Tropical-backdropped love and music industry drama are among the highlights of Toronto artist Lexxicon’s new book, Tropicon Islands, out today. The Jamaica-born, Toronto-rooted artist also just released a companion concept album of the same name last week. But even without the gripping story—which he describes as a cross between Empire and How to Get Away With Murder—the album would still be captivating thanks to its mix of dancehall, hip-hop, and pop, which Lexxicon calls his signature form of Afropop.
Below, Lexxicon tells us more about the rush of enchanting a crowd, overcoming stage jitters, and channeling his once-inhibiting perfectionism into something more productive.
Early on in your book, there are some dramatic scenes about interning at a high-pressure record label. What inspired that?
I interned at a couple of places actually. At labels and entertainment companies. They were all interesting experiences [adding extra emphasis and laughing ruefully]. One of them for sure was very hectic. I’d come in, look around, and want to ask, “Like, is everybody OK?” They all seemed on edge all the time. In their own world. I dunno. That was definitely not a good time. After I came up with the story, I realized I definitely needed to put some of my life experience in there, because it’s easier to talk about what you’ve been through.
“It’s just about the performance. I just take control. I tell the audience what to do, and they do it!”
And now you have to dish: who is Oceana, the demanding rap diva in the book, based on? Someone you’ve actually worked with?
She’s a cross between Rihanna and Cardi B. A confident badass singer and performer that has her own personality, and still has to deal with her challenges. It was 100 percent fun to write. I love her star power and confidence that makes people think “Who is this?” anytime she comes around. She has the presence I aspire to have.
When did you begin to develop your own presence as a performer?
I started doing open mics in Scarborough. I was really into it, and it was really scary. I had some stage practice from my years in theatre. But when you’re doing your own music it’s hard because you can’t help but wonder: “What if everybody hates it?” It took a year of practicing for me to get comfortable with that. But now, whenever the music starts, I’m ready to go in the zone. Sometimes I’m so deep into that, I don’t even remember what I do onstage.
What’s it like to be so into the performance zone that you forget the performance?
It feels great, because I’m not worried about anything. It’s just about the performance. I just take control. I tell the audience what to do, and they do it! [Laughs] Everyone will have a good time, because I said so.
When did you reach that turning point?
I don’t remember a specific performance, but it was when I realized I had stopped worrying about so many things. And afterward, getting feedback from the audience. I realized I could just do what I had to do and not think about it.
“I wanted to create my own stories, because I knew I could make it more interesting than most books. Every chapter is like a TV episode—I hope someone will adapt it into a Netflix series after reading it!”
What aspects of Tropicon Islands are you most proud of?
This has been my longest album to finish so far. I started this one around the same time my last project came out. I took breaks in between. It also took me a while because I was trying to find the right producer that could make Afro dancehall in Toronto, which is the hardest thing to do! I found one, Artafacts Music, at a beat battle where all these producers go. I asked everyone there, “Do you make this?” and found one, Artafacts, from Edmonton, who was there that week. That took two more years to sort out.
But also: I wrote 30 songs that I had to narrow down. Then I still had to rewrite and make sure I loved every single thing. If I hate a demo a week after making it, I won’t keep it. If I still like it after weeks of hearing it over and over again, then that’s a very good sign.
Are you a perfectionist?
No, but I want things to be the best they can be. I’ve let go of the whole perfectionist thing, or I’d never put anything out. If I get it to at least 85 percent of what I want it to be, then it’s good enough to move forward.
How do you and Artafacts bring out the best in each other?
We’re both Caribbean, which helps. He’ll send me tracks, I’ll decide which to work on, make demos, and he’ll give feedback about what should be added. I’ll consider that and often find something in between. Sometimes I’m frantic and don’t know what I want, but I know what I don’t want and know that when I hear it. I’ll usually just give him a direction and see what he does. He understands how I work, and that it will take time.
I’m curious about maintaining that slow-moving process in this streaming age. After all, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek infamously said: “You can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough” to do well.
It’s frustrating not because of those expectations, but because of the expectations I put on myself. Years will go by and I’ll ask myself, “This is still not done?” I have to remember that I want it to be my personal best. But it doesn’t matter for independent artists anyway, because the playing field isn’t fair, so you might as well do it your own way.
What was it like to work with Desiire on Tropicon Islands highlight “Back to You?”
I met him when he did his first concert in Toronto at the Drake Underground, because I’m a big fan of his songs like “Closer” and his Afrobeats vibes. We kept in contact. When I was working on that song I couldn’t think of another verse, which made me wonder what he would do on it. When I sent it over he sent it back right away, and it was amazing. Boom! Done.
There aren’t that many other features on the album, though. Why is that the case?
I genuinely didn’t want to share. I didn’t ask for features unless I felt a song was missing something. Other than that, I’d tell myself “No, I like the vibe of this, and don’t even want to hear anyone else’s voice on it.” Because this represents the direction I’m heading, and I want to prepare you for my future stuff coming down the line.
How does it feel to be putting a book and an album out at the same time?
It felt good! The pandemic thankfully gave me time, because I’ve always wanted to write. I wanted to create my own stories, because I knew I could make it more interesting than most books. Every chapter is like a TV episode—I hope someone will adapt it into a Netflix series after reading it! It’d be like Empire mixed with How to Get Away With Murder. I’m not sure if any of those things will happen, but I’m excited for people to read this dynamic story. If you read it, and say it’s not a page turner, you’re lying!