It took cruising down LA's streets in an Escalade for rapper Kevin Lester to realize where he needed to take his music to evolve: back home in Singapore, joyriding on an oBike. While touring the US as the first Singaporean artist signed to the label of apl.de.ap (of The Black Eyed Peas), BMBX Entertainment, Lester started using his other moniker, THELIONCITYBOY, more and more, realizing that it was a major part of his identity as a songwriter. Now, it's the name he'll be using for his first-ever ticketed live show on March 22, 2018 at Kilo Lounge.
"I always knew that I wanted to rep the city. But I was performing using my real name 'Kevin Lester' at the time and I found my way in a talent development sort of situation in LA," he explains. "The minute I got there, people started asking more questions about how I looked and sounded different. I guess sending me further away from home made me realize how much I wanted to cherish my Singaporean stories."
One of those stories, as it would turn out, would be about renting a bicycle.
"Bitch, I'm on an oBike", THELIONCITYBOY's latest single, takes on the familiar hip hop trope of cruising down streets in exorbitant vehicles—as he would with apl.de.ap during his time in LA—and flips it on its head, replacing the Escalades with the song's eponymous bike-sharing service. On a deeper level, however, it's a track about being true to one's roots, regardless of how far you've come.
"Well, do I talk money / But I gotta lotta bills tho," goes one verse, "Drive in, Shell 95 / Yeah, thanks sir." He follows this up with a statement on never letting the opportunities that come his way stop him from being real, and what's "real" is that he's a Singapore boy through and through:
I wanna move to Bali but I can't surf
Then I think of Perth—Nah, not me
Yeah, see me livin' nicely
I'm at Tanjong Beach tryna sight-see
The song was the result of producer FULSES catching the line, "I feel rich / Bitch, I'm on an oBike," in one of THELIONCITYBOY's raps during recording. He convinced the artist to build a chorus around it, seeing the potential in its message. "The idea to that line was just to tell the listener like, 'Yo, no matter what changes around me, I'm still going to be me. I'm good. I'm fine,'" THELIONCITYBOY explains. "It became the whole song."
It also ended up becoming a reflection of how far his career has taken him, and how he'll never stray too far from his roots in spite of that. "I think at the start, I was just rapping on any beat anyone would send me. Any beat they'd give me space for. There wasn't a distinct sound," he says of his earlier work. "For a long time starting out—I felt like I was just rapping. Just going through the motion of punchlines and flow."
It's a departure from his earlier work in 2014, where tracks like "Overdrive" have him fantasizing about owning the city from behind the wheel of a Mercedez Benz with the top down—a sentiment that echoes throughout a lot of "conventional" rap:
Working with apl.de.ap was a much-needed shock to his system, forcing him to re-evaluate what hip hop meant to him, to culture, and where he wanted to go with it: "[Hip hop is] a way of life for a lot of people and it's crossed oceans with that. As a rapper it's become my duty to talk about the environment around me, to give it a spotlight or help bring some change."
"I won't say I found a particular sound, but I think I know the message of THELIONCITYBOY. The stories I want to tell. I wish I found that early on. Now, I'm a lot more confident of who I am as an artist and a person," he adds.
"I try to keep the stories evolving, but the way I tell it should stay the same. I don't pretend to be the rapper that one day uses big art themed storytelling like Kendrick [Lamar] and then the next day be Brockhampton and then after rap 6ix9ine. There's only a few things that is distinctive about a rapper, his delivery and flow."
What makes Kevin Lester stand out from everyone else is the truth that he is unabashedly a Lion City boy, taking oBikes because cars are too expensive a luxury in his hometown, crushing on "yaya, papaya" girls, and hitting the streets of Singapore with the spirit of Lee Kuan Yew. And it's taken a journey thousands of miles long for him to fully own that.
"This is me," THELIONCITYBOY affirms. "I don't clock in or out of work. I think about this journey 24/7 and how it affects my city, my family and friends."
Catch THELIONCITYBOY's hometown gig featuring Airliftz and SOUNDSOFFAI on March 22, 2018 at Kilo Lounge, Singapore. Bonus points if you arrive on an oBike.
Wanna win tickets to the gig? Join our Instagram contest! All you have to do is tag your #1 oBike bitch and tell us where you're riding. Entries open until 12 March 12:00pm, open to residents of Singapore. Full terms & conditions apply.
– Interview by Marco Sumayao. Photo by Lenne Chai