Many people get lost under the weight of creative titles. Oscar Wilde once said, if you know what you want to be, you will inevitably become it. That is your punishment. But if you never know, then you can be anything. Don Toliver is determined that people know him as more than just a producer, a songwriter, a rapper, or a director. He accomplishes what many cannot: he allows himself to experiment and be more than a single title. He permits himself to be anything.
In Queens, NY, overlooking subways that trace the city’s skyline and rumble the studio, we frantically set up lights and attempt to drown out the trains. Don Toliver arrives with some of his closest friends and team, precisely on time. He’s interview ready, with his fit already on, complimented by his custom LoveSick chain. Walking around, he shakes everyone’s hand before making his way to hair and makeup to commence his pre-interview routine.
There’s a sense of calm and humility about him, but it’s his punctuality and close friendships are tell-tale signs that fame hasn’t gotten to him no matter how meteoric his career has become. One could easily forget that, just a few nights ago, he was performing for a crowd of over 20,000 people.
Toliver had been singing for years. Since the moment he recorded his first song, he’s been in the studio. Looking back on his start, he admires his work ethic and how he was able to keep it up. Recalling an open-mic performance from 2017, Toliver can confidently say he was ahead of his time in terms of sound. Toliver recalls an uncertainty presented towards him during that performance. “Someone who doesn’t know anything about you can look and be like ‘what’s going on,’” he said, but as time progressed, he would catch them in the club bobbing their heads to his tracks.
He tells us of a time when he was with friends on islands and, while others would be lounging around on a beach, he’d be inside creating. However, he didn’t solidify his space in the music world until his collaborations with Travis Scott on Astroworld. Truly a pioneer of his sound, he has been paving his way through the music world as a solo artist.
The first line in his Spotify “about” section are the words soul singer. Toliver looked to soul singers throughout his career. Looking through old Soultrain videos, he recalls noticing that “even if they were lip-syncing, the emotion that you see them give […] I feel something.” That’s what soul means to him; he says “it is something you have to feel in your bones.” This is something he hopes people will experience when listening to him and watching him perform.
In keeping with his desire to create emotional experiences through his music, Love Sick featured a significant visual component that was non-negotiable. He tells us, “I just had to make sure the aesthetic that I wanted it to look like had to make sense for me.” This is a special release as well. While he may be proud of and worked hard on previous projects, Love Sick involved a lot more from him. Especially when it came to intentions. He revealed, “I felt like on the other albums I really didn’t take as much time to do this one as far as the cohesiveness.”
Like his previous albums, Don Toliver dedicated a year to working on Love Sick. He doesn’t let the pressure of constantly creating and putting music out get to him, though. “I got so much music,” he tells us, “the pressure, I guess, is what I’m gonna do with all of it or how I want to put it together. But when you have a storyboard and concept, it’s kinda easy.”
While there was no plan for initially creating this album, it was inspired by an unreleased song he wrote while in San Francisco with Toro y Moi. “[This song] gave me this jolting energy that made me wanna go all in with the theme and vibe,” he says. Playing with synthesizers and an array of instruments, Toliver attempts to do something different than his other albums. “I wasn’t able to make the song come to life; maybe in a future time. The sample was way too crazy, they wouldn’t let me get down with it,” he laughs.
This album is more than just appealing sounds. He had never highlighted something so visual before. It was a chance for him to show the world more of his abilities. He says, “I wanted to show the world that I can co-direct movies, I can come up with plots, I can come up with ideas. I can direct, I can score a movie.” He wants to demonstrate to people that he is more than just a label. Toliver expresses his gratitude to Amazon and the team there for seeing his vision for his short film and assisting him in carrying it out. With their help, he creates a nostalgic feel as he sings about love and its complications.
Speaking of his upcoming solo tour, Don Toliver shared that he’s a homebody. While he may not be the most enthusiastic about travelling, he does mention how much it helps his creativity. “It keeps my brain moving. New experiences, living life, [travelling] keeps all that in motion,” he says. However, little excitement about the act of travelling does not diminish how surreal the experience of performing is for him. Having dedicated 200 days in the last year to performing, Toliver is excited to add more, telling us he’d tour every day if he could. He says, “It’s like the best gift in the world for me because the money and everything is amazing but when I first got here, I wasn’t thinking about none of that. My whole idea was to just be heard. Just let people know I’m a real force.”
Seemingly unfazed by the prospect of performing almost every day, Toliver gives himself the space to enjoy the act of sharing his music. He doesn’t feel that he needs to travel to the most luxurious places but, instead, prefers the small towns where he can better connect and see the impact of his music.
After wrapping up the interview and photoshoot, once Toliver changed into more comfortable attire, Backwood in hand, he eagerly prepared to spend the rest of his evening working on new sounds. With a night at the studio ahead of him and prepping to head to Philly for a show the next day, Don Toliver shows no signs of slowing down.
Cover Star: Don Toliver
Producers: Illanois Branch, Luca Dichio, Andre Cordova, Christian Brennan
Creative Director: Bishwesh Uprety
Photographers: Bishwesh Uprety, Abdul Rehman
Interviewer: Jordan Astra
Writer: Zeinab Fakih
Video Director/DOP: Nizar Youssouf
1st AC: Christian Brennan
Gaffer: Abdul Rehman
Editors: Nizar Youssouf, Caleb Cabral, Christian Brennan
Graphic Design: Luca Dichio
Lead Stylist: Katherine Fu
Assist Stylist: Lyndsey Davies
MUA: Penelope Sierra
Hair: Yazmine Adams
BTS Video/Photo: Taylor Rogers
BTS Photo: David Binyatov
Project Manager: Luca Dichio
Production Manager: Illanois Branch
Wardrobe: @closetwisdom @wisdm