The Toronto accent is one that you have to hear to fully understand — drawing influence from the city’s sizeable West Indies population and combining elements of street slang and patois sprinkled with slight rising intonations. When asked to explain the meaning behind the title of his first album Say Less, Roy Woods’s Toronto accent becomes even more pronounced than usual. It’s the same phenomenon kids of immigrants will be familiar with, when our parents’ tone and pronunciation seem to switch up without missing a beat based on their levels of joy or, more likely, sternness. But when Roy speaks about Toronto, it’s only pride.
“’Say less’ means kind of… ‘I understand,’” he explains. “You understand what the person is telling you already: ‘Say less fam; Imma do it.’ Do more instead of just talking about doing things. That’s why I always say less: I hate it when people say things and their actions don’t own up to it. I want to see the work. Don’t tell me; show me. Say less fam!”
We meet in New York City on the eve of the release of the long-awaited debut studio album, just a few hours before the release and listening party. The album will drop at midnight and then Woods will travel back to his hometown of Toronto for a similar celebration the following day. Woods’s energy is cool and calm; he’s mature beyond his 21 years and you’d never guess he was smack dab in the middle of a whirlwind press run for what is the biggest and most important project of his career thus far. Maybe his collectedness can be attributed to the fact that even though he’s just barely legal in most places, Woods is basically a veteran in the game at this point.
Denzel Spencer was born in Brampton, a suburban city located about an hour northwest of Toronto’s city centre. The city is noted for its high immigrant population, with almost half the population reporting a language other than English as their mother tongue. He grew up listening to music—a lot of ’90s R&B including Jagged Edge, Usher, R. Kelly and Michael Jackson—and playing football in high school, before a series of concussions turned his attention to making music. “I was 16; I had a pretty normal life,” he shares when asked about the moment he realized he wanted to pursue music beyond a hobby. “A lot of local artists in my city were starting to make moves and I thought ‘hey, I can really do this,’ so I started doing it. I got some good response; I got some hate too but I decided that wasn’t going to stop me. For whatever reason, there was a fire that ignited in me and I just kept going with it, and now I’m here.”
His first foray into music was actually as a rapper, but things really took shape when he started drawing inspiration from the music he had grown up with, experimenting with singing and R&B. “I realized I loved it because it’s all feeling and emotions,” he says of the switch. “It brings me to a vulnerable state where I can express myself and my pain; it became easy for me to make R&B because that’s what I listen to all the time, more than rap. And I don’t really live a rapper life; well I guess I do now,” he adds with a laugh.
And indeed, that “normal” life he had back in Brampton took a very abnormal turn in 2015 when “Drama” premiered on OVO Sound Radio and it was announced that then 19-year-old Woods had signed a deal with the record label co-founded by Drake. Since then he has been busy, embodying the ethos of “do more; say less” by releasing two EPs and a mixtape, but this new album is definitely his most robust effort.
To ensure that the album was a true reflection of his beloved city, Woods worked with a roster of Toronto-based producers across the 16 tracks including heavyweights like Murda Beatz and Nineteen85 and rising stars such as FrancisGotHeat, Prezident Jeff and dF (Atlanta’s FKi 1st is the only non-Torontonian in the credits). “I really wanted to focus on bringing the producers I fuck with in the city together on this project,” says Woods of the creative process. “I didn’t get everybody but I got most of them. I wanted to give people a new, refreshing sound and energy while still keeping the Roy flavor that people know. That’s where the producers were really able to help me.” He also revealed that some of the songs on the album are two or three years old already, but were included because they still “made sense for the album and were a fit for this sound and this time.”
Features on the album come care of 24hrs, PnB Rock, dvsn and PartyNextDoor, who Woods calls his ultimate inspiration when it comes to music. “He’s a writing genius, and that’s FACTS! Anytime I listen to Party I always say ‘Damn, I gotta make something like this.’ His tracks make me go crazy,” he says. Woods goes on to share that many of the features actually reached out to him to collaborate, something that Woods addresses with slight disbelief and endearing humility: “Whenever people like that reach out to me I’m always like, ‘Oh word, you know me? Say less!’”
Woods has the unique position of being able to straddle two generations, being barely 21 and yet already having a wealth of experience in an unforgiving and unpredictable industry that so often chews up young, passionate artists and spits them out. When our conversation comes to the topic of how generations can learn from each other, he seems acutely aware of the limitations of both: “I think my generation is really free; we don’t care about rules, which can be good but it can also backfire: the more careless you are, the more carelessly you can move with your life, responsibilities and things that actually do matter. That’s when things can get out of hand, especially with drugs and all that. On the flip side, I think we need to look at our elders and see what they can teach us to survive in this industry. This business is crazy, man.”
So far, Woods has done a fine job of navigating the “crazy” business and still staying true to his roots. And although his debut just dropped, he’s continuing to look forward with optimism, not just for himself, but for his city as a whole. Part of uncovering and empowering the new talent—or the next kid in the suburbs with talent, dream and drive—is part of what Woods and his UTU collective aim to do. “UTU stands for ‘unlock the underground,’ and that’s literally what I want to do. The streets are always filled with talent and it’s inspiring for me to hear and see young kids like me doing what they love,” he adds.
And while the talent hotbed that is Toronto isn’t necessarily new news, Woods believes that it can evolve further from where it is now: “It’s going to become a world class city,” he declares with confidence, that accent peaking up yet again. “I feel like Toronto is almost like a new Atlanta on the rise, and I feel like in the next five years you’re going to see a lot of big, big names coming out of there, across many different kinds of music.” With an artist as talented, passionate, gracious and grounded as Roy Woods leading the way? Say less.
- Dragan Andic