Tory Lanez is walking through the streets of Hollywood, a blunt in one hand and a heart-shaped balloon bobbing from a ribbon in the other. An entourage of cameramen, managers and bodyguards trails behind him, weaving in and out of traffic like a shoal of fish. While NME’s photographer snaps away, a burly guy leans out of the window of a parked truck and hollers: “Dope ass music, my G!”
“Thank you so much, my guy!” nods the 27-year-old rapper, singer and producer, a modest smile creeping across his face. This is not the first time Lanez has been informed he makes dope ass music – it’s not even the first time it’s happened in the few minutes he’s been walking down this street – but even after hundreds of millions of streams and YouTube views (239 million for his 2015 hit ‘Say It’, another 174 million for 2016’s ‘LUV’, to name but two) these moments of personal connection still clearly mean a lot to him.
“I never complain about people wanting to take pictures, or things like that,” he says, after we head back inside a nearby studio so that he can wrap up the photoshoot. He happily mugs for the camera, menacing the inflatable red heart with a knife and then attempting to squeeze it until it bursts. When the shoot is over, he carefully removes his rings and the bling around his neck, depositing them all into a safe box that a bodyguard quickly whisks away.
“I walk outside on the street every day,” he continues. “I even do it without security, sometimes. It’s about me being normal. I’ve gotta feel normal in order to write relatable music, you know what I’m saying?”
Lanez’s next album, ‘The New Toronto 3’, might be his most relatable yet – at least if you’ve ever had your heart broken. As the name suggests, it’s something of a sequel to his 2015 mixtape ‘The New Toronto’ and 2017 follow-up ‘The New Toronto 2’. Unlike his more radio-friendly R&B hits, this series has tended to feature harder hip-hop beats and Lanez’s most direct lyrics. The latest installment is due to drop at the start of next month, and Lanez describes the record as sounding “very cold-hearted”.
Like so much great music, it was born out of a break-up. “I’m definitely getting over a girl that I felt did me wrong,” he elaborates. “But also friends that I feel like the flame has blown out on our relationships. Just people doing me dirty, man.”
“My whole career I’ve had something to prove”
If that sounds like a downer, Lanez doesn’t intend it to be. “The album sounds cold, but it’s also motivational,” he says. “Sometimes you feel like you’ve got a dark cloud over your head and things aren’t going right for you, but if you put on this project then it’s gonna motivate you and make you feel like you’ve got to get up and do something.”
Turning a dark cloud into motivational energy is something of a theme in Lanez’s life. Despite all of his success, he considers himself to have been consistently underrated and underestimated by those around him in the music industry. “My whole career I’ve always looked at it like I’ve got something to prove to other people,” he says. “Now I think I’m at a place where I’m proving something to myself.”
Tory Lanez was born Daystar Peterson in Toronto on 27 July 1992, the youngest of six children. When he was just 11 years old his mother, Luella, died due to complications brought on by her anaemia. As he struggled to come to terms with this senseless tragedy, Lanez was traversing the United States with his father, Sonstar, a travelling preacher and faith healer who taught him the power of language.
“I’ve seen him literally heal people through prayer,” Lanez says. “I’ve seen people who couldn’t walk get up and start walking, through prayer. Words are so powerful. Death and life is in the power of your tongue.”
When he started to write his own rhymes, Lanez would think back to the miraculous recoveries he’d seen in his father’s services. “Watching him have that impact on people with the things he said plays a big role in the way I say things and the way I want to be looked at,” he explains. “I want my craft to have that impact. Watching how strong words can be always meant something to me. When I put my words to music I wanted to make sure they always cut through. They’re always piercing. You always feel them in your heart.”
“I’m used to seeing my peers die”
Lanez started putting his music online while he was still a teenager, releasing his first mixtape ‘T.L 2 T.O.’ in 2009. The following year, Justin Bieber – who had just released his debut album ‘My World 2.0’ and was at the height of his manic early fame – lifted a few of Lanez’s bars for a freestyle that quickly went viral.
“They made a big deal out of that online,” remembers Lanez, with an embarrassed shrug. “It was just one moment that kind of helped me. After that [singer and rapper] Sean Kingston was like: ‘I gotta sign this kid fast because people might start knowing about him!’ That was an exciting time, coming from being a kid taking the train to being in the midst of the public eye. It was big.”
After signing with Kingston’s label Time Is Money, Lanez put out a string of mixtapes which included the first ‘Chixtape’. Originally intended as a one-off tribute to R&B classics, the Chixtape series has grown into a key showcase for Lanez’s talents and a sample-heavy way for him to pay homage to the music he loves from the late ‘80s (2014’s ‘Chixtape II’), early ‘90s (2015’s ‘Chixtape III’), late ‘90s (2017’s ‘Chixtape IV’) and the 2000s (2019’s ‘Chixtape 5’). Clearly Tory Lanez is a man who appreciates a good franchise.
“I didn’t know there was gonna be this many of them!” he says with a laugh. “It was really supposed to be a one-time mixtape, but then when I did the second one it became this niche R&B kind of thing. Eventually the demand for it just became so high that it became what it is.”
He doesn’t rule out the possibility of more Chixtapes, once enough time has passed that he has some new music to feel nostalgic about. “You never know, man,” he teases. “They don’t ever really come annually or anything like that. They used to, but now I think it’s at a place where it’ll come when it comes – if it comes.”
