the inside track

The Kid Laroi Is a Pop Chameleon

There’s no reason to believe Laroi’s soul-baring bars couldn’t eventually top the charts too. Photo: The Kid LAROI via YouTube

What is a Kid Laroi song? If your only brush with the teenage musician has been through the “Hot 100,” it’s a little hard to tell. His first charting song, from just over a year ago, in June 2020, was “Go,” a bleary Juice WRLD collaboration over an indistinct trap beat. For a bit, Laroi’s defining feature was being something of a Juice WRLD protégé, after striking a friendship with the emo-rap hitmaker before his death. Weeks later, Laroi peaked at No. 10 on another Juice WRLD linkup, “Hate the Other Side,” off the rapper’s posthumous album Legends Never Die. Around that time, Stereogum criticized Laroi as a grifter on the emo-rap wave. “Could the Kid Laroi’s success foreshadow the end of the emo-tinged TikTok sing-rap kids?” critic Tom Breihan wondered.

A year later, the Kid Laroi continues to climb the charts, but things have gotten a bit more complicated. By April 2021, he had hit the top ten again with his song “Without You,” thanks to a well-paired remix with Miley Cyrus that has since afforded him appearances beside her at SNL and Lollapalooza. “Without You” is an angry, hooky song grounded simply by an acoustic guitar; on paper, it would seem it’s just miming the current popularity of guitars in hip-hop off recent chart-toppers like DaBaby and Roddy Ricch’s “Rockstar” or 24kGoldn and iann dior’s “Mood.” Except that “Without You” isn’t a hip-hop song — it’s some sort of punkish ballad, where Laroi is singing. And somehow, that wasn’t a huge surprise. One of his biggest strengths as a rapper had already been his emotive, melodic voice, which he would bend and twist like rubber on songs like “Hate the Other Side” and “Tragic,” alongside the equally adept NBA Youngboy. After recalling Post Malone with his watered-down, yet potent, pop trap, he followed Posty a step further.

Even so, “Without You” stayed mostly faithful to Laroi’s emo influences. His latest and largest, “Stay,” which now spends its second week at No. 1 on Billboard’s “Hot 100,” nearly ditches them entirely in favor of the ’80s–indebted synthpop that’s been running the charts (including the very song it dethroned, BTS’s “Butter”). And he smoothes out the pop edges by bringing in his hero Justin Bieber, who’s featured on the song. To that end, “Stay” sounds like it could’ve been discarded from Bieber’s March album Justice, recalling some of its slicker, arena-size cuts (“Die for You” and “Hold On”). It stands up to those songs as another effortlessly listenable, well-crafted pop song (thanks largely to a team of hitmakers including Charlie Puth, Omer Fedi, and Cashmere Cat).

But it’s also some of Laroi’s most anonymous work yet. In his previous rapping, the 17-year-old Australian isn’t afraid to open up about his mother’s struggles as a single parent, or his absent father, or his failed relationships. “Stay,” though, keeping with the trend of “Without You,” is just another vague take on a breakup with uninspired lyrics like “I’ll be fucked up if you can’t be right here.” Unlike a brasher peer like Jack Harlow or a more playful one like glaive, Laroi lacks the personality to make a line delivery like that fully land — he’s likable, sure, but clearly still growing into his lane as a musician and celebrity. On top of it all, “Stay” is one of his more reined-in vocal performances, leaving not much overly identifiable or remarkable to the song; it sounds like it could just as easily be a hit for the Weeknd or Post Malone. There’s no reason to believe Laroi’s soul-baring bars couldn’t eventually top the charts too — his frequent collaborator Polo G hit No. 1 for the first time earlier this year just by blending a simple riff, a catchy hook, and honest verses on “Rapstar.” But “Stay” only furthers the argument that Laroi might have an ulterior talent at play: blending into the sound of the moment and slyly riding the calmest wave to the top. It’s not new math; of course it works.

The Kid Laroi Is a Pop Chameleon