If deservedly hyped Toronto rapper anders has learned anything during what’s been a rapid ascent, it’s that stepping outside of one’s comfort is part of the game.
For the 27-year-old born Anders Ly, that’s meant accepting he’s now a very public figure, with little chance of that changing in the near future. When you’ve got nearly 56,000 Instagram followers, and over a million monthly listeners on Spotify, keeping a low profile in a hip-hop-crazed city like Toronto is difficult.
The downside there? Scratch an actor, musician, or rock-star visual artist and you’ll often find that, for every person who craves all the attention they get, there are a half-dozen who are happiest not having to be “on” when they roll out of bed in the morning.
Reached in T-Dot, where he’s preparing for a Canada-wide tour, anders leaves zero doubt which category he falls into.
“I’m an introvert at heart,” says the singer and rapper, who’s as thoughtful as he is willing to answer all questions honestly and eloquently. “I’m perfectly fine with spending time alone and doing things alone—I actually prefer that the majority of the time. That comes with, one, my personality, and, two, my upbringing. When you’re in a certain kind of world you don’t want attention—you do everything you can to avoid it—to not bring attention your way, whether it be from people around you, or from law enforcement or whatever. So I was always in the shadows.”
For illumination on that, we can flash back to a childhood that saw anders raised by a single mom who, as a Vietnamese immigrant, often worked two jobs to keep food on the table. Being left to one’s own devices often leads to trouble for kids, and by the time he hit early adulthood anders was on a path he’s glad to have escaped today.
His younger years provided lyrical inspiration for some of anders’s earliest tracks. Consider “I see my mama worry ’bout me, shit is painful”, and “In and out of court like I went to law school”, both from “With or Without” off 2017’s darkly meditative 669.
“In my youth I was obviously caught up in some wrong things,” anders reflects. “That ‘I see my mama worry’ line is true—there were quite literally nights where she’d be up calling, worried that I was in a dangerous situation, or a dangerous place, or a dangerous position that could affect my future. At the time you’re young and not as communicative and you could be, so she wouldn’t be able to contact me.
"She actually wouldn’t hear from me for days, or months at a time because I moved out a young age,” he goes on to note. “So yeah, she was really worried about me. As I grew up I learned that I didn’t have to hide things.”
Work through anders’s past singles and albums, and you should notice a progression, the rapper seemingly in a noticeably lighter and more positive place on 2018’s Twos. Just how much life has improved isn’t made totally clear, but even when he taking downtempo R&B to dark places, there’s a refreshing vulnerability to lines like “I need somebody that won’t leave me behind.”
That growth is, anders suggests, part of a responsibility to keep moving forward as an artist.
“What fans want more than anything is to fall in love with a character that’s portrayed in your music, and then to watch that character grow and develop into something else,” he opines. “It becomes kind of like a hero story in a sense. In order to be part of that journey they have to be able to see you, hear you, and follow you.”
Paying attention to anders’s journey is what Torontonians are doing—his first ever live performance had him headlining the city’s 1,200 capacity Phoenix. The singer-rapper’s new single, “Come With Me” manages the impressive trick of sounding both rooted in a present where the Weeknd is king, and also—thanks to sunsplashed retro-horns—in a past ruled by the likes of Tony Pabón.
“My songs can be very urban, but there’s also a lot of R&B,” anders says. “That’s a result of wanting to be diverse as an artist. When I was growing up I wasn’t exposed to music from my parents. My mom was an immigrant parent, so she didn’t listen to music because, one, she wasn’t home; and, two, when she was home she wasn’t playing Michael Jackson.
“All the music I ingested as a child was through my own curiosity,” he continues. “In that process I discovered rap, rock, alternative music, and pop. I loved music, all of it—I wasn’t just a rap guy. I would hear something, fall in love with it, binge it more than someone should, and then that led to the next obsession.”
All of which has landed anders to where he is today: a man whose days of walking the streets of Toronto unrecognized are—it what can be seen as a blessing or a curse—more or less over, at least for now.
Who does he have to blame? Maybe himself. But more so, one might suggest, the game.
“I didn’t have social media forever,” anders admits. “I only made an Instagram account to announce when I was making music. Even in the beginning I didn’t show my identity. There were no pictures of me—it was just a name, and songs released with that. But obviously, being part of the game and understanding the business and what it takes, I slowly had to break out of that mold.
He continues with, “That’s been one of my major challenges in music, and even up until now: peeling back some layers and showing more of my life. It’s like I need to be reminded ‘Hey, you’re an artist and you gotta pose. You gotta duty to be interesting. While it was a major hurdle, I’ve gotten a lot better at it, even though I’d rather be private and fly under the radar.”