At the core of The Kid Laroi‘s debut album there’s just a single question: “do you remember the first time when…?” It is a pointedly vague and open-ended one, but it looms large on ‘The First Time’. On ‘Strangers 2’, there’s a spoken word snippet from ‘Stay’ collaborator Justin Bieber on being introduced to his eventual wife Hailey Baldwin when they were just teenagers. Later on ‘You Never Forget Your First Time’, there’s a reflection from his brother on the emotions felt when The Kid Laroi’s global success moved the whole family from Australia to LA; another responder discusses the loss of a family member and how it conceded with him finding out he was to be a father.
It’s little surprise that the 20 year-old has taken this opportunity to reflect, and encourage his young audience to look back. Born Charlton Howard – his recording name is a nod to his Kamilaroi heritage – the rapper found early success in his native Australia when he was 14 and formed a close relationship with the late Juice WRLD prior to his passing in 2019. He’s since upped sticks across the world, had a global smash with 2021’s ‘Stay’, a Number One mixtape in the US (2020’s ‘Fuck Love’) and appeared on the Barbie soundtrack earlier this summer.
Frustratingly, Howard feels like the person who’s afraid to answer that question earnestly. ‘The First Time’ is essentially a break-up album, a bitter one as toxic as the relationship he was in. ‘Where Do You Sleep?’ plainly states in its opening lines: “Out of respect, I’ll keep you nameless / But everybody knows this ’bout you, I can’t fake it” and revels in spite: “You hate the attention that I get, hate that I’m famous” he wails; on ‘Deserve You’, he boasts about spending “half a million dollars on love / How can you not feel for me?”. This continues, relentlessly, across 20 tracks, and is surprising given he disavowed the 2021 ‘Fuck Love 3’ project as “immature” and “a heat of the moment statement”.
‘The First Time’, however, is an undeniably well-made album. Howard toes the line between on-trend pop-rap with gnarlier elements: there’s hints of Dominic Fike in the rock-nodding ‘What Just Happened’ and ‘Love Again’. His latest mega-hit ‘Too Much’, featuring BTS’s Jung Kook and Central Cee owes a debt of gratitude to The Weeknd’s ‘Starboy’, while ‘Sorry’ uses chopped-up soul samples to good use even if the soured lyrics – about, yes, money and his ex – are tedious. ‘What Went Wrong?’ is stuffed with memorable melodies, though ‘Where Does Your Spirit Go?’ wastes the legwork through a pitchy chorus.
It’s not until ‘Kids Are Growing Up’ the album’s 20th and final track, that Howard attempts to reflect on anything but heartbreak and fame. He speaks on his journey from rap stan to star, the toll it has taken on his family and those closest to him, his eyes now wide open to the trials of adult life: “You would never admit the problems that you had,” he remembers, but “now I got my own problems and understand”. It feels like an emotional breakthrough for Howard, but it comes just a little too late
- Release date: November 10, 2023
- Record label: Columbia Records