“You work here? It’s like a school,” says Charlton Kenneth Jeffrey Howard as he wanders the GQ offices in Manhattan. The 18-year-old is young enough to know. Just five years ago, he was using his mom’s iPhone back home in Australia to record verses, which he would post onto SoundCloud and Facebook. Today, Howard has over 60 million loyal listeners on Spotify, more than BTS or Kanye West, as well as the most popular song in the world.
He first knew he had made it when, two years ago, he received a surprise Instagram DM. The message was from Justin Bieber.
“He said, ‘You got the sauce,’” says Howard, better known as the Kid Laroi, scrolling through his phone to show me the exchange. He pulled his stage name from the Kamilaroi people: His mother is of Indigenous descent. At 14, he was crowned one of the country’s best high school artists on a competition show called Unearthed High. A record deal followed, which put him in a position to catch the attention of a certain Canadian megastar.
The next time he heard from Bieber, Laroi was in the shower. Intuitively, he jumped out to answer the FaceTime call, still sopping wet. That led to a series of collaborations, including “Unstable,” which appeared on Bieber’s 2021 album, Justice, and the Kid Laroi’s own “Stay,” which became the biggest pop song in the world. At just 2 minutes and 21 seconds, the song—a frantic pop ballad in which Laroi croons about longing and self-sabotage: “I feel like you can’t feel the way I feel / Oh, I’ll be fucked up if you can’t be right here”—dominated the global Billboard charts all summer long.
Laroi was raised middle-class in the suburb of Waterloo, before his parents split. To stay afloat, he says, his mother sold drugs. Meanwhile, Laroi became close with his uncle, who was a source of encouragement. Then, right around when Laroi started making music, his uncle was murdered. “[H]e would stress to me how important it was that I keep rapping and stay focused,” Laroi once tweeted. “When I was little I told him ‘but I want to be like you,’ to which he replied ‘if you turn out like me, I’ll be disappointed.’” Those words have haunted Laroi ever since.
Blake Slatkin, who co-wrote and produced “Stay,” explains over the phone that the song came together haphazardly on a Sunday in Los Angeles. As the story goes, musician Charlie Puth and producer Omer Fedi were hanging out at Slatkin’s parents’ house when Laroi invited himself over. Puth had parked himself at the piano, just messing around with some melodies, and when Laroi walked in and immediately started freestyling. “The second he heard the melody, he knew exactly what to sing,” Puth tells me. Puth and Laroi hadn’t met before, but the collaboration felt kismet. “He wrote the hook in a few seconds,” adds Puth. “It was so sick.” Slatkin and Fedi pulled up Pro Tools and recorded the song in one take.
“It was one of the most insane, magical strokes of genius I’ve ever seen in my entire life!” screams Slatkin over the phone. Next, Laroi brought Bieber into the mix, before sending the track to Laroi’s management. It sat untouched on Slatkin’s hard drive for months, aside from two brief teasers on Instagram Live. About a month before “Stay” appeared on Spotify, the song mysteriously appeared on a Discord server; someone had apparently broken into Slatkin’s hard drive. “Laroi and I would scooter around UCLA late at night,” says Slatkin. “We had kids yelling at us, ‘Drop “Stay”! Drop “Stay”!’ Kids would DM us, hundreds and hundreds of direct messages being like, ‘Drop “Stay”! Tell Laroi to drop “Stay”!’”
Laroi’s ability to engage his hyper-mobile, technologically savvy generation is part of his success. Most young people recognize Laroi’s name from TikTok, where his songs—including one early 15-second snippet calling out Addison Rae (“I need a bad bitch / Uh, Addison Rae”)—have found a home. Two weeks after the influencer and her mother responded to the verse, in the form of a self-shot dance, Laroi dropped the full track (“Addison Rae”), which exploded from there. His music thrives on TikTok not only because it’s catchy, but because it’s easy to loop in 15-second intervals.
This all seems to be less a label-mandated strategy and more a natural reaction to the changing music landscape, at least according to him. I ask Laroi if he writes songs with TikTok virality in mind. “I don’t pay attention to any of it,” he says. He claims he’s rarely on TikTok, though his girlfriend, the model Katarina Deme, sends him a ton. “I’ll watch them sometimes when I’m bored,” he says. (When I ask Fedi the same question about TikTok, he jokes, “What’s TikTok?” and later adds “Who is Addison?”) (The two are dating.)
These days Laroi is living in Los Angeles, enjoying the perks of stardom, such as the mansion he recently bought in Beverly Hills. Overnight fame has other perks too: He hoops regularly with Bieber (who casually gifted him a $75,000 diamond-encrusted Rolex for his birthday), he cheerily says he got his “fucked up” teeth fixed, and he hangs out with other young musicians, like Dominic Fike and Lil Nas X. His style has evolved considerably. When he was first starting out, he wore ill-fitting tracksuits, but now he sports vibrant cardigans and custom-beaded necklaces, and rarely leaves his house without a fresh manicure.
In early September, Laroi walked the red carpet at the VMAs with a leather jacket and no shirt underneath, posing for photos with Deme. They met just over a year ago, through mutual friends, and even as they become more serious, Laroi says that he doesn’t show her any music ahead of time. “She can hear it when it comes out,” he says with a smirk. On that New York trip, Laroi surprised his followers with a show at Irving Plaza. Tickets were sold exclusively on Instagram Stories, and still sold out in less than two minutes. Recently, he’s been teasing and deleting lyrics to something else, a mysterious song called “Thousand Miles.” (Right now, he’s been listening to Taylor Swift’s “August” on repeat. He plays the track on his iPhone for the whole office to hear. When we get to the chorus, he grins: “It sounds fire.”)
The biggest perk of becoming famous, Laroi explains, is the easy access to his music heroes, like Drake. “‘He just came to me at a restaurant and said, ‘Man, I’m proud of you,’” remembers Laroi of that night. “Keep going. I’m watching your shit.”
And with that, Laroi opens his phone to check his DMs.
Photographs by Martin Brown
Styled by Jon Tietz
Hair by Ledora Francis using Oribe
Skin by Andrew Colvin at Saint Luke using Chanel
Tailoring by Samantha McElrath at Carol Ai Studio