After years of having to prove himself as an artist, it’s finally time for the multi-talented KSI to reap the benefits of his perseverance and sheer talent — one might say that he even deserves a Holiday.
When speaking with KSI, it’s clear he was always destined to find his way to music. JJ (aka Olajide Olatunji aka KSI) understands what it means to hustle with one’s craft; the never-ending work it takes and the strong desire one must have to constantly improve on what you’ve created before. But, for KSI, he was always fighting against those who believed he could only be, and do, one thing. Despite naysayers who didn’t believe he could do both YouTube and music, KSI has proved time and time again that no one should constrict him because he will always, undoubtedly prove them wrong. His upcoming record All Over The Place, featuring collaborations with American rappers Future and 21 Savage, music artist Jay1, singer Gracey, is further proof of that statement.
Ahead of his sophomore release, KSI is giving everyone a sweet song to celebrate the start of summer — the blissful & breezy track Holiday, inspired by the euphoric feeling of being on holiday (or being with someone who makes you feel like you’re on holiday) and a song that is sure to be a summer smash.
To celebrate the release of Holiday and his upcoming album, 1883’s Kelsey Barnes caught up with KSI and talked about his new single, owning & embracing his success, and what it means to not be constricted by any genres, labels, or mindsets.
You released your debut album Dissimulation last year and you’re preparing to release your next record, All Over The Place, in July. How would you say you’ve changed as an artist over the last year between these two records?
I’ve improved so much, especially with my vocals. During the pandemic, I took lessons over Zoom to try and improve that aspect of my music, as well as writing more and focusing on diving deep into production and finding out what beats I want to use to hit home with this album. In general, I’ve had more time to focus on the music and explore what I wanted this album to sound like. I wanted it to showcase how adaptable I am, how I’ve improved, and how I’m able to just say do everything — like being a jack of all trades. I like that if I want to do drill, I can do it. If I want to do rap or pop or dance, I can do those, too. Just showcasing I can mix all of these different genres and show all of that as a musician. I feel like I’m on a different level than I was before and I think when people listen to the album, they’ll truly understand.
On this upcoming record, you’re collaborating with several artists, like rappers Future and 21 Savage and pop singers like Gracey. Is collaborating with artists in a variety of genres something that is important to you to grow as an artist yourself?
It depends on the song. Sometimes I want someone on a track because it gives a different perspective. There are some tunes where no features are needed; I’m able to just do it all myself. I feel like the features I’ve had over time help to show that I’ve improved as an artist; they don’t think it’s cringe to want to work with me. They are welcoming me and have listened to the music and believe it’s good. That shows to me that I’ve grown as an artist and proved myself to them which is great.
I know with a debut record, there’s a lot of pressure to get it perfect. Does it feel like you’re coming into your own now with this sophomore record and embracing who you are as an artist as a way of feeling like you can do what you want?
Yeah, with the music and the rapping for sure. As a musician, I feel way more sure of myself and I’ve started to feel like I deserve what I received, whether it’s top five singles or top five albums or whatever. I can see that I’ve put in the work and I deserve the success that comes from that hard work and dedication. Obviously, it’s taken some time to get to this point but I feel like I’ve established myself more now than ever.
That must be pretty empowering to wake up one day and realize I actually deserve all of my success and I’ve worked hard to achieve.
I definitely haven’t been gifted my success; I haven’t had anyone just hand stuff to me. If anything, I’ve worked harder than an actual musician because of my YouTube background and I’ve had to prove to everyone that I can do music and do it well. I’ve had to work harder because of that background and show everyone that I can do this.
Your next single is called Holiday and it very much is a summery hit. Can you tell me a bit about the inspiration behind the track?
It’s talking about my girlfriend, saying she’s essentially my holiday and that when I’m with her, it’s a break from my busy life where I’m able to just relax and enjoy myself. It has a bit of a double meaning because I’m desperate to get a holiday! [Laughs]
In a past interview, you mentioned that just two years ago you were having trouble even selling tickets and now you’re selling out gigs. I know you were incredibly successful on YouTube, but how does it feel to see your hard work pay off in the music world?
It’s great when you’ve worked so hard and you get that payoff. Now, I just want to continue to be as good as everyone else and see that mindset payoff on-stage when I’m looking out at a crowd. That’s the moment where you visually see how far you’ve come and the time to show everyone how good you are. Doing shows is an amazing feeling because I didn’t just get handed those slots; I had to grind to get there and at those gigs I can visually see everything I’ve been able to accomplish. I’m glad it wasn’t an easy ride because it shaped me to be the person I am today and I think that’s reflected in the music.
Yesterday Drake won Artist of the Decade at the BMAs and in his speech he was saying he had to fight against these preconceived ideas of who he was, so it’s cool to see a mirror with the two of you and how you’ve had to fight in your music careers.
Yeah, definitely. I remember seeing comments from people saying, “Oh, what’s this guy doing singing and rapping at the same time?” in regards to Drake and that’s what’s normal now in rap. It’s the same with YouTube — there was always this notion that you’re a YouTuber, you can’t do music, you have to pick one or the other. Now, all these people have left YouTube to do music but I’m still doing YouTube, I’m still doing music. It’s normal life to me. It was tough for a bit because people weren’t ready to give a helping hand, I just had to work and work and work and got to a point where I got so successful with the music that it was hard to ignore. When your song is repeatedly hitting the top 10… It’s hard to ignore that.
You shouldn’t have to ignore it because that’s an amazing feat. It’s led you to start your record label, The Online Takeover, with your manager. What made you want to start your label?
I always thought it would be cool to do something like it. I want to make the journey I went through easier for people who want to do something similar. I know there’s plenty of YouTubers who want to get into music and don’t understand how to make that transition, but I’ve done it and I feel like I’m able to give people the expertise. I feel like with my audience and platform if I can make it a bit easier for other artists and help them out, why not?
On the other end of the spectrum is charity work, which is something you’ve very active in — last month you got your baking skills on for the charity episode of Bake Off. Why was it important for you to take part in initiatives like those?
It’s a no-brainer for me. It’s always about giving back to those who are struggling. It’s not even something anyone should have to think about. Bake-Off was fun because I was very bad, but I had a laugh. My girlfriend was trying to save me and help me practice, but as soon as I saw that pie I knew I was a goner! But no one wants to be that guy that is good at everything — that’s annoying! [Laughs]
Now, lastly, with the second album on the horizon, what else are you looking forward to this year? I’m assuming you want to get on tour asap.
Yeah, definitely. I need to go to Toronto and see you guys there! The U.S. would be amazing, same with Australia, and some places in Europe as well. I just want to get everything going and perform at whatever festivals and gigs that I can.
I feel like I’m talking to you right before you’re about to make it huge in America — I just have this feeling so I’m excited we got to chat.
Well, thank you. I feel like the pandemic is holding me back a bit, but it’s also been beneficial for me. Everyone is telling me I’m doing well, but I need to be able to see it physically so when that happens, I’m sure it’s going to be a great feeling.
Interview by Kelsey Barnes
Photography by Sam Neill
Styling by Vivian Nwonka.
KSI’s new single “Holiday” is out now.