TOBi’s ‘STILL’ finds strength in vulnerability

‘I call this shit post-traumatic growth’: not the most joyful words to open an album with. And yet, this is how Canadian rapper TOBi decides to introduce himself in his debut album. It’s a bold choice, but an authentic one. STILL doesn’t have a neverending list of collaborators, nor a particularly elaborate production. This might change in the future, but so far, TOBi doesn’t really need one. This is as raw as introductions come. He knows that for many, this album will be the first time we hear from him — and he wants to make clear from the get-go that he has nothing to hide from us.

‘Growth’ lets us know that what we’re about to hear is the result of a journey. The entire album is extremely personal, but it never feels like we’re being voyeuristic. It’s not always easy, but TOBi invites us to share his experience, and that is a multiple and complex one. Tales of poverty, blackness, family, love and feeling shape a worldview that STILL makes us want to understand. If, as he says in ‘City Blues’, he has to ‘monetize his pain and his hurt’, it is for good reason — and fortunately, not only to ‘fit in this lil’ game’ that the rap scene is.

We’re introduced to TOBi with smooth soul and sharp lyrics. If the album is nice enough to listen, it is with his words that the rapper finds an identity. The first verse of the aforementioned ‘City Blues’ is as confrontational as its musical background is gentle: ‘Misogynistic ’til they sisters get involved / Then it’s revenge in the name of feminism of course’, and later on, ‘Want me to put the mic down / And leave me Mike Brown, light brown soaked in the concrete / Just beyond God’s reach ? / So tell me what’s next ? / Boys in blue paint the town red from all the bloodshed’. He makes us address what we’d prefer to ignore, and does it like he’s been doing it for years already.

TOBi goes from the general to the particular effortlessly, finding ways to talk about broad social issues through his memories, his family life, his old friends. In ‘Locked In’, he reminisces of his childhood days, addressing his mother: ‘Mama, I made you buy Jordans when you could not afford ’em / Please forgive me for my transgressions / You could barely afford to drive down the I-95'. The hook is catchy, but never as interesting as what the rapper shares with us in the verse. It’d be unfair to call the production of STILL bad in any way, but it pales compared to the lyrical talent exhibited in the songs. Unfortunately, if we weren’t paying attention to the words, this would sound all too familiar to be remembered. This gives an occasional bittersweet taste to the album: we know we are witnessing unmistakable talent, but we also know that given more time (and more money perhaps), this could have been so much more.

The listener that does take the time to dig into TOBi’s words will however be happily rewarded. The album has some clear highlights, as in ‘Caged Bird Sings’: ‘ Am I a fool to let you through these thin walls of mine? / Am I a fool to introduce you to the borderline? / Look here, these tears on my pillowcase dry / Yet I remain cooler than the side, never mind’. Just as you can’t ‘keep an eagle in a parrot cage’, there is no doubt that TOBi won’t stay an underground artist for a long time. Although STILL isn’t perfect, it is unmistakably the start of something great. It even ends on a way stronger note than it started with: ‘Shot Me Down’ explores male vulnerability (‘Young boys put feelings in a jar / Concealed from the real to remove from the heart’) through surprisingly effective melodies and as always impactful wording. The album’s last track (‘Come Back Home’, featuring Nigerian duo VanJess) may also catch the listener off guard due to its radically different style: but it also makes for the best it has to offer. The percussions and harmonies meet each other at exactly the right place — and through this, the listener too feels like they belong.

Despite some occasionally too conventional production, STILL manages to leave us with a smile on our face. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it is definitely worth paying attention to. Rather than disappointment, the album is filled with hope for the future. If this is just a debut album, the rest of the world may just have to watch out for TOBi’s future releases, for he definitely has way more than this to say — and we’ll be there when he decides to share it with us.

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