Leveling up can look like a lot of things. Increased streaming numbers, record deals, tour dates or any other accoutrements of burgeoning rap stardom. But for Destroy Lonely, it looked a little like himself. While visiting a grocery store on tour earlier this year, one particular fan caught his attention: a Black boy rocking gray hair just like the rapper. “[I was like], Damn, this n***a is literally a fan of me,” Lonely recalls. “And then as I’m saying that, the same kid walked up to me like, ‘Yo, are you Destroy Lonely?’”
For the 21-year-old rapper, it was just the latest symptom of an increased national profile, one accompanied by packed venues and songs that go viral before they’re even released. Since his breakout 2019 single, “Bane,” exploded on TikTok in early 2021, the Atlanta-bred rhymer’s dystopian soundscapes and careening bursts of quirky melodies have made him one of the most exciting forces in hip-hop.
He continued to blossom with “NoStylist,” a glittering 2022 single embedded with a style and whimsy that only fortified his buzz. His project of the same name echoes that approach, with tracks from the mixtape earning over 10 million SoundCloud streams to date. His songs have racked up nearly 4 million Spotify streams per month, and he recently concluded a 48-date American tour that saw him tap in with more fans than ever. Plus, he’s signed to Playboi Carti’s Opium label under Interscope Records. “I just feel like I’m progressing every day, which is always a blessing,” he says. “There’s an impact being made with my music.”
Before Lonely’s metallic raps made any collisions, he was born Bobby Sandimanie III, the son of former Disturbing Tha Peace rapper I-20. Despite his father’s background, Lonely was more interested in video games and getting fresh than making music. When he wasn’t doing that, he was hanging out in his native Atlanta or traversing YouTube to listen to tracks from Eminem, Kanye West, Tyler, The Creator, Earl Sweatshirt and Lil Wayne. Early on, Weezy F. Baby left an especially indelible impression. “He live and die for his music,” Lonely expresses. “S**t like that inspired me.”
While Lonely says his dad remembers him freestyling as a toddler, and Lonely would occasionally get bars off in middle school, the rising artist didn’t make any formal forays into rap until he took a music production class in high school. The classroom, as well as his nebulous musical inclinations, first steered him toward producing. There was only one problem: he wasn’t any good at it. Naturally, that spurred him to try his hand at being an actual rapper. “That worked out a lot better for me,” he remembers.
Powered by his curious nature and a little serendipity—one of his classmates had become a good producer while they were still in school—Lonely recorded his first raps on a broken-down laptop in his bedroom, quickly transitioning from Type Beats on YouTube to tracks his friend produced. Featuring a vibey bass-line, free-associative flexes and emerging charisma, their first release, “Then I’m Off,” bore similarities to hometown heroes like Future and Young Thug. The track quickly accumulated thousands of streams on SoundCloud while providing Lonely with an emotional outlet he didn’t have before. He was homeschooled as a pre-teen and in his final two years of high school. “When I was younger, I didn’t really have no way of expressing how the f**k I felt,” he discloses. “And the easiest way for me to do that was to make a song.”
Gradually, songs with 3,000 streams turned to tracks with 50,000, and each of his three solo projects, Darkhorse (2019), Underworld (2020) and (2020), gained more attention than the last. The prominent stage of his early come up began with “Bane.” Forlorn, yet as anthemic as it is fantastical, the track got some streams on SoundCloud, Apple Music and Spotify in 2019, but it blew up on TikTok in 2021. Even though the rap newcomer personally hates the app, and he laments that the song took so long to get traction, he accepts it as a notable chapter in the Destroy Lonely canon.
“I appreciated it because I was able to have that moment, which brought a bunch of attention and more fans to me,” he recalls. “So, when I present my newer music, people could actually grasp it. It wasn’t like I was just shooting in the dark anymore.”
When one of Playboi Carti’s best friends sent Lonely an Instagram DM in late 2020, it was clear that Lonely was generally hitting his target. Soon, he got a call from Carti himself, who promptly offered to sign Lonely to Opium, which became official in 2021. Since then Carti offered insightful advice including: “Keep my head straight in this s**t because he done been here before,” Lonely reveals. “Anything to just help a young n***a to keep going the right way and not crashing out and falling, going left.”
At this point, Lonely’s stylistic DNA had also crystallized. Melodic, yet technically proficient, he can string together bits of unique phrasing as easily as he can generate entrancing hooks, threading them with beats that can oscillate between ethereal and stylishly ominous. “A lot of my music, I think of it visually rather than what I’m saying,” he explains. “And then with words, I just really love how the English language has a lot of s**t that means two different things, but it’s the same thing. So, when I’m rapping, I just like to always say something on the surface, but it probably means a hundred different things.”
“He stands out from the rest and has a progressive mindset,” says producer Clayco, who’s worked with Destroy Lonely since meeting him online at the end of 2019. “There’s always something new going on whether it’s music or lifestyle. That’s why I know Lone will go far.”
If things go according to plan, Lonely’s future includes overtures in the fashion world and plenty of musical conquests. More immediately, he’s unloading new music. This past March, he dropped the guitar-driven Clayco-produced track, “If Looks Could Kill,” which spearheaded his project of the same name. “Scary as f**k” is how Lonely describes the effort, released in May. On a grander level, the burgeoning talent is focused on being a trailblazer.
“I just want to inspire the whole world,” Destroy Lonely says. “I don’t care if I get credit for anything or if anybody gives a f**k or not. I just wanna look around and know that, damn, that came from me.”
Check out additional interviews in XXL magazine’s spring 2023 issue, including the cover story with Lil Durk, conversations with Coi Leray, Key Glock, Joyner Lucas, Fridayy, Luh Tyler, Lola Brooke, Blxst, Curren$y, Finesse2tymes, Vic Mensa, Toosii, DJ Drama and actor Tyler Lepley, plus a look at how famed hip-hop attorney Bradford Cohen helps clients like Drake and Kodak Black beat their cases, veteran photographer Johnny Nuñez tells the behind-the-scenes stories of 10 of his iconic hip-hop photos, six rappers from six different eras—Melle Mel, MC Shan, RZA, Lupe Fiasco, B.o.B and Cordae—discuss the change in hip-hop over 50 years and a deep dive into the city of Memphis becoming a breeding ground for new rap talent.