Lil Berete is a young veteran. In conversation, a few days before his 20th birthday, the Toronto rapper is discussing the deluxe version of his latest mixtape, Icebreaker 2 (released April 9, 2021). “Y’all can expect some upgraded body work from Lil Berete, for sure,” he says, explaining the difference from the original version of the release, which dropped a couple of months before. “My [original Icebreaker 2] tape was literally me explaining what I went through, what I go through, on a day-to-day type shit. This deluxe is all about vibes. It’s meant for a lot of street people, yeah, but they’re not meant to be street anthems. The songs that’s on the deluxe, I put it on there for the clubs. Every song on the deluxe I want it to be bumped in the club.”

Icebreaker 2 follows a steady stream of single releases that Lil Berete has been releasing over the past year or so, achieving more than 50 million cumulative streams, 20 million-plus on YouTube alone. After a succession of local and international singles with the new generation of U.K. artists (Loski, Nafe Smallz, Headie One, Deno), Lil Berete has really started to cement his status as an internationally known artist.

Icebreaker 2 is a nominal sequel to Icebreaker, his 2018 mixtape, that was released when he was just 17. At that point, the MC, who hails from Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood, was signed to U.K.-based label XL Recordings, most widely known for signing and ushering Adele to superstardom. But Icebreaker 2 is an independent project, as his connection with the label has now been severed, prompting a jarring new perspective.

“I learned how to keep my cool,” says Lil Berete. “I learned how to learn how to save money. When I got out the deal, it was a whole different life. Like, I didn’t know the feeling of being in a jail, and not being in a jail right after… I learned how to maintain myself and keep focused. Throughout that shit, I still made music. I learned so much in the industry, like owning your masters. I learned about stuff you don’t even know, but I don’t want to give out free game like that. I just know what I’m doing when it comes to being in the present.”

“My whole neighbourhood thought I was God, but I go through personal and financial shit, too”

That idea of staying in the moment has also translated to Lil Berete’s creative process. “It’s more natural, it’s updated,” he says. “I might write some shit two or three weeks ago. I go on and put the beat on now and it’s, like, I don’t see it the same way anymore… But if I go in the studio today, and talk my shit today, and I notice a couple of months later when I hear the song again, and it’s, like, ‘Oh, this is crazy, I was pissed that day, you know.’ I remember the day I made that song. But when you write the song, and it could be some time afterwards to go in the studio, and it was two, three, four, or five days ago, I’m not gonna feel the same way.”

Consequently, Lil Berete’s writing process has changed, since he’s largely discarded using his phone, or a pen, to write lyrics, and he’s confident that he’s improved as a songwriter as a result. “You know when someone perfects their voice?” he asks rhetorically. “It was like that type of feel. I didn’t know what type of rapper I wanted to be, I didn’t know if I wanted to be a straight rap, straight bars guy, or a guy with a crazy voice. I found what I’m comfortable with, basically.”

On Icebreaker 2, Lil Berete’s often modulated voice weaves melodically through tracks like his recent single “War Ready,” and “Painallgo” – a melodic sense which he says comes naturally to him through his mother, Cheka Katenen Dioubate, a Guinean Djeli singer whose Manding culture encourages the generational inheritance of musicianship. “I don’t worry about melody,” says Lil Berete. “Melody comes naturally to me. My mom was a singer, her tradition was as a griot, so melodies are already there. A lot of people think, this guy has crazy melodies. But they don’t really understand what I’m trying to say. Once you do understand what I’m trying to say, it’s a different feeling.”

In his music, Lil Berete shows fierce pride and loyalty to his friends from the Regent Park neighbourhood, Canada’s oldest social housing area, whose residents have historically been systemically marginalized, and have recently faced the major upheaval of gentrification. Consequently, the young rapper knows that even his past ability to score a record deal in the U.K., and shoot videos in St. Vincent, is tempered with a sobering reality that’s reflected in his music, and drives him to persevere.

“I feel like the guy, I come back with a whole new mentality, I put hope in them and show them that they can do it too,” says Lil Berete, reflecting on the return to his neighbourhood after his travels. “But one thing, though, that when I came back from all of that, my whole neighbourhood thought I was God. But they don’t even know, I go through personal and financial shit, too. They don’t know I go through that shit, too. So, it’s just hard when people think you’re the guy, but you’re not that guy yet.”

Through our new series of stories, Visual Arts X Music, we aim to present you with visual artists for whom music plays an essential role, in both their artistic approach, and their lives.

