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.”