Show & Prove: Armani White
Words: Stacy-Ann Ellis
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
Can we do 250,000 streams in one day?” rising rapper Armani White asked his Instagram followers last May after blowing out candles on a celebratory release day cake for his long-teased single “Billie Eilish.” His goal was to have the biggest song of summer 2022. Thanks to TikTok, he made it to a million streams in three days. Since the arrival of the viral breakout hit, which samples N.O.R.E. and The Neptunes’ 2002 iconic anthem “Nothin’,” it’s been impossible to escape.
“Billie Eilish” has birthed plenty of moments for 26-year-old Armani to savor. He’s reportedly received over 41 billion TikTok views featuring his song playing, more than 33 million combined YouTube views, over 153 million Spotify streams and a No. 99 debut on the Billboard Hot 100. NFL player Tom Brady, Kim Kardashian and singer Billie Eilish herself have shared his song on social media. Then there’s his full-circle BET Hip Hop Awards performance with N.O.R.E. this past October, and an emotional late-night debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live! that same month. “There’s a lot of these moments where we always said, ‘One day we’re gonna do this,’ and it’s all happening in real time,” Armani says via Zoom in October, taking it all in during a stop as a supporting act on Jessie Reyez’s Yessie Tour. “We’re doing it.”
Despite the TikTok stats, the animated wordsmith is no social media artist. “This guy put in his 10,000 hours,” Def Jam Recordings Chairman and CEO Tunji Balogun says of Armani, who signed with the label last spring. “He’s always been an elite-level rapper. Now it feels like he’s building a world through his music.”
Growing up in West Philadelphia, the rapper born Enoch Armani Tolbert was surrounded by family and community. One of seven siblings between his mother and late father, he was part of what he considers the last generation of kids on Catharine Street and 52nd Street whose parents all knew each other. His vibrant, extroverted personality shone long before his colorful ’fits and beaded two-strand twists came along. Admittedly, he was “a character” and class clown who was always outside. So much so that as the neighborhood worsened, his mother moved him around to states like California and Delaware to keep him on a straight path. “She was trying to make sure I was in good environments and not getting caught up in whatever nonsense was going on in the world,” he shares.
Yes, Armani was bright, but school was just a life prerequisite to please his mom. Despite being a church kid who came from a long lineage of musicians—horn players from his great-great grandfather down, a piano prodigy aunt, everyone in the choir—it took time for his mother to come around to his adamant pursuit of rap. Armani remembers scribbling his first rhyme on a test he finished early in second grade. By fifth grade—hopped up on the colorful, left-field musical styles of Ludacris, Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliott, Kanye West, Eminem and Tyler, The Creator—Armani was (unsuccessfully) trying to convince his peers to become rappers.
He’d started recording music in eighth grade at his friend Keem’s home studio setup. Two years later, Armani had convinced his mother to get him his own mic and started going to Batcave, a popular studio for local Philly rappers like Gillie Da Kid. Armani stuck out like a sore thumb. “You know what Philly rap sounds like. It’s super ‘bang bang, shoot ’em up,’” Armani jokes of the 2011 moment. “I was the only one in there making songs about girls.”
Armani’s first released song was a 2012 freestyle over Missy Elliott’s “Ching-a-ling,” followed by “Picture Perfect” and “Secret Handshake” in 2014. But 2015’s “Stick Up” was the one that changed his life. After shooting, editing and uploading the song’s DIY video during an accounting class, the song received light on the internet and caught the attention of Tunji Balogun, who back then was the Sr. Director of A&R at RCA Records. When the two met up in New York at a dinner in 2015, Armani was still in the process of figuring out his sound, but they kept in touch until the stars aligned for both of their careers, thus leading to his record deal.
Before the “Billie Eilish” success, Armani had endured some tumultuous moments, some of which he details on his 2021 EP, Things We Lost In The Fire, which arrived after his 2019 indie album, Keep in Touch. Things like being on the brink of eviction from his most recent apartment, his uncle being shot and killed in 2014, the passing of his father to cancer in 2016, and a 2020 house fire that led to a since-dropped arson charge and jail stint for Armani, as well as a change in perspective and renewed sense of urgency. “That house fire became a full-circle moment to a house fire I had in 2006, where I lost my aunt and my three cousins,” the rapper reveals. “That music was really necessary for me. You have something really heavy on your spirit, and it’s like landmines in a field for you to have this conversation. But if you get through these landmines, on the other side is a flower field that’s a garden that you can run through.”
Armani’s pain and personal breakthrough is the crux of his “happy hood music,” the Twitter bio-turned-unofficial genre for his upbeat brand of music. “[It’s] the sonic version of the Boys and Girls Club,” Armani explains, noting how similar his struggles and stories are to other people from the hood. “It’s not just the vibe. It’s the opportunity to be something different than what the environment tells you to be.” He’s helping others find light in the darkness. “It’s just being able to look in a sky full of clouds to still find the sun,” Armani adds.
That audible brightness and sense of presence that permeates “Billie Eilish,” and then subsequent singles “Diamond Dallas” and “Goated,” are just the tip of the iceberg. The breadth of his personality and artistry will be further demonstrated with the probable release of two projects starting at the top of 2023.
Ever hungry, Armani White is already working hard, but he’s taking his time on what’s next. “I always wanted to be a name that people cared about,” he reflects. “Growing up, I felt like the underdog. So, now to be not just in the spotlight, but the spotlight? This train could have stopped moving a long time ago. I’m doing everything to make sure it doesn’t.”
Read Armani White’s interview in the winter issue of XXL magazine, on newsstands now. Check out additional interviews in the magazine, including cover story with Pusha T, conversations with Freddie Gibbs, Chance The Rapper, Ab-Soul, G Herbo, DaBaby, EST Gee, Murda Beatz, Morray, Ice Spice, Jeleel!, Destroy Lonely, producer Dez Wright, singer Kiana Ledé, actor Shameik Moore, plus a look at hip-hop’s love for wrestling, a deep dive into how new artists get on in hip-hop these days, the ways in which women in rap succeeded in 2022, the rapper-run podcasts the game has grown to love and a tribute to rappers we lost in 2022.