The first thing you notice when looking at Nigerian-born, Chicago-based artist Tobi Lou is his aesthetic. Shimmery star confetti dots the flawless brown skin on his cheekbones, and his blond-tipped Afro hair hovers in tiny buns above his pensive expression. His style is unmatched, and at first glance, you'd never guess he can spit a mean flow at the flick of the tongue. But, indeed, he can.
Tobi Lou's family moved from Nigeria to Chicago when he was 2 years old. For a while, his main focus in life was baseball. He played in an independent professional baseball league before sustaining an injury that suddenly put his dreams of being the next Jackie Robinson on hold. Luckily, Lou always had a thing for music. Growing up watching Kanye West and Missy Elliott sparked plenty of creativity, so by 2015, he began to take things seriously. But he didn’t fall into the lane of your favorite rappers.
“Genres definitely exist, but they aren’t for me,” Lou sighs over the phone. “I believe in them for other people, as they help distinguish a sound, but I don’t really have a set tone. I do what I want.” He really does what he wants. He bounces between playful raps and memorable, singsongy melodies, which places him squarely between singer and rapper. But don’t dare call him a singer. “Man, I’m not an R&B singer,” he chuckles. His first break-out single, “Game Ova,” featured melodic vocals over a low-fi beat, and the internet quickly put him in a box. In fact, he ended up on the bill of Miami’s Best Life R&B festival this past summer. “I used to feel a way when people called me a singer because I knew I wasn’t just that," he says. "I used to come from rapping, like rapping rapping. I added melody and made it more consistent.”
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Lou’s sound is all over the place, but his one constant is making feel-good tracks. He's released three EPs this year: Tobi Lou and the Moon, Tobi Lou and the Loop, and Tobi Lou and the Juice. Each brings something different to the table, and all defy genre rules. Heck, Tobi Lou and the Juice is even labeled “Everything’s a bop” as a genre on SoundCloud. However, that vagueness could spell trouble for the longevity of his music career.
Let’s face it — music lovers want something to relate to. They're easily wooed by any new artist who sounds exactly like staples before them. Because listeners are so accustomed to gravitating toward the familiar, a unique sound can make attracting a mainstream audience difficult. “Oh, that's not a problem,” Lou says. “Nah, it's really not. My music isn’t straightforward anything, so I feel not being in a specific genre benefits me. It allows all races to say, ‘OK, I really like this song,’ without putting me in a box.” Overall, his music allows his audience to grow accustomed to a new thing: him.
Whether he’s singing the verses of his hit single “Troop” or demolishing the beat on his latest track, “Orange,” Lou will continue sounding like himself. And he has more out-of-the-box music up his sleeve. “I’m not done dropping EPs,” he says. “My goal for this year was to keep coming so my fans really get used to it.” Getting used to his sound is key, because by the end of the year, he plans to release a fourth EP, Tobi Lou on Ice, and he’s not holding back. “I haven’t had a chance to really be creative for a while, so this project and my album will be freer,” he says. With it, he plans to truly test the boundaries of blurring the lines between genres and allowing his sound to speak for itself.
Tobi Lou. With Kyle and Marc E. Bassy. 7 p.m. Monday, November 5, at Revolution Live, 100 SW Third Ave., Fort Lauderdale; 954-449-1025; jointherevolution.net. Tickets cost $26.50 via ticketmaster.com.