Boyfrn is filling a void: 'This project is for Black boys like me'
His vulnerable R&B blends everything from hip hop and calypso to punk rock and trap
Listening to Boyfrn is like flipping television channels. Each new track feels brand new and most importantly, unexpected. The Toronto singer and rapper likes to keep listeners on their toes, dropping sporadic singles that range in tone from deconstructed calypso to synth-heavy ballads to guttural trap beats. Just recently he wrote an unreleased pop-punk song for fun.
This penchant for constant experimentation and pushing the limits of hip hop and R&B is what makes him so compelling. The 32-year-old artist has amassed decades of musical influences and wants them all to come across in his own songwriting. "Sonically all the influences are there, and we're not afraid to use any of them. In that way, what I'm making is world music," he said over the phone from a film set in Uxbridge, Ont.
As disparate as his recent singles are, sonically, there's a thread of lyrical vulnerability that ties them together. He's not afraid to share his deepest insecurities and outsized emotions in song.
But, that hasn't always been the case. In 2016, everything changed for him. Before then, he was releasing music as Rashid St. James, that he describes as "very aggressive, very young adult, full of negativity."
He's not entirely forthcoming about the "chain of unfortunate events" that turned 2016 into a pivotal year that sent him on a new trajectory, but he alludes to tensions with his father, emotional baggage and "losing things that you can never get back." He began to realize that he was not invincible and running from pain doesn't mean that you won't feel it.
"I realized that young boy mentality couldn't be sustained forever," he said. "I used to have issues talking about my feelings and I think the experiences I went through pushed [Boyfrn] out."
Boyfrn is almost like a persona that allows him the space to tap into that vulnerability and talk about the things he couldn't before, through his music.
Because his music is so confessional, he prefers working with people he's emotionally connected to. "Way I Flow" and "Come Down" are his only two tracks with features and he collaborated with Dillanponders and Terell Morris, respectively — two friends he's known since high school.
Boyfrn was a poet before he was a songwriter. While growing up in Malvern, a neighbourhood in Scarborough, Ont., a small gesture from his school principal helped set him on an artistic path.
"At the time, [Malvern] was a really rough place and I was part of a group of at-risk kids that the principal pulled out of class. He had us read and write poetry and showed us Tupac Shakur's poem The Rose That Grew From Concrete. And that's kind of where it all started, he had a really positive effect on my life."
When he moved to downtown Toronto in his early 20s, he met a charismatic friend who pushed him to try his hand at rapping. The friend invited him to a studio in his condo, a small closet with no ventilation, on a hot summer day. "I sucked. I messed up a lot," he said while laughing. "I had to do 50 takes and I was definitely dehydrated by the end."
That chaotic experience was enough to give him the itch. He started meeting other artists, spending time at more comfortable studios and worked on learning everything he needed to know to make music. Over the next decade he worked on honing his sound and his craft and in 2018 he re-emerged as Boyfrn.
In the years since, he has released a handful of singles that show how promising this new era could be for him. "Last Night," a delicate ballad that descends into an onslaught of heavy 808s and brash rapping, is most indicative of how Boyfrn can switch things up with ease.
His boundary-free approach to genre can be attributed to his formative years. His family immigrated to Canada from Barbados in 1992, so soca and calypso were always playing in the house. Shortly after they moved here, his mother got a subscription from a record label that sent a different album every month and that's how he discovered artists as varying as Pink, Michael Bolton and P. Diddy. He would ravenously listen to whatever came through the mail slot.
I'm a product of a mass migration of Caribbean people coming to Canada, setting up shop here in Toronto, a big city with a dream.- Boyfrn
His first EP, Kissing Mirrors, will be dropping sometime in 2022 and includes production from Toronto locals Bobby Love and Young Clancy. Thematically, it's about his struggle to define love for himself. "This project is for Black boys like me, who maybe got picked on or were called too dark or too lanky."
There's this void that he imagines. He sees a crying child inside it. No one is answering his calls and he feels utterly alone. The child wants to be himself but isn't permitted to by the societal constraints that box him in. "The little kid is me. I didn't feel I belonged anywhere. I don't ever want anyone else to feel that way. So, filling that void is being that somebody that I needed when I was a kid."
He remembers getting into fights with people in high school who would say things like, "Rock music? That's white people music." To which he would say: "We started this genre, this is our culture."
He wants to see more Black kids feel comfortable embracing a wide variety of tastes and interests from a young age, for them to not feel pigeonholed by what society dictates they're supposed to like. "It's not fair that that type of energy exists, where, culturally, we have to question if we're allowed to listen to whatever we want to listen to."
When asked where he thinks he fits into the Canadian music landscape, he replied: "I'm a product of a mass migration of Caribbean people coming to Canada, setting up shop here in Toronto, a big city with a dream."
We're in a pinnacle moment for Toronto artists who have been biding their time. Thanks to the ubiquity of artists like Drake and the Weeknd and producers like Frank Dukes, all eyes are on Toronto in a big way. Boyfriend is part of a slew of artists who are up next.
"We're a manifestation of a culture that has been doing it for a minute and the changing landscape has created an opportunity for all of us to spread our music and build our brand and create businesses for ourselves and our people," he said. "I'm part of a generation of artists coming out of the city, out of Canada, who are tipping the scales and really showing how bad-ass we can be."