YouTube Star Tobe Nwigwe Has Built A Wholesome, Color-Coordinated DIY Rap Empire
Tobe Nwigwe has great posture. Nwigwe is a big man and an imposing one — 6’2″, 240, used to play linebacker at the University Of North Texas. He might have made the NFL if not for a career-ending injury. In his videos, you can see just how big Nwigwe is; he never stoops or slouches or shrinks. Instead, he holds himself with a stillness that comes off elegant, almost delicate. When he’s rapping, Nwigwe usually stares straight into the camera’s eye — barely moving his body, rarely changing his expression. When he dances — something he does pretty often — he moves with a lithe grace. Most of the time, everyone onscreen moves just like him.
The videos are the thing. Nwigwe makes albums, but the albums are afterthoughts — collections of the songs that he posts, one at a time, on YouTube. His videos are quiet little marvels of design and choreography and cinematography. Everything in those videos is deliberate — the colors, the arrangements of bodies, the strikingly symmetrical shot compositions. Everything is always color-coordinated — the outfits, the walls, sometimes even the fronts on Nwigwe’s teeth. The lyrics always appear onscreen, in subtitles. For a few years, Nwiwgwe and his close collaborators have been cranking these videos out. He works with a small team, including his wife Fat and their best friend and producer Nell. They all work together on costume design, choreography, and everything else. These people know what they’re doing. The level of craft is undeniable.
With this family and this small group of friends, Nwigwe has carved out his own enclave. Nwigwe’s not really a part of the mainstream rap conversation, and that seems to be a choice on his part. There’s something terribly wholesome about what he and his team have built. In his music, Nwigwe doesn’t cuss — something that didn’t even occur to me until I noticed that Royce Da 5’9″ gets bleeped on the Nwigwe track “Father Figure.” Nwigwe raps about Black pride and finding inner strength, mostly without coming off as a humorless scold. More importantly, though, you can see that Nwigwe’s videos are family affairs. Nwigwe seems like a great dad. His daughters are in the videos all the time. His wife shows up on a ton of his songs. Along with the meticulous graphic design of those videos, the familial warmth is one of the first things you notice.
Nwigwe, who turns 34 next month, took a winding path to niche rap stardom. After his football injury, Nwigwe founded a nonprofit called TeamGINI, which he’s said is dedicated to “edutainment.” He met Fat and Nell when all three of them were working there. There’s a bit of a motivational-speaker thing going on in Nwigwe’s music; he sounds like the kind of person who would use the word “edutainment” without irony. Nwigwe raps in a deep, resonant drawl, flaunting his syllable-counts. Some of his earliest videos are twee to the point of corniness, but his Macklemore tendencies have mostly phased out as his aesthetic focus has become sharper and more defined. Nwigwe’s presentation has grown a lot in the past few years, but he still sometimes comes off like he’s a couple of bars away from mentioning the importance of abstinence.
Nwigwe doesn’t work in traditional rap channels, though he’s gotten props from many of the artists he clearly loves the most. (“I’m Dope,” one of Nwigwe’s early viral hits, is about the rush of gratification he felt when Erykah Badu and Dave Chappelle said nice things about him.) Instead, Nwigwe’s recognition generally comes from more middlebrow places: NPR, The New York Times, Michelle Obama’s workout playlist. If you look at Nwigwe’s YouTube comments, you will encounter a whole lot of variations on a common theme: People bad-faith wondering how anyone can listen to face-tatted mumble rappers when there’s someone like Nwigwe out there.
I resist all this. My favorite kind of rap is the frantic, chaotic, visceral kind — the music that seems to explode out of people. That’s not Nwigwe’s energy. Everything that Nwigwe does is planned, designed, vetted. His videos remind me of Wes Anderson movies — carefully curated little dioramas, where everything has to be in its right place. Nwigwe’s whole approach is smart, and his videos stand out in a climate where the shirtless-dudes-standing-on-kitchen-counters rap-video aesthetic still reigns. But Nwigwe is a real rap dude — someone with a clearly visible love of the genre and its tributaries. That’s most clear when he’s bringing in Texas legends to guest on his songs. He does that a lot, and a lot of them have been in there: Trae Tha Truth, Killa Kyleon, Bun B, Lil Keke, Paul Wall. Whenever those guys show up, they buy in. Sometimes, they step up and go crazy.
