Charged Up
Whether you consider Tory Lanez a pop-ready singer, overeager rap gladiator or shameless clout-seeker, it's clear that his gauntlet-throwing shtick has hip-hop's attention—and he's got the bars to back up his bravado.
Words: Steven J. Horowitz
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

“I’m smart,” says Tory Lanez between tokes of a blunt. The musician, who’s currently seated in a graffiti-splashed, brightly-lit green room at a photo studio in Downtown Los Angeles, takes a pause and then elaborates. “That’s the main factor of being smart: When you realize you don’t have to sound smart to be smart.”

For Lanez, it’s all about showing and proving, and letting the accolades roll in, an ethos he’s applied to his now red-hot career ever since he began releasing music in 2009. He lets his work speak for itself, and though he can come off as cocky, he emphasizes that he isn’t actually trying to impress. “That’s not the only reason I would say I’m smart,” he continues. “I’m always a couple steps ahead—period.”

With 17 mixtapes, three studio albums, an EP and three Billboard Hot 100 chart solo entries to his name, the 26-year-old is practicing what he preaches. His second and third albums, Memories Don’t Die and Love Me Now?, released seven months apart in 2018, respectively debuted at No. 3 and No. 4 on the Billboard 200 chart. The day before he arrived at today’s shoot with his emotional support dog, a 3-year-old French Bulldog/Boston Terrier mix named Charlie, Tory was in a West Hollywood recording studio with Pop Wansel, who helped produce his 2015 breakout hit “Say It,” and Play Picasso. They were working on Chixtape V, the fifth installment of his popular mixtape series that he’s now terming an official album. It’s one of two projects he plans to release this year. The other, El Agua, is a Spanish-language record that follows in the success of “Pa Mi,” his hit collaboration with Latin megastar Ozuna. (Tory doesn’t speak fluent Spanish, but since January 2018, he’s been learning it thanks to the popular language-tutoring app Duolingo.) Though he’s mum on details about the upcoming project, he recently posted Instagram photos of himself alongside Latin trap superstars J Balvin and Bad Bunny.

The Brownstone-sampling track “Say It” may have posited Lanez as an R&B lothario with a jagged edge, but he’s both a rapper and a singer, with an enviable work ethic that could rival that of Tupac Shakur. Today, he arrives at the shoot promptly on schedule, dressed in loose, sky-blue cargo pants, a black jacket over a white tee, a quilt-patterned beanie and crisp white kicks. He mugs for the camera like a pro as Charlie, who Lanez brings with him everywhere he goes, patters around the space, chewing on a plastic bottle littered on the floor. (“My dog really does bring me joy in times when I might be mad,” he says. “When everyone leaves, I’m just with my dog.”)

Super producer Benny Blanco, who’s helmed smash hits for Ed Sheeran, Rihanna and Justin Bieber, signed Lanez to his Mad Love imprint in partnership with Interscope in 2015. He saw the potential from the first time they spoke. “He literally said to me, ‘I’m the best artist of all time.’ He says that now. I loved it,” remembers Blanco, referring to a tweet Lanez posted in January, stating, “I’m the best rapper alive right now... I will body any of y’all niggas out! Period!”

“There’s no bigger fan of Tory than Tory,” Blanco continues. “He’s his own team mascot. He beats you into liking him, and you’re forced to like him because he works 10 times harder than anyone else.”

As one of the most prominent and promising figures in hip-hop, though, it often isn’t the music that takes precedent. Traced back to the beginning of his career, Lanez has become a lightning rod for controversy at an increasingly consistent rate, aided by public feuds with a coterie of musicians including Drake, Royce Da 5’9” and Travis Scott. Some have dubbed him a clout-chaser. He laughs it off.

“I’m just smarter,” Tory reiterates. “It’s the tiny things in life, dawg. I’m not bothered by the things that people actually think I’m bothered by.”

So, what exactly irks Tory Lanez?

He pauses. “I don’t like waiting at drive-throughs,” he responds before cracking a smile. If Lanez’s over-confidence seems unfounded for a relative newcomer, it’s because his pedigree forced him to become his own biggest hype man. Born in Brampton, Ontario, the artist started rapping at the age of 11 when, after his cousin beat him in a game of Madden, he processed his anger over it by putting his thoughts to paper and stringing them together through rhyme.