What’s the first album that had a profound impact on the artist known as Pony? Gabrielle Laïla Tittley was 10 when she bought – with her own money! – Jay-Z’s Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life (1998).

Why did it have such an impact on her? ‘Cause it’s Jay-Z (obviously), but also because one of her childhood’s favourite movies – the musical Annie (1982) – is set in an orphanage during the Great Depression, and her mother is an orphan, which establishes a kind of link: As you may remember, the rapper sampled the movie’s “It’s a Hard Knock Life” ditty for his own “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem).”

“A major part of my artistic approach is rooted in that song,” says Tittley, whose pre-teen enthusiasm remains intact. “There’s a magical combination of contrasts between the dude who comes from a tough background and says, ‘Here’s my reality, I sell drugs,’ and then you move on to the super up-beat chorus. There’s a resemblance with what I do: I want to talk about real shit, but with happy colours.”

What’s the place of music in Tittley’s life? “I’m like the Robin to the person I aspire to be,” she explains with a laugh, comparing herself to Batman’s sidekick. What does that mean, exactly? Gabrielle’s analogy means that she has already dreamed of herself as a rock star, ruling a compacted and screaming crowd. But since it’s often wiser not to go against the talents life has bestowed on us, Pony instead became, right in high school (in Gatineau), the ally of choice of her musician friends – their Robin! – for whom she’s been designing posters, flyers, and other promotional materials since the age of 16.

Whereas, at that time, it was the pop-punk stylings of Blink-182, Sum 41, and The Offspring, or even the hardcore of Poison the Well, that rocked Tittley’s headphones, it’s the incendiary rock of Le Nombre that was the soundtrack of her arrival in Montréal when she turned 18. “I was completely ob-ses-sive about Le Nombre,” she says, clearly separating the adjective’s syllables.

She scours her fuzzy memory to try to remember some paintings directly inspired by the organized chaos of Le Nombre’s recordings. “They were huge paintings,” says Tittley. “There was one with an orange Marshall amp.. the amp was open and inside it were…  organs? I can’t remember what lyric it was referring to. There was another one with a zebra-headed human. That was a reference to “Tous ceux de ma race.”

Around that time, the painter began writing down the title of the song that was the soundtrack to the long birth of a painting – “When I’m really into a song, I’ll listen to nothing else for days,” she says.

PONY album covers

It was only a matter of time before she started getting commissions for album cover art, and she immediately embraced this stimulating exercise for the likes of Brixton Robbers, Travelling Headcase, Le Husky, L’Indice, and Bravofunken. The illustration she imagined in 2013 for Ultrapterodactyl’s Quand une mascotte saigne EP couldn’t better summarize Pony’s vision of the world. It’s both jovial and violent, childlike and tragic: on the right side of the image, a blond girl holds the head of a dinosaur mascot, while on the left side of the image, the dinosaur mascot stands, decapitated and bleeding profusely. The rabbit on the cover of Manger du bois (2012) by Canailles deserves to be examined closely: each of its hairs rests on a distinct lead pencil stroke.

In 2016, Pony received the Lucien award for the Album Cover of the Year for Le temps f33l by CRABE, and in 2020, she was nominated at the Gala de l’ADISQ in the same category for Robert Nelson’s Nul n’est roé en son royaume. The first season of the series Résiste ! (which she hosts on TV5) sees her meeting with different musicians, including the Montréal-based rapper Nate Husser, for whom she’ll soon direct a music video.

Pony, Vincent Peake, Groovy Aardvark

Photo: Marc-Étienne Mongrain

During one episode of her own series of shows L’amour passe à travers le linge (whose goal is the feature the work of some of her illustrator peers through the creation of t-shirts sold for the benefit of various charitable organizations) Tittley briefly realized her rock-star ambition and stepped on stage with the band Groovy Aardvark.

“Vincent [Peake] knew that “Ingurgitus” is my all-time favourite song of theirs,” she says. “When he invited me up, everyone was screaming like there was a murder going on, I couldn’t understand what was happening. It was the dream of all my friends, we’re all Groovy fans. Normally I’m super-shy on stage, but that night I gave it my all.”

Does she have a fantasy collaboration with a musician? “I’d love to direct a music video for an old Jean Leloup song,” she says, “maybe Fashion Victim,’ but, like, a thousand years later. Creatively, he’s one of the people I admire the most. I’ve always loved stuff that is out of the ordinary and fucks with standards.”

