‘I missed out on being a kid’: The Kid Laroi on fame, fans and coming home to Australia

The 18-year-old Kamilaroi rapper, whose fans include Elton John and Justin Bieber, is back in Sydney – starting a world tour and dealing with the ‘obviously insane’ reception

In the video for his latest single, Thousand Miles, The Kid Laroi does battle with himself. As if both Tom and Jerry, in a series of slapstick sketches the 18-year-old Kamilaroi rapper (real name Charlton Howard) flattens himself with a bulldozer, ties himself to a runaway car, and electrocutes himself with a metallic doorknob, his mop of blond hair zapping into a comically oversized bouffant.

With dialled-up visuals and gargantuan production values befitting an artist who has dominated charts both in Australia and the US – he is the first Indigenous Australian to top Billboard’s Hot 100 – it’s a hammy literalisation of Thousand Miles’ lyrics, lamenting his tendency to self-sabotage. “You’re better off alone,” he mourns to a lover. “Cause I’m about to fuck it up with you.”

The video is also surprisingly camp for someone who, in real life, is laconic and almost reserved. Speaking before the opening show for his global tour at Sydney’s Qudos Bank Arena, he often leaves his thoughts hanging, as if he’s unsure how best to present himself.

“I’m not very good at doing that out loud,” he says – “that” being expressing himself.

It’s a far cry from the Howard I see on stage a few hours later. The outsized showman from the music video is back, and it feels like all of Sydney has turned out to see him: every mullet in the city is here, and the stadium heaves with tweens and adults alike sporting Kid Laroi merch. Word in the crowd is that Australia’s infamous drill rappers OneFour are somewhere in the mix too: they were spotted exiting from limos earlier in the night.

Howard on stage at Qudos Bank Arena on Thursday.
Howard on stage at Qudos Bank Arena on Thursday. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Howard is dwarfed many times over by the stage, though he struts and bounds across it in a few – miraculously large – leaps. At one point, he rouses the whole arena into putting their middle fingers up at an unlucky fellow named Ben, who broke the heart of someone in tonight’s crowd. At another, he pulls someone on stage and exchanges footwear with him to do – what else? – a shoey. He points to his own black loafers. “I just bought those!” he hollers.

It’s easy to see why he has accrued a loyal legion of fans, including everyone from Elton John to Justin Bieber. Last year, his collaboration with the latter, Stay, earned him a Grammy nomination for best new artist – just one in a dizzying array of accolades. Any attempt to catalogue them is futile: two Arias, four Apra awards, multiple nods at the VMAs, so on, and so on. All this with just one mixtape, F*ck Love, and a debut album on the way.

To say it has been a meteoric few years would be an understatement. At just 18, he already sees the early part of his career as merely a vanishing point in the distance. “It’s crazy to think [it’s been] like, four years or something,” he says. “It feels like a lifetime ago. Twenty years ago. So much has happened since then.”

Howard with his girlfriend Katarina Deme at the Grammy Awards in April.
Howard with his girlfriend, Katarina Deme, at the Grammy Awards in April. Photograph: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

His story, by now, feels apocryphal: a rags-to-riches tale that begins in the housing commissions of Sydney’s Waterloo – where he recorded homemade verses on his mum’s phone, using beats he found on YouTube – and ends in superstardom.

Like any fairytale, there are gleaming highs along the way, like his Australian breakthrough: becoming a finalist in Triple J’s Unearthed High competition for school-age musicians in 2018, aged just 14. In a stroke of luck, his shortlisted track, Blessings, was discovered by US rapper and record executive Lil Bibby. “I’m in the office with one of my homies, and they play me five seconds of this song,” Lil Bibby told an interviewer last year. “Once I heard that … I just knew.”

But there are tragedies on his path to success too. In 2015, his uncle – a paternal figure to him in the absence of his father – was murdered. Four years later, just as he had moved to the US to pursue a rapidly ballooning career, his labelmate and mentor Juice WRLD died of a drug overdose in front of him.

“I missed out on being a kid,” he says. “[Even] before I was famous, I never really felt like one.”

I am under strict instruction by Howard’s team not to broach either of these tragedies, but they are the undercurrent that runs beneath this latest tour – his first in Australia since he opened for Juice WRLD in 2019. They also, no doubt, inform his metric of success – one defined not by album sales (millions) or streaming figures (billions). “Success [is] making sure the people around you are happy and healthy … making sure the family’s good,” he says.

And the best part of fame? “It’s helped support my family. That’s the coolest thing about it.”

Howard performs at Qudos Bank arena on 26 May
‘The outsized showman from the music video is back, and it feels like all of Sydney has turned out to see him.’ Howard on stage at Qudos Bank Arena. Photograph: Don Arnold/WireImage

Howard’s songs are effortlessly propulsive, flitting between styles – SoundCloud rap, which he’s so often categorised in, but also trap, 80s-inflected new wave, and pop punk – with the omnivorous taste of a generation where genre labels have dissolved in the face of everything-all-of-the-time music access. Tupac, Drake and Taylor Swift have all been cited as inspirations, though on repeat right now is a left-of-field choice: the Joshua Espinoza Trio’s And So It Goes, a pensive, jazzy lullaby that sounds like a springtime walk in the sun: “It’s a really beautiful song. It’s just really nice to listen to.”

Despite Howard’s age, he’s also a master emoter, signalling entire spectrums of human emotion through singular vocal inflections – an angsty, fearful falsetto on Stay, or a broken-hearted, open-throated plea on fellow mega-hit Without You. For him, music is “an outlet, somewhere where I could talk about my feelings … music’s the best way to let that speak for me, you know?”

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Those feelings, as it turns out, are best channelled into a 20,000-strong horde of fans: catharsis by way of noise. Halfway through his show, he breaks down. Someone gave him a line of sage advice before he went onstage, he says: treat the crowd as if we were family. “And that really fucking resonated with me,” he yells into the mic. “Because I’m in Sydney!”

He holds his home town close to his heart; a few days before we speak, he returned to the suburb where he grew up for the first time since moving to the US. He bought new shoes and McDonald’s for all the kids at the youth services organisation, and visited the towering mural of himself, painted on a Waterloo street corner.

“Coming back to that … I mean, it’s obviously insane. It’s obviously fucking amazing,” he says. “It’s one of those moments where you just feel the love crazy. It’s surreal.”


Michael Sun

The GuardianTramp

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