Drake took Roy Woods under his OVO wing, but Woods is carving a lane all his own. Boardroom caught up with the Brampton-born artist.
Roy Woods was just 19 years old when OVO Sound, Drake’s joint venture with Warner Records, signed him. Woods (born Denzel Spencer) grew up in Brampton, Ontario — about an hour inland from Toronto. As a teen, he often turned to music from local legends like Drizzy or PARTYNEXTDOOR for comfort. By July 2015, he was brazenly exiting his comfort zone, premiering “Drama,” featuring Drake on the debut episode of OVO Sound Radio.
But even as he was taken under the OVO wing, he didn’t get swept away.
“My whole twenties is just trying to figure out who I want to be, but me not leaving home, me staying around my family,” Woods told Boardroom earlier this month from Warner Records’ New York City office. “My friends are like my managers. They’re so into my life — it’s more than just music — so they keep me grounded.”
“Even on this label, I didn’t have to pretend to be anybody else,” he added. “When I got signed, [Noah] 40 [Shebib], Drake, Oliver [El-Khatib], and PARTYNEXTDOOR, they all told me, ‘Just be yourself, just be you. That’s all we ask of you.'”
Woods opened on Drake’s Summer Sixteen and Aubrey & the Three Migos tours, and he’s sold out headlining shows of his own. He further established himself as an influential voice throughSay Less (2018) and Dem Times (2020).
With the exception of innovative singles like his “Peaches (RoyMix)” and “Girls Want Girls (RoyMix)” remixes, Woods has mostly kept to himself over the last two years; he needed to quiet his mind before making any more noise. May’s acoustic-laced R&B ode “Insecure,” which Woods produced and wrote alongside HARV, is the first glimpse into what he discovered while reevaluating his past to reinvent himself for the future.
The full picture will be painted with the summertime arrival of the highly anticipated album, Mixed Emotions. To hold fans over in the meantime, Woods opened up to Boardroom about healing, switching management, evolving within (and outside of) OVO, and more.
MEGAN ARMSTRONG: Your last project, Dem Times, came in 2020. Why did you want “Insecure” to be the song to break the silence?
ROY WOODS: As soon as I made it, I felt like it was a perfect song to explain a little bit of heartbreak that I was going through and a little bit of just [everything] I was going through at the time as well. It was just the perfect representation of me and the current time of my life and my experiences right now.
MA: I don’t want to look too far into it, but the single cover art is a movie poster. Do you have like film influences or a desire to get into film yourself?
RW: Oh, yes, for sure. Definitely in the future. Even the music video for “Insecure” was based off of the movie Desperado.
MA: How did the making of Mixed Emotions help you heal?
RW: I had to reorganize a lot of my own life. I got a new manager. That was one of the first steps. I stopped doing drugs, so I’ve been drug-free for a year. That was another step. Just working on myself so I can reflect in the music.
I’ve always been very transparent with my music. My music reflects me and my life at every stage and time, whatever I’m going through, so I wanted to make sure that the music that I give is going to be the best reflection of me, and [the fans are] gonna get all of me. My truth, my story, my everything. I had to be right in my own mind and go on this little journey of self-growth, self-reflection, and knowing what I want from myself in my own life.
MA: Not to pry too much into the details of switching management, but through whatever experience you had, what did you learn about the importance of the right team supporting you?
RW: It’s very important. Your manager is one of the closest people that you have around you. It’s like your coach, kind of. Obviously, you gonna do your own thing, but you still have your coach to tell you what you should be doing — what’s right. They play that role in my life for me. If I don’t have the right coach, I can’t make the right play. That relationship and that friendship, that business line and friendship line, it all needs to be there.
MA: Fans and observers associate OVO with specific styles, specific moods. How do you want people to perceive the personal brand you’re building?
