Armani White (Photo by Chad Griffith)
MUSIC BUSINESS

Armani White Disrupts Tradition with ‘Billie Eilish’

Armani White is enjoying booming success with “Billie Eilish.” After unconventionally earning clearance, the single has infiltrated radio waves and Spotify playlists.

In June 2020, Armani White’s Philadelphia home caught fire. Somehow, White and his brother were wrongfully arrested for it and charged with arson after his brother was pulled over for a traffic stop. The painful legal battle lasted until June 2021, when all charges were thrown out.

Afterward, the rapper crafted the five-song EP Things We Lost in The Fire, chronicling the traumatic experience that served as an unwanted full-circle moment for a tragic, traumatic 2006 house fire that stole the lives of four of his family members.

The EP healed him. He felt free to return to writing more lighthearted raps again.

The result? “Billie Eilish,” the thumping 90-second earworm released independently last week after White jumped through a bevy of legal hoops to make it happen.

First, White had to gain clearance for sampling 2002’s “Nothin'” by Noreaga, better known as N.O.R.E, featuring Pharrell and produced by The Neptunes. More impressively, he leveragedTikTok to catch Eilish’s eye, convincing Universal Music Group to sign off on White’s use of its signee’s name. (Eilish is signed to Darkroom/Interscope under the UMG umbrella.)

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Cleverly gaming to get a single cleared didn’t intimidate White in the slightest after beating a bogus charge in a criminal justice system built to oppress Black men like him. But White’s positive experience with TikTok virality starkly contrasts other artists, who resent the chokehold in which TikTok seems to have the music industry.

Halsey took to TikTok on May 22 to air grievances over their label refusing to let them put out “a song that I love that I wanna release ASAP … unless they can fake a viral moment on TikTok.” (An unnamed representative for Astralwerks/Capitol responded in a statement to Variety: “Our belief in Halsey as a singular and important artist is total and unwavering. We can’t wait for the world to hear their brilliant new music.”)

The situations aren’t directly comparable, as White is an independent artist. “Billie Eilish” is named after a 20-year-old generational icon. The single’s accompanying visual nods to past Eilish videos, such as “Bad Guy,” “When the Party’s Over,” and “Lost Cause.” But White’s singular flair is never lost, nor his innovation.

“The trick is that I realized that no matter where I go, where I stand, I’m so me,” White tells Boardroom. “Regardless of what I’m doing, I’m so me that it’s just always gonna sound like me on these records. So, I definitely did not shy away from being myself on a record like ‘Billie.'”

The surging hip-hop experimenter caught up with Boardroom over the phone from Philly to break it all down.

MEGAN ARMSTRONG: Things We Lost in The Fire was your therapy for survivor’s guilt after suffering a 2006 house fire that took your cousin’s life, as well as your false arson charge in 2020. Did making that EP allow you to create again from a more light-hearted space?

ARMANI WHITE: Yes, absolutely. I felt like that was a topic that I ran away from in my music career, and just in life, for so long. I knew that moment being full-circle, if I didn’t speak about it — if I just didn’t address it — I wouldn’t have been able to move forward and get to where I’m at right now with a clear mind. It may or may not have bled over into the music [anyway], but it just still would’ve been weighing on me personally. It still would’ve been weighing on my conscience to not have brought that up.

So, yes, I do believe that me being able to talk about it and being able to create something like that — that capsules that moment and capsules that time — and also just immortalizes my cousin, Melinda, those things were really important for me to do on a personal level. The best way to even describe this music to somebody is, like, it’s a throwaway. And it’s not a throwaway for me emotionally — I care about this music so much — but this was not for streams. This wasn’t for numbers. This was really, like you said, therapy for me. It streamed fairly. It got a couple million or whatever, but that was never the goal in that music.

MA: How did “Billie Eilish” first originate in your brain?

AW: Really, it’s two different questions. The production is one question. The song is another one. That was a song that I wrote without the beat. Billie, she’s the biggest A&R in hip-hop! Billie’s really got a hand [in] what’s going on in hip-hop. Lil Baby was just rapping about “Share the stage with Billie Eilish.” Billie is very much influential in hip-hop because the way in which, I think, she goes about pop — or whatever her genre is — it’s a very hip-hop way.

We both were backstage at [Austin City Limits] in 2019. Just seeing her aesthetic, the big t-shirts, was a vibe. I was like, ‘Oh, shit. That’s fly.’ It was nothing more than making two metaphors stick and running with that concept: “Glock tucked, big t-shirt, Billie Eilish.” And using that sample, Noreaga (N.O.R.E.)’s “Nothin’.” The big t-shirt era was 2002, when that sample was a hit single. The two things just went together and worked together. “Nothin'” by Noreaga was one of my favorite songs growing up.

MA: Why do you think Billie resonates so much in hip-hop?

AW: ‘Cause she’s hip-hop! Yeah, she’s not a hip-hop artist, but she is what hip-hop was defined as. Early on, hip-hop was just, Okay, what are the rules? I’m going to break them. Our parents listen to records; we’re gonna scratch on records. You know what I mean? We’re gonna take these songs that our parents love, and we’re gonna sample them. What are the rules, so I can break them? I think, even if that isn’t what she does, that just seems like it’s what her vibe is or what her branding and style is. That just resonates really well with us as hip-hop artists. We see that shit, and we can relate to that. The entire fight and plight of being a hip-hop artist is just disrupting things.

