Australian hip-hopper The Kid LAROI (aka Charlton Howard) is a viral sensation, cultivating a fanbase in the US as well as here via streaming platforms and social media. Now the cloud rapper/crooner has dropped his inaugural mixtape, F*CK LOVE – and on the same day as both Logic’s retirement album No Pressure and Taylor Swift’s epochal surprise release folklore (Kanye West’s DONDA didn’t materialise). But Howard is making his own waves.

At 16, this First Nations gamechanger belongs to a new generation of teenage hip-hop prodigies at home, together with Brisbane’s Creed Tha Kid. Howard was raised by his mother in the dynamic Sydney suburbs of Waterloo and Redfern, but he also spent time in distant Broken Hill. Into hip-hop, R&B and soul, Howard began rapping as a tween, sharing his efforts online – and slipping onto triple J’s Unearthed radar. In 2018, he uploaded a buzz EP, 14 WITH A DREAM, working alongside Sydney producer Miracle. Howard was espied by Chicago mogul Lil Bibby. The ‘Blessings’ upstart signed to Bibby’s Grade A Productions, home of Juice WRLD. Howard supported Juice on two headlining Australian tours – last November’s run his final shows before he tragically passed at 21. Inevitably, Howard transplanted to Los Angeles with his mum. In 2020, he’s already been industrious, circulating non-album singles and fulfilling cameos (Howard had a zeitgeist hit with ‘Addison Rae’, celebrating the TikTok personality).

Howard was mentored by Juice WRLD, yet his style is closer to Trippie Redd’s – the Ohioan, reformulating pop-punk (and emo) aesthetics, known for the angsty hit ‘Love Scars’. Though melancholy, Howard doesn’t emit Juice’s existential doom. Regardless, he’s too expressive, and energetic, to be reductively dismissed as ‘a mumble rapper’.

The media has described F*CK LOVE as Howard’s debut album, but his label is marketing it as a mixtape. Like Trippie’s A Love Letter To You series, F*CK LOVE follows a narrative arc, rather than unfolding as a concept. Howard captures an unravelling relationship: the rejection, humiliation, recriminations, heartbreak and resolution (the future bass ‘SAME THING’ is a self-own of his failure to commit). There are four “skits” – in fact, an intro and three interludes – based on phone calls with his now ex-girlfriend (a sleepy Howard does mumble as she accosts him of neglect on ‘BOOTY CALL’). The mixtape is 30 minutes.

The F*CK LOVE sound is melodic trap with Auto-Tuned singing/rapping – and some lowkey twists, such as luxe string arrangements. Howard hasn’t opted for the ambitious curation of those art-rap projects from, say, Travis Scott, but the production input and guest spots are solid. Indeed, with F*CK LOVE, he signals his new clout. Howard even commissions big guns like benny blanco – forever associated with Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream – on ‘ERASE U’.

Howard has enjoyed gleaming collabs in the past – notably teaming with Lil Skies for ‘Moving’. However, his connecting with Juice WRLD on ‘GO’, F*CK LOVE‘s lead single, is the biggest. (Howard likewise appears on his idol’s US#1 posthumous album Legends Never Die, bolstering Marshmello and Polo G for ‘Hate The Other Side’.) ‘GO’ is a hooky anthem, although Juice ominously references lean.

Sadly, today Gen Z hip-hoppers customarily include memorial segments in live concerts for fallen peers – and, in the emotionally raw ‘TELL ME WHY’, Howard now has a song for that. He mourns Juice WRLD and other lost friends in homage to brotherhood. ‘TELL ME WHY’ could be Howard’s ‘Lucid Dreams’, the rapper mentioning his drinking Hennessy. “I’m way too damn young,” he sings. “I can’t count all the tears I cried, so many sleepless nights/Watched all of my idols die, right in front of my eyes.” Elsewhere, Howard is joined by Seattle’s Lil Mosey – riding high with ‘Blueberry Faygo’ – on the bouncy ‘WRONG’. Then, the Twin Cities’ Corbin brings alt-R&B melodrama to ‘NOT FAIR’ (supposedly meant to feature Trippie Redd).

Still, as an Australian hip-hop renegade, Howard hasn’t abandoned the homegrown scene (Scottie Marsh just painted a mural of him in Sydney). On F*CK LOVE, he has beats from Sydney MC/producer/DJ Haan plus Khaled Rohaim. Brisbane popster JOY. contributes vocals, writing and production to the keys-laden finale, ‘SELFISH’.

The challenge for the teen (or his camp) is to convincingly, but appropriately, convey street cred. Usher caused consternation when, in 1993 at 14, he premiered with the hyper-sexualised ‘Call Me A Mack’. Usher’s own protégé, Justin Bieber, struggled as a child star to develop a transitional adult persona, despite having a “swagger coach”. Mind, Howard’s role model might be another Antipodean adolescent: Ruel, who sings of romantic perils with a soulful maturity while being relatable. As with Trippie Redd, Howard sees himself as a clubby balladeer. And, in contrast to his compatriot Iggy Azalea, he reps authenticity. Above all, F*CK LOVE relays Howard’s artistic range. Curiously, his distinctive flow often gives away to a raspy grunge timbre, especially on the songs ‘MAYBE’ and ‘TELL ME WHY’ – very Daniel Johns, circa Silverchair’s Frogstomp.

Howard can be extra. On the playful, and clever, ‘NEED YOU MOST (So Sick)’, he flips Ne-Yo’s noughties R&B classic ‘So Sick’ and the Aussie colloquialism for ‘dope’. Howard deems himself ‘over’ wretched love songs, but presents a collection of break-up bangers. A win.

‘F*CK LOVE’ is out now.

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