Between October 2019 and December 2020, singer-songwriter and guitarist Vincent Vallières co-produced his eighth album with his good friend, guitarist André Papanicolaou.

Vincent Vallières“At this time last year,” he says, “we were pretty far along in the process we had planned out, several songs were quite arranged, others were even mixed and finalized,” says Vallières. “The step back made me doubt. During the first two or three weeks, I asked myself if that’s what I really wanted to do, what I really wanted to say, so we started all over again. We put aside what we’d done to build something else next to it, with other materials.”

And nothing affecting him was left out: “The people I meet, my friends, my neighbours, my human interactions,” he says. “This kind of fear and this loneliness, which increased ten-fold. And we’re just realizing all of its perverse effects. It’s one of my best albums, because of this global reflection of who I am.”

Toute beauté n’est pas perdue (All Beauty Is Not Lost) offers a solidly-delivered brand of folk-rock, powered by regal guitar riffs, which serve as the backdrop for intelligent lyrics.

And speaking of guitars, all the famous brands are mentioned in the booklet: Gretsch, Rickenbacker, Danelectro, Gibson, Fender Precision… “The Rickenbacker has quite a strong personality,” the guitarist confides. “When I play ‘Homme de rien’ through my small Fender Champ amp, I discover a tone that was there all along during this project.”

Then along came Michel-Olivier Gasse, a loyal musical partner, Marc-André Larocque on drums, and Amélie Mandeville, who sang on Vallières’ previous record and tour. And also, Ingrid St-Pierre, who sings on “On dansera sous la pluie.” “I wrote that for my youngest daughter Marie, it’s a very intimate song,” says Vallières. “Her singing lifts the song up. There’s a certain innocence that comes out, like a ray of sunshine.”

As the last piece of the puzzle, Vallières and Papanicolaou tapped Martin Léon to be the project’s artistic director. “I wanted to open a dialogue with him so he could challenge my ideas,” says Vallières. “I believe Martin is one of Québec’s best songwriters. We worked in a very intimate context. He’d read a text and ask me what I meant to say, to make sure my intentions truly came across.”

And Léon didn’t show up empty-handed. “His role was to make the words as crystal clear as possible,” says Vallières. “He knows how to listen, and he’s poetically demanding – much more impressionistic than I can be. It created some quite pleasant tension!”

For example? ‘Heille Vallières,’ the album’s opening track. “Getting to the version you hear took quite some time, and Léon reminded me of Gérald Godin’s poem T’en souviens-tu Godin ? where the poet talked to himself,” says Vallières. “The goal was to open the album’s dialogue, as well as opening a dialogue with myself. It’s like a wake-up call! Do you still have a sense of wonderment? Are you still able to surprise even yourself?”

If we needed proof that the man has good taste, and knows how to surround himself with able contributors, that’s it. “Being able to put my ego aside to serve my song is going to make it better,” he says. “I don’t think I had that humility when I was 25. I did it before with Eric Goulet, my first mentor, who has a very developed rock and literary sense. I also did it with Philippe B. – they’re both great song-makers.”

On the very 60’s-influenced “Je suis comme toi,” which evokes The Byrds, Vallières reveals one of their studio tricks. “We mixed an acoustic 12-string guitar with the Rickenbacker sound!” Another one of the album’s little pearls is “Le jardin se meurt,” which was also made into a live video that includes a six-minute-long shot that’s part of a short film – both a documentary and a performance film – that will be released at the same time as the album.

“Entre les étoiles et toi” is graced with a beautiful video by Noisy Head Studios: a boy and girl ride in a convertible through space, on a road shaped like a guitar’s fretboard – with a heart as big as a planet, Vallières knows how to create a buzz with his videos.

And then there’s a monumental duet with Marjo, “Tout n’est pas pour toujours,” a true moment of grace. And the album’s only song without guitars, instead it’s a mellotron jewelry-box for Marjo’s voice. Soft and efficient, as only she can be.

“Marjo is mainlined on the heart,” says Vallières. “I sent her the song and she replied the next day, saying it’s a truly beautiful song, and she insists on singing it. The guys and I looked at each other and were amazed that she wanted to sing it. There’s something pure about that woman. The amount of preparation she goes through is nothing short of inspiring. She called me to know. ‘How do I sing this or that passage, what’s the harmony going to sound like?’ She doesn’t want to fool around, she wants to deliver a performance. She wants to have fun, but she’s fully prepared, too.”