Don Toliver wants an introduction. The 25-year-old Houston singer literally asks for one in his deceptively catchy song “No Idea,” the lead single from his new project, Heaven or Hell, released this month. “First things first, let me get that introduction,” he trills. “We on a long road to self-destruction.”
I’ve been listening to Toliver’s song consistently since its release nearly a year ago, in late May of 2019. With flighty flutes and his uninhibited vocals, the track sounds at first like it could make for a hip-hop song, then shifts into more of a pop gear before settling into a decidedly R&B rhythm. Toliver’s boundless approach to genre is confounding—and that’s exactly why I can’t stop playing this song. I’m not alone: “No Idea” went viral on TikTok, with millions of individual videos using the song as a soundtrack. As a result, “No Idea” broke into the Billboard Hot 100, charting as high as number 43 in late December of 2019.
Though he’s been releasing music for only a few years, Don Toliver is well versed in drawing listeners’ attention and building a sense of intrigue. He first rose to recognition in August 2018, with the release of Travis Scott’s Astroworld. Toliver was featured on the fan favorite “Can’t Say,” a song that displayed Scott and Toliver trading verses about vices, women, and success. But Toliver’s recognition wasn’t immediate: the album’s track list didn’t feature guests, and many misidentified Toliver as NAV, a Canadian artist.
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Once the credits rolled out, Toliver experienced his first glimpse of the spotlight, as Travis Scott’s new protégé and the latest signee to Cactus Jack Records, Scott’s record label and company. In the 2019 Netflix documentary Travis Scott: Look Mom I Can Fly, Scott mentions Don Toliver: “This kid is, like, he thinking on some whole other shit,” Scott says. “I just gravitated to that.” In a later scene, Toliver expresses why signing with Scott was such a momentous move. “I’m from Houston and I’m a fan of Travis, of course,” Toliver says. “We just vibed. He really believed in me. Travis just took heed to it, man.”
Before coming under Scott’s tutelage, Toliver was grinding as a Houston artist attempting to make a name for himself. His first release was the 2017 joint mixtape Playa Familia, which saw Toliver collaborating with Yungjosh93, a fellow Houstonian. Toliver chose to rap in some areas while strictly singing in others, which made him sound like a hybrid artist. Most interesting, though, was Toliver’s pointed decision to not overtly draw on the influences of Houston, a city that drips with a distinctive musical legacy. He didn’t sound like the dominant pop of Destiny’s Child or the chopped and screwed language popularized by the late DJ Screw, nor did he sound like any of the Houston rappers who influenced the man who signed him. Instead, Toliver dips into the well of Texas’s steadfastly independent nature, one that rewards artists who toil away at perfecting individuality.
While the world came to know Toliver through Astroworld, the artist had taken a full step into the music industry just one day before Scott’s smash release by releasing his own mixtape, Donny Womack.
The project sounds like Toliver finding his way to himself. The only feature on Donny Womack involves Dice Soho, a Houston artist. Otherwise, Toliver goes it alone, choosing to lean into his distinct voice and get listeners familiar with his approach. And starting back in his Playa Familia days, Toliver left behind rapping, too. His style on Donny Womack is instead propelled by a lilting rhyming scheme, one that pierces through even the hardest production; no better example exists than “Backend,” which features Toliver singing to the rafters on the chorus: “Pull up clean in the Aston / I’m bad like Michael Jackson.”
At times, Toliver certainly sounds influenced by Michael Jackson, as on Donny Womack’s saucy “Diva,” but he largely stays in a vocal lane few others are in. Across his works, two solo projects and two collaborative, Toliver’s voice resounds not unlike a woodwind instrument: he vibrates his vocals thinly against the walls of his throat before transferring them out through his mouth, like air tightly spun against a reed. With a voice that carries like an oboe solo through a full orchestra, Toliver often overtakes any featured artist, authoritatively making any song his own.
He concretely carved his initials into that lane on the seven-track EP Jackboys, released in December 2019 and named after the small crew Travis Scott has assembled under Cactus Jack. Alongside Toliver and Scott are Harlem rapper Sheck Wes, DJ Chase B, and Luxury Tax 50, the MC from Inglewood, California. Alongside his fellow Cactus Jack signees, Toliver’s voice acts as a bonding agent, locking the members’ features into place cohesively.
Toliver has stayed busy following Jackboys’ release. On January 17, Eminem dropped his eleventh studio album, Music to be Murdered By, which revealed a Don Toliver appearance on the song “No Regrets.” The next month, Toliver was set to open for the Weeknd’s After Hours tour, alongside Florida singer Sabrina Claudio.
Ahead of the tour, which kicks off in June (pending coronavirus cancellations), Toliver let loose his new project, Heaven or Hell. Released on March 13, Heaven or Hell exhibits Toliver expanding on the themes he previously presented in Donny Womack (particularly the aforementioned vices, women, and success touched on in “Can’t Say”), but extending himself further into his personalized style, as well. Glimpses of his Playa Familia beginnings peek through on certain songs, especially when he hammers his delivery directly on tracks like the raucous, attention-grabbing “After Party.”
Another standout track on the project, “Had Enough,” found its way to the album from its original placement on Jackboys. It features Quavo and Offset of Migos, and musically it sounds equally inspired by Sade and the Dramatics, pumped up by a seasoning of contemporary drums. Pressed against production that brings to mind Sade’s specific brand of soft rock (think: “No Ordinary Love”), the song blends in undercurrents of the Dramatics’ “In the Rain.” Through these sounds, Toliver travels with his collaborators to another time. voice sounds like no one else’s in the current rap or R&B landscape.
Houston’s own Travis Scott appears on “Euphoria,” an atmospheric, moody song that sounds aesthetically like it would fit on any of the Cactus Jack leader’s projects. Also featured is Kaash Paige, a Dallas singer who completes a strictly Texas track with a soft, adorning presence. On this song, Toliver chooses to sing in a high register, proving he has the range to go the distance as a vocalist.
Still, the highlight of Heaven or Hell is “Cardigan,” an upbeat, lighthearted song about an airtight relationship with a significant other. It features a relaxed Toliver singing in an even-keeled tone that signifies his comfort with himself and the bond that inspired the song: “I’m finna stand tall in it, I’m all in it / You be on my back like a cardigan / Call her again, I’m in love with your friend / We be doing dirt, you hide the evidence.”
As with many of his songs, Toliver isn’t committed to a specific genre here. But this song screams pop, and could potentially make its way to the mainstream—a place Toliver should get used to seeing himself. In addition to being backed by one of hip-hop’s premier acts, his voice is singular enough to grab people’s attention and hold it, too. With Heaven or Hell, Don Toliver is finally getting the proper introduction he’s been waiting for.