RW: Well, I have UTU under OVO. I’ve always wanted to allow talent to be shown and be seen. I have my own little collective of producers, engineers, and writers — to just help showcase more talent in the scene. Whatever I do, [OVO is] always very supportive, too, which is great for me because I always want to expand. They let everybody do their thing besides just me. Everybody on the label is allowed to have their own image and build their own brand. It’s me, and PARTY has OMO. We all have our own collectives under the label. It’s a family within a family.
MA: The only prerequisite is that the name has to be three letters, right?
RW: Oddly enough, it just became three letters! I don’t think that was actually a thing. Everybody just came up with their own thing, and it just became the three-letter abbreviation. It’s funny, though.
MA: When did you start Unlock the Underground?
RW: Just the year before I got signed.
MA: What gave you the inspiration to cultivate your own community like that?
RW: When I created UTU, I moved to downtown Toronto. I’m from outside of the city, a place called Brampton, which is [near] where PARTY is from. I already had my own collective, but we all fell out, so that kind of [faded] away and just became a memory.
When I moved downtown, it was like a rebirth of that. I’ve always wanted this thing that I’m doing with music to be bigger than just me. I’ve seen too much talent from my city for me to just be selfish. I want to see everybody shine and I want to see everybody win.
MA: How have you held onto that underground grit since finding mainstream success?
RW: I feel like the underground is where we all come from, so I don’t see why we should let it go. We all went through those stages, and I love seeing the beginning stages. A lot of rappers in the city are underground. A lot of parties that I still go to are underground — a lot of fashion events. The scene still exists, so I still love to tap in with it.
MA: What have you learned from Drake in terms of flourishing not just as a musician, but as a businessman in all these different lanes?
RW: I’ve learned a lot of how to carry myself and how to present myself just from him. I’ve been on two tours with him, and I’ve spoken with him a lot. I’ve watched him every night — just learning how to compose myself with performing and dealing with people.
He’s given me a lot of good advice. It was just, like, reassurance. He’s always told me, “Just be yourself. It’s the best thing for you to do. People like you naturally.” It’s always good to have reassurance because I’m always learning. I’m always trying to grasp [what] I can do to add to my game.
MA: You’ve got a whole new batch of music coming and you’re entering this new era, but I have to ask about “Like Pascal.” You’ve explained that you zeroed in on Pascal Siakam because of what he represented on a hungry underdog Raptors team in 2018-19 — which NBA player best mirrors where you’re at in your life and career in 2022?
RW: Ooo! Very interesting. There’s so many young ballers out here right now. I would say maybe Andrew Wiggins. It’s crazy cause we’re both from Toronto, too, but that’s not even why I chose him. He had a very interesting journey from getting drafted into the league [at No. 1 in 2014], getting to the Warriors, and now winning the championship. It was just an up-and-down journey. The down was long, and now the up is here. That’s what I’m going through as well, too. I haven’t dropped [new music] in years, but now, here’s the up part.
MA: You weren’t completely gone, but why did you choose to stay mostly quiet and wait until you had a complete project in the can?
RW: I wanted to put out the best music that I can make, and that wasn’t it at the time. I did have an album that I was going to drop, but I scratched it. I’ve changed the album five, six, seven, eight times just to make sure I get exactly what I want out.
It was a long process, and a lot [related to] mental health. A lot of things in my life were wrong. I needed to forget a little bit about Roy Woods and focus on that Denzel guy, and make sure that he was okay. I was just dealing with a lot of personal issues. Even girls. My manager. Family, too — I wasn’t even talking to my mom like that, and then my dad. It was a lot in my life I was going through and I needed to take a break. I just needed to let my mind rest, let my mind breathe, and recoup.
MA: I don’t have to tell you that these times that we live in aren’t just wild, but also harmful and traumatic and scary. With this new album cycle, how are you hoping to use this music and your platform for the better — for more than just yourself?
RW: I want to bring awareness to my life and how relatable it is to a lot of people. I’ve had a lot of fans that have come to me on a very personal, deep level — a very real level, just human-to-human— and let me know how much they appreciate me and my music. My life and my music helped them get through. Some of them are still alive; some of them, they’re not here anymore. Rest in peace. Those conversations were so real. It let me know that my music is something that is healing to people.
