favourably comparable to nearly any other current artist, but on previous projects, LAROI’s musical direction has felt like he’s still a rapper in a popstar’s body. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. His ability to weave between both rap and pop has given him a cross-genre appeal that just works, like on the 2021 smash hit ‘Stay’, which features pop mainstay Justin Bieber. On THE FIRST TIME, LAROI proves beyond doubt that he’s able to jump between the worlds of pop and rap with ease.
Other artists might risk giving fans whiplash by sequencing the ferocious ‘WHAT WENT WRONG???’ into the gentle, d4vd-featuring ‘THE LINE’, but LAROI makes it work. Across the project, LAROI leaps from acoustic ballads to punchy rap to stadium-sized pop with grace, largely sticking the landing as he mixes and matches genres to form a sonic portrait of himself. There are missteps, though: the attempted smash hit ‘TOO MUCH’, featuring Jungkook and Central Cee, feels just as out of place on the project as it did as a single. LAROI gets outshone by Central Cee’s introspective verse, a high point of what is an otherwise meandering attempt to amplify a song’s success by combining three fanbases.
Letting His Guard Down
Opening song ‘SORRY’ introduces one of the album’s key emotional struggles — LAROI is seemingly using THE FIRST TIME to process the end of his relationship with model Katarina Deme. While a lot of the album talks about love, LAROI goes back and forth on whether he should truly let his vulnerability show, or whether he should brag about material achievements, like “How many weeks on Billboard? Top ten, like forty-four, um/That’s just one song and plus my albums, there’s a couple more”, referencing the success of ’STAY’, as well as his F*CK LOVE mixtape series.
The presence of LAROI’s family on THE FIRST TIME is one of the most powerful elements of the album, helping fans get a true glimpse of his world (if only briefly). On penultimate track ‘YOU NEVER FORGET YOUR FIRST TIME…’, actor Elisha Herbert, songwriter Billy Walsh, DJ TJ Mizell and LAROI’s younger brother AuzTheKid (aka Austin Howard) all discuss significant first times in their lives, with Austin referencing moving to LA with their mum so LAROI could chase his musical dream.
Their mum, Sloane Howard makes a brief appearance on the closing track ‘KIDS ARE GROWING UP’ in the form of a voicemail. Discussing the death of his uncle Wayne in 2015 (a significant figure in his upbringing), this track reveals a more reflective LAROI: “Growing up, I watched my favorite rappers’ interviеws/I ain’t believe ‘еm when they said it ain’t all what it seems/But now I’m here and realize they were tellin’ truth/’Cause you sacrificed yourself for everybody’s needs by any means”. It’s a moment of true clarity, one that LAROI reaches for across the album but achieves best here in the project’s closing moments.
Flying The Flag… Or Not
LAROI’s connection to Australia may not be as strong on THE FIRST TIME as it has been at other points of LAROI’s discography, and previous long-time Aussie collaborators Khaled Rohaim and Haan are absent from the album. However, the extensive presence of Australian production duo FnZ on THE FIRST TIME drives home the influence that Australian musicians are continuing to have on the global music landscape. The Grammy Award-winning pair worked on five songs on THE FIRST TIME: ‘WHAT’S THE MOVE’, ‘SORRY’, ‘WHERE DO YOU SLEEP?’, ‘DESERVE YOU’ and ‘WHERE DOES YOUR SPIRIT GO?’, and have previously produced for the likes of Drake, Jack Harlow, Kanye West and A$AP Rocky.
Tall poppy syndrome in this country still undoubtedly exists, and there are pockets of people who insist that The Kid LAROI should be doing more to put on for Australia. However, the mere existence of a project like THE FIRST TIME is a signifier of global change, showing that Australian rap artists can take things worldwide. Of course, worldwide recognition isn’t new for Australian artists: King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard are one of the most in-demand live acts in the world, Flume is a trailblazing electronic musician, Tame Impala (aka Kevin Parker) has just produced a song for Dua Lipa and continues to lead a psychedelic revolution, and Troye Sivan and Kylie Minogue’s albums are two of the biggest pop moments of the year.
Unfortunately, Australian rappers typically haven’t seen the cut-through that domestic artists in other genres have seen. Having said that, something’s certainly brewing, courtesy of artists like LAROI. Even if he is a bonafide popstar nowadays, he’s still able to rap most of his contemporaries under the table. As a longtime fan of Australian hip-hop, and as someone that’s seen rap in this country gradually take over the mainstream (even if that success hasn’t always been mirrored by recognition from domestic tastemakers/industry bodies), the success of Australian rappers and producers within the global hip-hop space is both overdue and exciting. Long may it continue.
THE FIRST TIME might not necessarily reveal a whole lot of new information about LAROI as a person, or an artist, but it does act as an important yardstick for his musical growth to date. It solidifies his status as a pop superstar, while also giving fans just enough insight into his current emotional state to relate to (especially if your first heartbreak is still fresh in your mind). There’s no doubt that LAROI is capable of more introspection, but that growth will continue to happen with time. For now, this is a debut album that he can proudly stand behind, and an album that shows other Australian artists what’s possible when you reach for the stars.
The Kid LAROI’s new album THE FIRST TIME is out now. He’s also just announced an Australian stadium tour, playing shows in Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth, Gold Coast and Sydney. You can learn more here.
Ben Madden is a Melbourne-based music writer and Junkee’s Music Editorial Specialist. You can follow him on Twitter at @benmaddenwriter and Instagram at @benmaddenwriter, as well as keep up with his Sucks column here.
Image: Adam Kargenian