Travis Shinn for XXL
Travis Shinn for XXL

Shortly after music grabbed his attention, Tory, born Daystar Peterson, lost his mother. (It’s the only subject in the line of questioning that Lanez refuses to answer.) He, his three brothers and two sisters moved around with his father, a missionary preacher, bouncing to different cities before ending up in Toronto with his grandmother. At age 14, Tory’s grandmother kicked him out of her house for acting irresponsibly, leaving him homeless before he moved into an apartment with strangers. (Tory details the fallout on the murky 2014 track “Grandma’s Crib,” bemoaning, “Oh God, help a nigga get it how I live.”)

After his grandmother left him to his own devices, he ended up satisfying his hunger to create by staying in his friend’s aunt’s basement, which doubled as a music studio. Tory would sleep on the floor and record in his spare time. He released his first mixtape, T.L 2 T.O., in 2009, and hustled his subsequent tapes at local malls. Around the same time, he gave his first glimpse of business savvy. Rumors began circulating that he was related to Drake, thanks to a user-uploaded freestyle video posted to YouTube that identified him as “Drake’s lil’ brother.” Lanez responded by uploading his own clip where he denied any affiliation with Drake, but also leveraged it into an opportunity to build brand awareness. He stated that if the fellow Torontonian listened to his mixtape and didn’t like what he heard, Lanez would supply him with $10,000 for his troubles. He also dissed Drake for using the “6ix” in relation to Toronto.

It’s textbook baiting and it worked. On Drake’s “Summer Sixteen,” released in 2016, the 6ix God rapped, “All you boys in the new Toronto want to be me a little,” which many interpreted as a shot at Lanez (Tory dropped a mixtape titled The New Toronto one month earlier). They talked about each other in the press, fired subliminals back and forth and, conclusively, revealed a truce via a May 2017 Instagram post. This March, the two artists embarked on a month-and-a-half-long joint tour of Europe and the United Kingdom, appropriately titled Assassination Vacation.

“People get mad along the journey; I really don’t care,” Tory says of his lyrical sparring. “I use all these niggas for marketing. You want to focus on it? Focus on it. I don’t care. Once I’m off of it, I’m gone.”

At the same time that he issued his challenge to Drake, Lanez started to get noticed for his music. In 2011, Sean Kingston signed him to his Time Is Money Entertainment imprint after seeing a video of him freestyling over Lloyd Banks’ “Beamer, Benz or Bentley” instrumental. He got major looks—one of his first performances was on stage with Kingston while the singer was on tour with Bieber—but Lanez, who continued to release mixtapes at a steady clip, ultimately went his own way three years later. In 2015, he signed with Blanco, who then served as executive producer of I Told You.

Success often invites controversy, a notion Lanez knows all too well. He constantly makes headlines for his various disputes, of which there have been many. But for Lanez, everything is an opportunity. It’s hard to tell whether he instigates beef for attention (like when he challenged both Pusha-T and J. Cole to joust for lyrical supremacy earlier this year), or if battling is merely him pushing back on aggressors. He considers it the latter and engages for the sport of it.

“I can do this all day,” he says. “Niggas want five rounds, three rounds. What do they say? After they say some shit about my hairline and something about Drake, they don’t have anymore disses. I just don’t care. I’m about to get paid off this shit.”

His reference to hairlines is a gesture to Nicki Minaj who outed her ex, Safaree, and, by proxy, Tyga, for getting hair implants last year. Lanez casually chimed in, admitting in an interview in September that “[my] hair was never that fucked up. Don’t get me wrong, I had to fix my edge, I was saluting from back here.” Today, he gleefully points to the sharp line of hair razored across his forehead. In fact, he’s teaming up with the same restoration company that did his procedure, Ziering Medical, to open clinics for men.

Travis Shinn for XXL
Travis Shinn for XXL

“Look at my hair,” he says, slicing his pointer finger across the top of his face. “It’s fuckin’ beautiful, baby. And guess what? This shit doesn’t go away. The line is perfect at all times. You want to know why? Because I paid for it. And I don’t care. Because at the end of the day, all of us, as men, you will come to me and ask for help. If you’re really that self-conscious about it, you’ll be like, ‘Yo, what can I do? I can go to Tory and get [my] hair back.’”