I remember when I was like that, and Drake’s music or PARTY’s music made me feel good. That’s what made me feel better when I was, like, 15 and going through whatever. Me and my fans were crying with each other. That’s how real it got, right? So, I want to bring awareness to that. My mental was so thrown off, and now we’ve been talking about mental health awareness a lot, but I feel like a lot of people didn’t know what I was going through. I want to bring awareness to my struggles — not just my life previously, but with OVO and all of the last four years of my life. I want to let everybody know how my mental state was and let everybody know that you’re not alone in this.
MA: You cycled through eight versions of this album. What about it now allows you to take a deep breath and feel like you’ve ended up with the right one?
RW: The storytelling. I was able to get exactly what I wanted to say out, how I wanted to say it. With the production, with the beats. I feel like we’re going to bring people in and let them feel — whether it makes them feel good, makes them feel down, or whether they don’t know how to feel. It is called Mixed Emotions. I just wanted to make sure that they feel my pain to the fullest, and I didn’t want to sugarcoat anything. I wanted them to just know.
It took a long time for me to do that. It was a lot of just working on how I want to write. I was going through a lot of styles of writing. Again, I’m very happy that I have this final product. It’s there, and I know what it can do and that the people can really feel what they’ve been missing out on for the last few years. This project, to me, doesn’t sound like anything that I’ve made previously. But it does give you the feeling of my earlier projects.
MA: Going back to where we started, who would you want to portray you in a movie adaptation of Mixed Emotions?
RW: Oh my goodness. I don’t even know actors by name like that. I just know their faces. I’m a face guy. You know what? Maybe I’ll get Franklin from Snowfall.
MA: Damson Idris?
RW: Yeah, yeah, yeah. He would do a great job.
MA: Back to “Like Pascal.” In the June 2020 SLAM interview you did with Siakam, you discussed the importance of looking up to someone. Who was your first childhood hero?
RW: I was a football player when I was growing up. One guy I looked up to a lot was Jerome Bettis. I’m a big Steelers fan, so I looked up to a lot of those guys.
Jerome Bettis was definitely one guy I always looked up to. When you look at the top-10 list of running backs for yards in their career, Jerome Bettis retired fifth. He weighed 255 pounds at 5-foot-11, 5-foot-10. That, to me, was unreal. Running back size is usually, what, 200 to 220, and a big guy is 230 pounds. A big guy running for that many yards blew my mind at a young age. How did he do that? That was probably my first person that gave me inspiration to do something great.
MA: How do you define greatness for yourself?
RW: Greatness, to me, is a person who sees no limits to what they can do. I think that’s what sets somebody up for greatness. No limits. They already see that there is no competition; they are their [own] competition. And if there is competition, that is not a problem. They’re very sure of themselves and what they can do. Always willing to take that step that a lot of people are scared of taking, and I feel like that in itself shows somebody’s true greatness.
MA: Do you remember the first time that you realized that you had become someone that kids looked up to?
RW: Probably when I went back to my high school, just on a random day. I just popped up one day and the kids in the hallways all went wild. I didn’t recognize one kid, so this was definitely years later. But there were some teachers that I did recognize there that I went to high school with, so they recognized me. A lot of the kids, they were just going mad. The halls filled up with just kids. I couldn’t believe it. This was like about two, three years after. I spoke to a lot of them, too, and that’s when I realized how much of an influence I really am in my city and to the next generation, too.
MA: What are you looking forward to the most right now?
RW: I’m most looking forward to seeing the fans and tour. Really tapping in with the people. I really want to see how [Mixed Emotions] is going to be received. I really wanna see how it’s going to be received. After this album, I got better. I’ve grown even more from this album that I’m putting out.
[I’m excited to] hit the road again and treat it differently than I did before. No fear, just go and attack. I’m really looking forward to just being right back in it. I miss the fans so much, and I know they miss me, too.