MA: How would you say you’re the most disruptive?

AW: I mean, we watching it right now! Another thing with Billie Eilish is having that “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. That’s just very hip-hop. Watching Billie reminds you of early Odd Future things, and early Odd Future reminds you of an early Wu-Tang. I think it all correlates to me. Let’s just have fun. Let’s just do what the fuck we want to do. With this idea, with this concept, we’d been going about things just following the rules for so long. Here’s this song, release this song, build it up for three weeks. Let’s pitch it. And I said, “Fuck it. I’m tired of doing that.”

I spent the past couple months learning TikTok a little bit more. I had friends who were going viral, and they’re like, “Yo, you know more people in the music industry than I do.” And that shit fucked me up because I was just going by the rules and not getting the same results that everybody else was. It was time to really just disrupt shit. I created this whole plan. I’m gonna make this TikTok, and that TikTok, and that TikTok. And then from there, I’m going make this content, that video, and that video. But the first thing on that list of things I was going do? It went off! That first video went viral.

@armaniblanco This one is called “Billie Eilish” 😁 #billieeilish #fyp #phillytiktok #phillytok #ranking ♬ BILLIE EILISH by ARMANI WHITE – Armani White

MA: And that leads into the unlikely events that caused Universal to clear this single for you to officially release.

AW: We’re talking specifically publishing. It goes straight to relationships. My manager had to call KP [Kawan Prather], who’s on Pharrell’s team, to get his blessing for clearing the sample [from “Nothin'”].

But the real issue was Universal kept emailing back and asking, “is the song going to be called ‘Billie Eilish’?” We was like, “Yeah, but if that’s a problem, we can change it. We can maybe name it ‘Billie.'” They never gave us an answer on whether or not it would be a problem. Eventually, we get to the very last step of clearing this record — we’re right there — and they go, “Nah, we’re not clearing it until Billie Eilish gives you the OK to use her name.” I’m like, Oh, shit! We’re stuck now because how the hell are we gonna get ahold of Billie Eilish?

We already had contact with her team. Danny [Rukasin], her manager, and my manager know each other well, and he said, “Send me the song, send me the lyrics. Let me take a look at it.” And then it went silent for a second. But then one day, my creative director hits me, like, “Yo, look at Billie Eilish’s [Instagram] story.” Her photographer for the last project is dancing to the song, but Billie [re-shared it] on her page. I dropped the phone. That was literally all we needed to get the song cleared.

MA: What does this single finally making its way into the world symbolize for you?

AW: It’s a story of perseverance, I guess. Don’t let the vibe die. We battle 10-year-olds on the internet, like, “No, man, the hype is over! We don’t care anymore!” One person will go on everything I post, and be like, “The hype is dead!” He’ll go on five different TikToks, and he’ll go on my YouTube. He’ll comment on my Twitter and my Instagram. I’m like, “Bruh.” At this point, it’s just fun watching the conversation turn into what it is. Watching the kids defend me, watching the people going against me, watching the people who just enjoy it, and watching all of our fans. There’s a circle around it.

MA: You have a post from March 2020 that listed all of the things that had happened for you in the midst of your legal battle. Is this the best that you’ve felt since your charge was dropped? Where does this rank among all these things you’ve accomplished?

AW: The Patrick Mahomes co-sign was crazy. When Snoop Dogg followed me, I was fucking losing my mind. But I think this is the peak. Billie is one of the biggest stars on the planet right now, so even just being able to be in her stratosphere is really cool. We checked off so many boxes: going viral on TikTok, getting merch out to these kids, knocking out a million streams in two days and two million in six days. All of these things are summed up into one big “Billie Eilish” moment for me. I think that in itself is, yes, probably the biggest thing that’s happened since the charges been dropped.

MA: Have you been approached by labels?

AW: Every one of them.

MA: Are you wanting to stay independent?

AW:  I think it’s a blend. I don’t think the partner has any shape or size. The partner is ambiguous. There isn’t really [a feeling of] it needs to be major, or it needs to be this, needs to be that. It’s really just about who is giving the best team, terms, and artist services who understands us and who really understands what we’re trying to do and where we’re trying to go with it. To help us optimize that vision.

MA: As “Billie Eilish” has blown up, I’ve seen you described as “a Philly newcomer,” but you’ve been doing this. You opened on tour for Vince Staples in 2019, you’ve partnered with the NBA, you’ve racked up millions of Spotify streams, and so on. How do you see yourself?

AW: I’m not opposed to being a newcomer. My thing is, you can do freshman year as many times as you want to. You can only do sophomore year one time. To me, everything is about graduating. I’m at this level, but I want to graduate and become a freshman again. I want to fully expand and go to the maximum point of the next level, and then graduate and do it again.

While I’m not a newcomer [in music], I am a newcomer in the sense there’s a lot of new people hearing me [for the first time]. Even the other day, there was a lot of [coverage], and we were like, Yo, we don’t even have the digital marketing guy promoting these things. How is this happening? One of the guys on my team said, “You’re news now, bro. When you do something, it’s news.” If I’m doing something, it matters.

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