That same spirit—reclaiming the narrative—is what’s made his issues with other rappers so entertaining. They never feel malicious, like they’ll culminate in some sort of violent conclusion. In February, for instance, Tory posted a video that shows him aggressively running down on rapper Dax (who had released a diss track towards him) and demanding an apology, which was granted. Lanez deleted the clip because he didn’t want to give his challenger any shine, and then wrote it all off as “entertainment.”

Still, his rap sheet is extensive. Starting in 2016, he got into a Twitter spat with Jacquees, then deaded it one month later. Eric Bellinger blasted him on Twitter in 2017, claiming that he stole his tag. In 2018, video surfaced of a confrontation with Travis Scott over Lanez’s claims that he wrote for him. That same year, Joyner Lucas took offense to Lanez’s claims that he was a superior rapper than the rest, resulting in an epic diss track trade-off. Don Q took similar issue with Lanez’s boasts, prompting the former to release “I’m Not Joyner” at the start of this year and the latter to fire back with the scathing “Don Queen,” a song that elicited a response from DreamDoll, who viciously attacked Lanez lyrically for exposing their intimate affairs. (The Twittersphere largely declared her the victor.)

Lanez gestures to notorious troll 50 Cent as an inspiration and it makes sense: Lanez invites confrontation, though he doesn’t fire shots first, at least by his count. He extensively recalls how opponents underestimated his abilities as a sharp-shooting lyricist capable of humbling his aggressors (a YouTube deep dive reveals a pubescent Tory Lanez making light work of a local competitor). It’s hard not to draw parallels to Drake, who often racked up hits that capitalized on beef by including jabs at others.

“[Tory] can rap a lot better than a lot of people,” says producer Smash David, who has worked with Lanez since 2017 and helmed six songs on Love Me Now? “He can sing a lot better than a lot of big artists. At the end of the day, he’s not trying to shoot or fight somebody. He’s having fun with it, seeing who can step up to the plate and have a friendly rap battle. But at the same time, it gets big, so it promotes whatever single he has going on. Right after the beef he did with Don Q, he dropped a video for one of his singles. Everybody has their eyes on him.”

For Tory, having a sense of humor about yourself is the key to success, especially in such a hyper-sensitive cancel culture. “The whole point of everything and getting over shit is the fact that you’re able to laugh at it,” he says. “There’s always a racist joke, but it’s kind of funny. It depends on the seriousness but at the same time, it’s like, the fact that a Jewish person can laugh at a Jewish joke, a Black person can laugh at a Black joke, and not really be offended because they’s kind of funny. That’s when you realize you don’t have to make it so serious and we can alleviate some of the hatred here.”

Today, Lanez doesn’t sweat the small stuff. He’s got important matters at hand, like his son, Kailon Peterson, age 2, and his upcoming business prospects. In addition to getting into the hair restoration business, he plans to open the first of a franchise of ice cream stores called Notorious Creamery in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. In true form, he isn’t afraid to laud his accomplishments. He points to Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Diddy as inspirations. “I’m 26 and I’ve already accomplished half of the things they accomplished before they was this age,” he says. “Not to say that we’re not all in fair runnings, but the fact that I’m able to be this blessed at this age and know the things I know this early, I think I have what it takes to go beyond that.”

At this moment, Lanez’s dog Charlie waddles into the dressing room as one of his associates arrives with Burger King in hand. “People think I’m mad arrogant,” Tory continues. “But I’m really just confident in myself, and I just don’t have limitations. The reason why I do things is to show my fans that there are no limitations, period. Sometimes I’ve got to be boasty about that and gotta say it in such an exclamation that it’s looked at as, ‘This guy’s going crazy.’ But at the end of the day, I do it so that when my legacy is here and I’m gone, the world knows. I can take it to the top because this kid never let the millions of people on the internet tell him anything. He just kept going.”

Travis Shinn for XXL
Travis Shinn for XXL

Check out more from XXL’s Spring 2019 issue including our Dreamville cover story featuring interviews with J. Cole, J.I.D, Bas, Cozz, EarthGang, Lute, Omen and Ari Lennox; Show & Prove interviews with Flipp Dinero and Blueface, a look into how Hot 97's Ebro Darden went from fish mascot to hip-hop gatekeeper and more.

See Tory Lanez's Different Looks Over the Years


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