“Bitch I’m stylish / Glock tucked, big T-shirt, Billie Eilish,” are the inescapable lyrics of Armani White that have taken over airwaves worldwide. What started off as a TikTok snippet, combining a sample of N.O.R.E. and Pharrell William’s 2000s hit “Nothin’” with a cleverly worded lyric alluding to Billie Eilish’s signature oversized style, became a viral sensation giving Armani the spotlight he needed to prove why he’s here to stay. Before “Billie Eilish”, Armani was touring as a supporting act for the likes of Vince Staples, Aminé, James Blake, and Nas sharing his self-proclaimed “happy hood music” and vibrant on-stage persona with crowds across North America. The last year marks a milestone for the Philadelphia-born rapper as he signed with Def Jam Records, received a plaque for “Billie Eilish” going gold in Canada, gifted his mom 100K, and made his late-night TV debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live!
As with most success stories, nothing in life came easy for Armani but rather than wallowing in hardship he saw it as an opportunity to make changes around him. The discipline to save $60, devoting $10 for food and the rest for studio time, while sleeping in his car is the perseverance that got him to where he is today. His songs are upbeat and happy, never mind the lyrical subject which can be heavy at times, because of a realization he had when he was younger. Experiencing loss and the death of multiple family members throughout his youth, Armani found that the silver lining in his grief was the hope for better days. Music became an important vessel for his emotions and by channeling his pain into creation he found upliftment. He’s aware this mindset is a peculiarity that separates him from many contemporaries in hip-hop and it also makes him a role model for listeners who identify with his story. Combined with his exuberant personality, which extends to real life as well, it’s no wonder he can make a connection in the short attention span listeners allocate for discovery.
During a recent trip to Toronto, he performed at the Drake Underground, elicited sky-high engagement from the crowd, and paused to catch up with me the following day. In between debates about the best food in Toronto, Armani shared the origin story of his “happy hood music”, his advice for making the best out of a bad situation, the secret to success on fast-paced social platforms, and the mistake he made that turned out to be a valuable lesson.
You recently received your plaque for “Billie Eilish” going gold in Canada, what did that moment and career milestone mean to you?
It’s one of those things where you could tell your friends, yo, I’m the greatest rapper in the world but we live in a digital era, so nothing is really tangible. It’s not like how it used to be when you go to the store and see CDs. We see streams, but you don’t have anything tangible to account for what is going on. That was mind blowing to see, they told me I went gold but seeing it [solidifies] like, oh shit, that’s real!
You have a great stage presence, how much of that would you say is attributed to your naturally outgoing personality and your practice performing for different crowds?
It’s practice when I’m performing, but it’s also practice when [I’m] talking to people. It’s a split between the two: it’s my personality that contributes to it, and it’s traveling that contributes to it. I used to always watch James Brown’s performances when I was a kid, and I was intrigued by the power to command a crowd. Even if I say “woo” and they say “woo” I thought that shit was so cool. For me, the goal when I walk on stage is to have a conversation. I want y’all to feel like we’re having a conversation, I want y’all to feel like you’re catching up with your homies you haven’t seen in a while, and you’re doing it through music. Every time we execute that well is when it feels good.
You recently performed at Made in America, which was in your hometown of Philadelphia, and Rolling Loud New York, what have been some of your most memorable performances to date?
Made in America [was] very cool because I did [the festival] in 2018, but I was a much smaller artist. Doing it again [with a hit single]? That’s cool as hell. It’s a full-circle moment. Honestly, Canada has some of my favorite shows. We played Montreal with Vince Staples in 2019, and [I] was like, damn, Canada is cool. I fuck with Canada. Also, BC was the first time I saw somebody who knew the words [to my songs]. This was in 2019 again. I was so used to playing like it was a talent show but that was the first time that was like, nah, these people [know].
You call your genre of music, happy hood music, why does that name best represent your sound?
If you take the type of character that I am and you equate [it] to what I’ve been through and where I’m from, in the usual equation, [it doesn’t] add up. I have to be very prevalent, knowing that and say nah, you can take those two things, add them up and get this result, if you want to and be the example of what that looks like for the next generation. Happy hood music to me is defined as taking a different direction coming from past trauma and pain, being able to take all that energy and build something positive.
When did you coin that term, happy hood music?