Tobe Nwigwe’s version of rap music isn’t one that specifically speaks to me, but it’s not supposed to be. I’m not someone who’s been beaten down by a racist, oppressive society. I don’t need role models. Nwigwe has clearly and consciously fashioned himself as a role model, and he’s good at playing that part. His music his hard and thoughtful, and it generally skirts the kind of corny uplift that has utterly swallowed a guy like Chance The Rapper in recent years.
Nwigwe might also be an ideal pandemic-era rapper, too. In a live performance setting, where Nwigwe’s sharp and focused eye for detail would have to submit to real-life entropy, his kind of focused spectacle might not work in the same way. But when he can present his whole precise vision in four-minute YouTube chunks, Nwigwe comes off great. His videos are just fun to watch. Even as someone who resists his specific kinds of affectation, I can easily lose an hour or two to Nwigwe’s YouTube page.
These days, even when Nwigwe plays live, he still controls the presentation. Last week, for example, Nwigwe was a musical guest on Jimmy Kimmel Live — unless I’m mistaken, his first national-television look. On the show, Nwigwe, Fat, a live band, and a dance troupe performed Nwigwe’s song “Eat” together on a spartan, minimal soundstage, everyone’s outfits matching everyone else’s outfits. Every step of their performance was perfectly laid out, and so was every camera movement. Once again, the lyrics appeared on the bottom of the screen.
On Fat’s verse from “Eat,” there’s a line that seems like the vision-board aim of the entire Tobe Nwigwe project: “Never going back to the grave shift or the slave shift/ I’m ’bout to be on a first-name basis with Beyoncé.” (In the Kimmel performance, Nwigwe chips in with some Ivy Park product-placement ad-libs.) Nwigwe’s whole presentation is like a low-budget, DIY version of something Beyoncé might do — a homespun take on the intricate spectacle of Homecoming or Black Is King. I always get a little skeeved out when people talk about befriending celebrities as an end unto itself. In this case, though, it makes sense when Fat puts that out into the universe. Being good acquaintances with Beyoncé feels like a worthy goal. I hope she and Nwigwe achieve it.
1. Denzel Curry – “Cosmic.m4a (The Alchemist Version)” (Feat. Joey Bada$$)
Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats’ 2020 collab Unlocked didn’t hit me the way I wanted, but the forthcoming remix EP has me intrigued. Here, the Alchemist’s hazy drift fits Curry’s delivery better than Kenny Beats’ sometimes-forced energy, and Joey Bada$$ brings a ’90s rah-rah style that complements Curry’s splutter. It actually sounds cosmic, which helps if you’re going to use the word “cosmic” in your song title.
2. 1TakeJay – “Please”
1TakeJay cannot handle any of the following things: Dudes with Boost Mobile phones, fake gold, borrowed clothes, baby clothes, people asking for rides home, people trying to send him their music: “I don’t wanna hear that shit! That shit irritate my soul!” Who can relate?
3. Tha God Fahim – “Pick A Side”
Tha God Fahim released two collaborative albums with Your Old Droog in less than a month, and he’s still throwing up loosies on YouTube like he can’t get rid of them fast enough. This one, with its soft-focus flute loop, is my favorite.
4. DDG & OG Parker – “Money Long” (Feat. 42 Dugg)
An efficient, unpretentious slap. 42 Dugg asks the big philosophical questions: “Judge say I can’t drive again. Fuck I got these whips for?”
5. ShittyBoyz BabyTron – “Mr. Rerock”
In Detroit scam-rap, the dream of ’80s electro is still alive. You love to see it.