If, in the title of Tory Lanez’ new album, I Told You, you think you read a triumphal tone on the singer-rapper’s part, you are not mistaken. “Saying ‘I told you’ is for the people who didn’t believe, who thought my dream was so unrealistic that it was impossible. Being homeless, having the teachers tell me I couldn’t do things, having people say ‘That celebrity life doesn’t happen for people from around here’ — all of those things are what fueled where we’re at right now. It’s like, bro, I told you guys. And I’m not done telling you guys.”
He’s been telling us for years, actually, in the form of so many singles, mixtapes, and collaborations that it seems impossible we’re just now hearing the name Tory Lanez and “debut album” in the same sentence. I Told You is the 24-year-old’s first proper album — and his first release with Interscope and Mad Love, producer/mentor Benny Blanco’s label. But it’s the culmination of year after year of high-profile projects that have already made him a near-household name in R&B and hip-hop. If it’s possible to be both a freshman and a wisened veteran all at once, that’s Tory Lanez.
In the commercial realm, he staked a claim in early 2015 with the platinum single “Say It,” which reached the top of the rhythmic and urban radio charts and, as a pop crossover contender, hit No. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100. Among the intelligentsia, though, Lanez is famous for the 15 mixtapes he’s released since coming on the scene in 2009, including Conflicts of My Soul, three installments in the notorious Chixtape series, and The New Toronto, named for his hometown, which is suddenly looking like the hottest hip-hop breeding ground no one anticipated.
Each of those mixtapes concentrated on an aspect of Lanez’ real life, be it his troubled family life, contemporary social commentary, or, as the titles indicated, chicks. But all those strains finally come together in I Told You, which will serve as either an introduction or a summarizing opus, depending on the listener.
“I’ve treated all my mixtapes as albums,” Lanez says, “and I’ve treated all those projects cinematically. But this album specifically is a movie. It’s the one where the stories from all the other tapes become one gigantic story, if you listen to it in its entirety. This is the first time you get the love story and the grit and the glamour.” If the mixtapes were like Godfather installments, “this is The Godfather Epic.”
It’s all about changing Lanez. “You get the real ‘I got nowhere to go’ story. You get the real ‘Me and my girl, we’re going through it’ and the real ‘He was really putting in work on the street’ and the ‘Wow, this kid’s life really changed from negative to positive while he was trying to chase his dream.’ And I feel like everybody can relate to at least part of — as a boy, as a girl, as a white man, as a black man, as anybody —as a true underdog story.”
Besides “Say It,” the new album also includes the recently released singles “Luv,” “Cold Hard Love” and “Flex” as well as provocative gap-fillers in the Lanez narrative like “Friends With Benefits” and “Loners Blvd.” One thing you won’t find anywhere in the track listing for I Told You, though: “featuring,” an F-word Lanez wasn’t particularly enamored of during the making of the album.
“I don’t need features,” he says. “In life, I would rather in life that we have some organic reasoning going into why we want to make music with each other. I don’t want to be forced into situations with people. When I couldn’t sing, that’s when I needed features! But I taught myself how to sing, because of the fact that I wasn’t able to get a singer on my song all the time. I don’t need anybody to write anything for me, because I wrote some of the hottest songs and I don’t want anybody to take that away from me. The music means more to me than the name. If this is the first time you ever hear me, I want you to know authentically that this is all me.”
Over time, he became more than just a novice singer. “I could rap to you all day and I say the most astonishing lines, and we could talk about how clever this line or that is. But nothing hits you in your soul like when a melody is such a good melody you can’t stop singing it.” What style is it? “The genre of music I’m doing is swavey music,” he says. He may have coined the term, but he doesn’t claim to have a premium on it. “The top artists in the game do swavey music — people like Nicki Minaj; Lil Wayne, when he was doing rock and hip-hop and pop — these are all swavey artists. It’s just a word that encases the fact that we fuse more than one or two genres together and create something that’s brand new for the people.”
Lanez’s reluctance to employ star guests on I Told You doesn’t mean he’s unappreciative of the love he’s gotten from some very big names in the past. Pop star Ed Sheeran was so enamored of “Say It” that he recorded a cover version of Lanez’ hit and released it to their mutual fans as a free download. And Lanez first came to the attention of a broad swath of the pop public all the way back in 2010 when Justin Bieber was seen on video rapping some of the lyrics from his mixtape favorite, “Beamer Benz or Bentley (Freestyle).” “Every time something like that happens,” Lanez says of these celebrity covers, “it reminds me that you don’t have to be in such a rush for things to happen, because your music is strong, and good people and good artists are genuinely gonna fuck with it, and you’re genuinely gonna fuck with them, too” — in the most positive sense.
This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have designs on supplanting them, or anyone else who might be on top. For Lanez, personal graciousness doesn’t mean he isn’t also prone to making statements like “I want every artist to understand that I’m out here to blow you out of the water” and “I’m coming for the game — the biggest artists in the world.”
“I have a vengeance in my heart, but you have to realize my vengeance is because I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished what I need to accomplish to be king,” he says. “That fire doesn’t die down. If people take that as ‘Who the fuck does this guy think he is,’ it’s like, yo, you guys are not able to see what I see. It’s not a cockiness. It’s a confidence of knowing where I’m supposed to be. I’m not an asshole at all! They think that 24 hours of the day, I’m in grrrr mode. The fucked-up, funny thing is that if you meet me in real life, I am the most chill person. If a bum tells me something on the street, I listen. I’ve learned in life to always sit and listen and always have humility. But when you go for what you want, go for what you want, don’t go for half of what you want. The guys who become president weren’t there to be vice president. I’m not here to be No. 2.”
That determination was formed when Lanez hit hard times well before he was a teen. Born Daystar Peterson, Lanez faced a tragic loss at age 9. Things got rougher when family estrangements left him completely on his own at age 15. Within a couple of years of that leap into a starker adulthood, he was performing live and garnering attention with his first mixtapes, a move to reclaim his destiny that you can hear traced within the autobiography of I Told You.
Just in the year and a half between the breakout success of “Say It” and the release of I Told You, it’s been a whirlwind for Lanez, not all of it remotely related to the creation of his opus. He was the driving force as well as “feature” on Meek Mill’s “Lord Knows,” a highlight of the Creed soundtrack. Lanez co-headlined an acclaimed tour with A$AP Ferg, and did shows in genre-spanning festivals like Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits. On Christmas Day 2015 alone, he released two mixtapes (The New Toronto and Chixtape 3), while priming his fans to regularly expect new material on Fargo Fridays. Lanez booked a massive headlining tour named for I Told You that runs through December.
From the outside, all this accomplishment might seem surprising for someone who just turned 24. But ever since he was in 5th or 6th grade, he says, “I always knew, I always knew. Damn — that might be my next album title.”
Photo: Matt Adam