In 2014, my uncle was shot and killed in Philadelphia. In 2016, my dad lost his life to cancer. In both moments, I made the “happiest” songs of my life, and I realized that every time I was super sad, all I could think about, write about, [and] envision was being happy because I was reminiscing [in] the feeling of being happy. So, I would make music almost hopeful, I want to go back to that place. [It] was around those years that I coined the phrase, happy hood music.
How do you find the silver lining in hardship or the positive in a negative? Do you have to consciously work on being in that headspace?
You just have to hope for tomorrow. Tomorrow is another opportunity to do it again [and] do it better. A hard truth that I had to realize was no matter how much of what I’m going through is affecting me—it doesn’t have to be things that are super dramatic [even] like man, I have a flat tire, I had to take the train, the train was delayed, and it was raining outside—somewhere in the world, somebody doesn’t give a fuck. You can tell that whole story, which could be a painful-ass story, but they’ll be like, alright. I had to learn that you either pick up and move forward, or you stay in that little bubble and blame everything around you for why life is going wrong instead of making life go right. I took that opportunity and I made changes around me.
What was it about Def Jam that made it the right label fit for you?
It’s about the people and the building. The [Chairman and] CEO, Tunji [Balogun], is a good friend of mine, and so many people that were hired are such good people. They were the first people who valued me as not just the “Billie Eilish” guy. [Instead,] they were like he has music, he has a career ahead of him.
Are you spiritual and do you believe in manifestation? Your intro “Too Many Angels” on ‘Things We Lost In The Fire’ reminds me of a church prayer.
I’m spiritual in [the sense] that I grew up in church. My mom and uncle were Muslim. Even when I wasn’t all the way into church, there was always music at church that I grew up singing. There was one guy that I used to follow called Eric Thomas (@etthehiphoppreacher) [and] he’d say, “you should only say things two times. The first time to speak it into existence, and the second time either you’re getting it done, or you’d done it.” This time last year, I put in an order for a Tesla, and I didn’t have the money to pay for it. But I was like, if I don’t figure out how to afford a Tesla by the next six months, I don’t deserve the car. Anyway, I have a Tesla now, is all I’m saying. I made it all make sense, so I guess I do believe in manifestation.
In a previous interview, you mentioned a piece of advice that you got from your uncle “you should know 50% of what you’re willing to pay someone 100% to know” and how that tied into being an independent artist and allocating resources. Now that you’re signed to Def Jam, does that advice still apply to everything you do music related?
Yes, now I just need to know 50% of what the label is gonna do [laughs]. Sometimes I get impatient, I wanna do it at one pace, and then randomly, I wanna speed up. I need to make sure I understand what’s going on around me and what people are doing around me so that way if I need to amplify or I want help, I can say what I want. I can speak from a [place] of knowledge.
You created a google doc that was essentially a marketing plan for how you wanted to release “Billie Eilish” but TikTok is such a fast-paced platform with constantly evolving trends, how did you plan ahead for a platform like that?
You gotta do it in these windows where you point and shoot. Not point-and-shoot in the sense that, alright, let me make this whole plan, get monthly eyes going over it and we’ll come back and see if this makes sense. Nah, this is the plan, [snaps fingers] do it. Especially in places like TikTok and social media in general, the plan only makes sense when you’re developing the plan. A week from now, everything can change. You have to plan it and attack and or plan 50%, attack, and during your attack, figure out the other 50%. Do it in a way where you don’t take so much time that when it’s actually time for you to execute, the plan you made doesn’t make sense anymore.
What’s a mistake you made that turned out to be a valuable lesson or led you to something else that was right?
There was a wave where everyone wanted to be an independent artist. At one point, I had a friend, we were both making music as independent artists. I had a song that was going up, and he had a song going up, and his [song] was crazier than mine. I’m at this label, I’m telling them I’m not gonna sign, I hate them and they’re like, oh yeah, we were just trying to sign your homie and I was like, he ain’t gonna sign this shit either. [Then] they’re like, nah, he actually already signed. I hit him [about it] and was like what happened? I thought we were independent and he was like oh, I didn’t want to be independent and that fucked me all the way up. I learned a level of obedience, there are a lot of things that I said no to and a valuable lesson from it was to not say no. Because when I said no, and somebody said yes, that yes blew the fuck up. Now I learned to just say yes and figure it out later. Basically, to [be more open-minded].
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