The Kid LAROI performs at the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in February 2021.
NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
May 6, 2021 4:07 PM EDT

In the past three months alone, The Kid Laroi has released collaborations with Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber, broken an Australian chart record, hit the top 10 in charts in more than a dozen countries, signed an enormous worldwide deal with Sony Publishing, won Breakthrough Songwriter of the Year at the APRA Awards in Sydney. This weekend, he’s set to make his Saturday Night Live debut.

And that’s all before his 18th birthday. The Kid Laroi, born Charlton Howard in Sydney, is one of the fastest-rising music stars in the world. Just a few years ago, he and his mother were couch-surfing and struggling to make ends meet. Now, he’s living in L.A. and has accrued more than a billion streams across music platforms. Through his social media savviness, openness about mental health issues, genre fluidity and global reach, he’s practically the epitome of what a young music star looks like 2021. Here’s where the Kid Laroi came from—and where he’s headed.

Painful Beginnings

While the Kid Laroi was born in Sydney to a middle class family, his childhood was thrown into chaos when his parents split. Laroi has said in interviews that he and his mother sometimes lived hand-to-mouth as his mother sold drugs to get by; in 2015, his uncle was murdered. He and his mother ended up in project housing in RedFern, an inner-city suburb in Sydney, but were forced to drift between friends’ houses for a spell after being kicked out due to noise complaints.

Throughout all of this turmoil, Laroi developed a passion for hip-hop, first recording verses on his mother’s iPhone before upgrading to a studio and posting his music on Soundcloud and social media. He soon grew a devout following both in Sydney and abroad. In 2019, the hip-hop podcast No Jumper filmed a documentary of Laroi in which excited kids followed him through the streets of Redfern. The same year, his music caught the attention of rapper and Grade A Productions executive Lil Bibby, who signed him in a joint deal with Columbia Records.

Juice WRLD’s Influence

Two years prior, Lil Bibby had signed Juice WRLD, the massively popular emo rapper and Soundcloud artist at the forefront of a wave of melodic hip-hop artists coming to the fore. Laroi was also increasingly embracing similar stylings—he named his favorite album to be Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak—and fittingly, Bibby had him open for a Juice WRLD tour in Australia. That was the start of a mentorship between the two young men: Laroi lived with Juice WRLD for several months in Los Angeles, where he would intently watch his elder operate at breakneck speed in the studio.

But in December 2019, Juice WRLD died from a drug overdose. “That was my big brother. I learned a whole lot from him,” he told HotNewHipHop last year. When Juice WRLD died, Laroi was in the process of putting together his debut album; he decided to make the album’s lead single “Go,” which featured a verse from Juice WRLD recorded the previous August. The song currently has 238 million streams on Spotify.

Viral Success

The Kid Laroi’s debut album, F*ck Love, was released in July 2020, and makes no effort to shy away from the pain and heartbreak of his past. On “Tell Me Why,” Laroi sings about the impact of Juice WRLD’s death on his mental state: “I can’t count all the tears I cried, so many sleepless nights/ Watched all of my idols die, right in front of my eyes.” The album thematically traces a breakup, with Laroi looking back regretfully on his and a partner’s mistakes.

This type of gloomy subject matter isn’t unfamiliar to a generation of hip-hop fans weaned on the depressive musings of artists like Juice WRLD and Lil Uzi Vert—and its wistful guitars, big hooks and intricate trap production allowed it to slide right onto prime playlists on streaming platforms and the rap radio. On Spotify, the album has been streamed over 1.6 billion times; his songs have been added to 485 Spotify editorial playlists and almost 20 million user-generated playlists, according to a Spotify representative.

Meanwhile, Laroi has also shrewdly courted an overlapping and rapidly growing audience on TikTok, understanding that a song’s virality on that platform is crucial to its overall success. Last March, he recorded a few bars of an unfinished song name-checking TikTok’s queen bee, Addison Rae, and uploaded it to the app. Within days, Rae posted herself and her mother reacting to the video, which quickly racked up 10 million views and in turn caused thousands of other users to mime themselves singing along to the clip. Just a few weeks later, Drake would take the same tack with “Toosie Slide,” creating a dance challenge to the song before it was even out.

A few months ago, Laroi struck TikTok gold again: a clip of “Without You,” driven by a crude but relatable sentiment about relationship problems, has been used in more than three million videos on the app. That virality seeped into the traditional charts, with the song hitting the top 10 in more than a dozen countries. And a week ago, the song hit the next inevitable stage of a modern-day pop song’s life cycle, with a remix by an A-lister designed to further its popularity and reach: Miley Cyrus recorded a remix and shot a video in which she and Laroi cuddle next to a California bonfire. #WithoutYouRemix started trending on Twitter, and the pair is set to perform the song on Saturday Night Live this weekend. Laroi now has nearly 29 million monthly listeners on Spotify—that’s more than the Rolling Stones, Nirvana, BTS or Kendrick Lamar.

Bringing Australia to the World

While Laroi is currently racking up numbers to make even some of the world’s biggest stars envious, he hasn’t completely left his roots behind: he often makes a point of representing and talking about his country and community. His name is a reference to his indigenous heritage: his mother is Kamilaroi. “He is showing Blak kids back home that they can do anything,” indigenous affairs journalist Madeline Hayman-Reber told the Red Bull Music Academy last year.

“[Knowing] your background and where your family comes from is very important,” Laroi told Billboard earlier this year. “It’s super important to carry that and be proud about your heritage.”

And Laroi’s success is also opening up pathways for a rising class of Australian rappers to chase international stardom. A burgeoning West Sydney hip-hop scene is growing in global stature, with acts like OneFour and Hooligan Hefs finding success; Laroi has collaborated with many in that scene and featured several Australian producers on his mixtape. “When I was living in Australia, there was only a small group of people that was making music and rapping. Now I get sent a new kid every day in Australia who’s making music and it’s crazy,” he said in a Vice interview with OneFour.

So whether or not the Kid Laroi continues his rise, he’s already made an outsize impact on the global music scene. And his recent co-signs indicate he’s nowhere near finished: he was featured on Justin Bieber’s latest album, Justice, and apparently has a collaboration with Halsey in the works. In January, Elton John paid him one of the highest compliments imaginable, saying, “you’re going to be one of the biggest artists in the whole wide world.”

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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