Most often, when Charlton Howard sings, he is shouting. His rough, adolescent vocals have often been compared to the sorrowful wail of Post Malone, the signature sound of heartache for the generation known as “zillennials” for nearly ten years. However, unlike Post Malone’s drugged-out and hazy delivery, Howard – who goes by the stage name The Kid Laroi, in honor of his Kamilaroi ancestry – always seems to be pushing himself to the extreme limits: his voice strains, the volume rises, and the emotions he is trying to convey blur into a harmful anguish.
I am a fan of this aspect of Kid Laroi’s music: it sets him apart from the numerous followers of Post Malone who dominate popular music and contributes to the success of his hits on a musical level. His electro-pop track “Stay,” which is his biggest hit so far, features a collaboration with Justin Bieber and always has a surprisingly quick pace (I remember hearing it twice in a row on Fox FM, possibly because it feels like only the first half of a song when listened to once), in stark contrast to the slow and heavy sound favored by Billie Eilish and many other Gen Z stars. The Kid Laroi gives off the impression of stumbling as he races towards the finish line, similar to how the Veronicas did in their prime.
At 20 years old, The Kid Laroi is at the prime age for creating raw and purely youthful music. While Lorde was writing wise and literary songs from the isolated corners of a house party at a similar age, The Kid Laroi’s music is more akin to angry text conversations, filled with aggression and emotion.
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I apologize, the first song on his first album The First Time is somewhat difficult to listen to, resembling a bitter voice message: “I messed up, in agony/Why did I waste 150 on this flight?/Why did I spend 260 on these chains?/Why am I so paranoid that I had my car bulletproofed?/It doesn’t make sense/I mean, the pressure is overwhelming/I’m only 19 and trying to handle finances and stress/The music industry is strange, along with my friends and family/Life is hectic/And my girlfriend is upset because I’m constantly working.”
He delivers these lines all in one breath, with the soulful music samples underneath offering little relief from the intense barrage of emotions. The Kid Laroi may not be a skilled wordsmith (as seen in his lyrics like “Those memories we made/Are burning in my brain/And I’m stuck in yesterday” in the next track), but The First Time is successful because it prioritizes raw emotional impact over clever wordplay. Like many other 20 year olds, he is full of anger and neediness, as seen on “Where Do You Sleep?” where he bluntly asks his partner, “Where are you at? Who do you sleep with?” The simple change from “where” in the song title to “who” in the verse adds a touch of exaggerated paranoia to the song, making it even more captivating.
The initial occurrence is filled with instances of people speaking, including Bieber, sharing tales about their experiences and relationships. These attempts at creating subtlety around an artist who excels in being straightforward come across as forced. This is also true for tracks like Nights Like This and You, which stray from Kid Laroi’s usual themes of unhealthy love and aggression, making them seem insincere. While it’s evident that his musical preferences are more diverse than other mainstream stars, his efforts to showcase this end up feeling strangely impersonal.
Instead, “Call Me Instead” is a joint effort with jazz pianist Robert Glasper (known for working with artists like Kendrick Lamar and Mac Miller). However, it comes across as a poor imitation of Frank Ocean. On “What’s the Move?”, Kid Laroi features Atlanta rapper Baby Drill, whose verse falls short in comparison to his usual work.
These moments distract from the thrilling harshness that the Kid Laroi is so clearly attempting to conjure and which he so often successfully does. Between two verses on Where Does Your Spirit Go? he audibly clears his throat, a neat faux-verite moment that emphasises the intense, often hard-to-hear cadence with which he sings.
There is a lack of strong, confident energy on The First Time, with a surplus of tracks like Too Much, a predictable collaboration with BTS’s Jung Kook and popular UK drill artist Central Cee. However, a few songs later, on the upbeat and perfectly titled What Went Wrong???, he skillfully combines heartache with pop sensibility, listing out various relationship issues over a dynamic drill instrumental. This song sets a precedent for future Kid Laroi albums that are more consistent. Personally, I hope he continues to scream into the realm of pop music.
The debut album, The First Time, is now available from Columbia Records.