Right now, he feels, it’s time for something completely different. He describes ‘The New Toronto 3’ as being “the complete opposite” of the Chixtape series. “I still have R&B for my fans that love R&B,” he says. “I got everything they need but it doesn’t stop me from giving the other side of my fans what they need too.”
That means barely any samples – just two, from 24-year-old Californian singer Mansa and 18-year-old New York rapper Lil Tjay – and a much smaller group of collaborators than ‘Chixtape 5’, which featured high-profile guests such as Snoop Dogg, Ludacris and Ashanti. He’s keeping things simple. “That’s how the other ‘New Toronto’ projects were,” he explains. “If I was gonna do ‘New Toronto 3’ I had to keep it to the same kind of formula.”
As a man from Toronto making heartfelt hip-hop, it’s sometimes been hard for Lanez to escape the shadow of Drake. The pair feuded for years, and while Lanez says they’ve buried the hatchet he’s clearly not in the mood to spend too long discussing his compatriot. “We’re in a great place now, I just don’t wanna talk about him no more,” he says. “Every conversation I have, people bring him up. I’m so tired of talking about Drake.” He shrugs. “I feel like I am Drake at this point.”
He’s equally reluctant to make any grand assessments about the state of hip-hop, preferring to see himself above the milieu. “I don’t know what the fuck’s going on right now!” he admits. “For me, I try to make as much timeless music as I possibly can. I can make hits for radio in my sleep. I’m more about making records that really work, something I really feel like I can wear 10 years or 20 years down the line. If I can still sing this in 10 or 20 years’ time then that’s what I should be doing.”
In the last few years Lanez has seen a startling number of fellow rappers (many even younger than him, such as 21-year-old Juice WRLD and 20-year-old Pop Smoke) die because of drugs or violence. He describes the number as “crazy”, but refers back to his faith and upbringing.
“You know, n****s die every day,” he says. “When you grow up in the circumstances we grew up in, you’re kind of used to seeing your peers die. It’s sad to say that, but it happens. As far as the peers that have died when it comes to hip-hop, it’s sad that they were in the circumstance that they were in, but fate happens and you can’t do anything about that. Everybody’s legacy and the ending of their path is written. You’re gonna die the day that you’re meant to die. I just believe that God has a plan.”
“Me and Drake are in a great place now”
For his own part, Lanez steers clear of anything more potent than cannabis. “I never did a pill,” he says. “Never did coke. Never did anything.” He offers and bashful smile and elaborates: “I’m just fuckin’ scared! I just have one of those minds. I can’t do acid or some shit because I would go somewhere that I just don’t need to be. I’m one of those guys who just thinks the worst, like a monster’s gonna come from behind this corner. I can’t be high like that; I’ll start getting paranoid and shit.”
His relatively abstemious lifestyle doesn’t mean Lanez hasn’t had his own brushes with death. In 2018 he was onboard a private jet on his way to perform at Summerjam 2018 when the plane malfunctioned and terrifyingly nosedived 26,000 feet in 90 seconds.
“My life didn’t flash before my eyes; shit can get tragic at any second,” he says, reflectively. “Falling down in that plane, the only thing I cared about was my son. It kind of gave me a wake up. It’s real shit. Sometimes you think things are so important and they’re not really that important. You find out later in life that things that you didn’t think were a priority are actually a priority, and the things that you thought were a priority are really not. That’s just how it works.”
Right now, Lanez’s priority is building his empire. He’s an intense presence with an iron-clad work ethic and an attention to detail that even regular blunts can’t curtail. He describes himself as a mogul “1000%”, and talks with obvious pride about his Forever Umbrella label which is helping to launch the careers of artists such as rising Atlanta R&B singer Mariah the Scientist, Jamaican rapper Davo and Miami-based producer Papi Yerr, who was behind recent Lanez hits ‘Broke In A Minute’ and ‘Jerry Sprunger’. He’s also excited that ‘The New Toronto 3’ will get him out of his deal with Interscope, making him a free agent once more.
“This will be my last project signed to a major label,” he says. “I think from this point I’m going to go completely independent. I’m not in it to play games. I’ve been in it for 10 years, and I’m still relevant. I think I’m at the best place in my career that I’ve ever been, and I keep on rising. I don’t really know what a label is good for these days.”
Lanez is not a man short of ambition. He says that he’s recently been auditioning and making self-tapes with a view to breaking into acting, and adds that one day he’d like to release music under his birth name Daystar Peterson. “I think I will eventually change my name,” he says. “There’s this type of music I have that’s like worldwide-sounding music. I think it really represents me. When I start getting more in tune with what that is, and who that person is, I think that’s when I’ll make the transition.”
That’s for another day. Right now he’s just itching to introduce the world to ‘The New Toronto 3’. He talks about it with a sense of earnest pride, still looking for that personal connection through dope ass music. “There’s a lot of fly shit on the way, man,” he says, as a bodyguard ushers him towards his waiting car. “I promise I’m not gonna let you down. You’re gonna love it. That’s a fact. For real, brother.”
Tory Lanez’s ‘The New Toronto 3’ will be released on April 10 via Interscope.