Last fall, RealestK was just another distracted high school student. He recalls sitting in a business class and editing a music video on his computer, which his teacher was having none of. “She comes by and she’s like, ‘Listen, can’t you be more realistic? You could be spending 10 minutes of your time doing this, or you could spend 10 minutes of your time actually doing this work that I’m giving you, so you could get a good mark and get a good future,’” the 17-year-old Torontonian tells Complex Canada. 

“And I said, “But this is my business, though. It is my future.’”

He uploaded the video on YouTube from school that same day. By the week’s end, the track, “WFM,” debuted at No. 75 on the Billboard Hot 100. Sometimes distractions pay off.

The song hears RealestK float over a silky, dimly lit R&B groove, imploring a lover to wait for him via a pillow-soft-yet-pained tenor. It went viral in October, first on TikTok—becoming the go-to soundtrack for everyone’s glow-up videos—and then everywhere else, boasting innumerous streams (83 million on Spotify to date) and co-signs from some of the industry’s biggest players. Things got really real, really fast.

“Every label was at my neck,” he says. “You had artists like Drake hit me up, his producers, and then you had people that were managing The Weeknd hit me up, and I was just like, ‘What’s going on?’”

Despite his track’s success, RealestK has remained mostly a mystery to the public. He’s “Toronto’s secret,” according to his Instagram bio. But the Lebanon-born, Scarborough-bred artist has been busy making moves in the shadows. He’s signed a deal with Columbia Records and has been taken under the wing of Wassim “Sal” Slaiby, manager of The Weeknd and CEO of XO Records. His IG feed shows him chumming it up with Nav, Bryson Tiller, and Certified Lover Boy collaborator Leon Thomas III.

RealestK’s latest single “Love Me” demonstrates why all eyes are on him right now. He rides a soulful beat with aching sincerity, his voice burning with desire as he begs a paramour to reciprocate his affection. Eventually, his pleas climb into a simmering falsetto. While his predecessor The Weeknd and his many imitators traffic in lawless hedonism, RealestK’s songs are full of raw candour and vulnerability—he yearns for something real amid an increasingly soulless and nihilistic age. He’s got the lived-in, heart-wrecked conviction of someone twice his age, and one of the most captivating new voices in Canadian R&B.

So you can understand why, when he hops on our Zoom call, he’s wearing sunglasses, just as in all his press photos. When his future’s this bright, how can he not?

We chatted with RealestK about his origin story, Drake’s message to him, his relationship with Sal, and whether he’s about to become XO’s newest signee. The interview, lightly edited for clarity, is below.

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So, how have the last few months been for you?
Um, honestly, they’ve been crazy. When everything was going on at the start [with “WFM” blowing up], I was in school still. So it was very hard to go through that and then everyone’s coming up to you and looking at you differently. A lot of people were switching up on me. I went from having a same routine every day—I’d go to school, I’d come home, I’d do homework, then I’d go straight to music, and then some days I’d go work my job—to going to L.A. and then getting these big companies trying to do interviews with me, and sponsorships. It’s just crazy how life went from that to something that I always wanted and dreamed of.

Was there an exact moment when you realized your life wasn’t normal anymore?
I remember I went to a mall and that was not a good idea, because I didn’t know how big the effect was. At this time, TikTok was going crazy with the song, and I had just dropped the video and it did like probably a million views in a week. And this was at the point where I was still deciding on who to sign with, and who to have around me. Every label was at my neck. You had artists like Drake hit me up, his producers, and then you had people that were managing The Weeknd, and I was just like, ‘What’s going on?’ So I went to the mall  just to cool it, just take a break from everything and live my life. And then I found out pretty quick that this stuff was going crazy when I had people coming up to me saying, “You’re that guy! You’re the guy that made that song. What is it called? ‘Stay With Me… ‘Wait For It’… ‘Wait For Me!’ Yeah, yeah, you’re that guy!” And I’m like, “Yeah, I’m that guy. Wow. You know my song!” It’s crazy. I went from 30,000 listeners to getting millions of streams in like days. It’s so surreal. I’ve haven’t accepted it yet. Like, I’ve processed it, but I haven’t. 

“[Drake] texted me back and said, ‘Man, you’re sliding on these records.’ And I threw my phone. Like, I got scared. I threw my phone.”

That’s so wild. You said Drake reached out. What did he have to say?
So, it started with producers, and then it was bigger producers. I remember one day, I was talking to 40, because he was hitting me up, giving me some advice and saying, “Choose wisely, get a better lawyer, choose who you want to stick with, and choose because you want to choose it and not because they’re offering you more money.” And I asked him, “Do you think The Boy knows me? Drake? You think he knows me?” Because I’m from Toronto, so it wasn’t a bad question. So he told me, “I don’t know if he knows, but I think he might have caught on.” Literally a week after, I’m just on Instagram casually, and I see the DM, and I’m like, ‘Nah, this is fake. It’s fake. It’s not real.’ [Laughs.] And I remember I had DM’ed Drake literally months ago saying, “Manifesting every day, meeting you one day and seeing you at the top. It’s going to be RealestK x Drake in the 6ix.” And he had liked that message and then he texted me back and said, “Man, you’re sliding on these records.” And I threw my phone. Like, I got scared. I threw my phone. That’s when I really knew like, ‘OK, my life is not real.’ Like, I got Drake hitting me up right now? And he wasn’t just hitting me up—he was giving me praise, and saying like, “The fact that you mess with my music. Wow.” And I was like, “You’re telling me that you’re surprised I mess with your music. What? You’re Drake, bro!” I was very, very shocked. But as you meet these people, you start to realize they’re just people. They’re like anyone else. Of course, it’s exciting. I’ve been listening to Drake since I was 10 years old, since I could actually understand what was going on. The fact that it came full circle like that, it’s crazy.

That must be a lot to process! Drake couldn’t believe you messed with his music? Everyone messes with his music! [Laughs.]
Yeah. I mean, listen, I feel like Drake was just trying to pay his respects. He’s a humble guy, you know what I mean? So obviously, he’s going to take it as like, “I’m honored that you actually mess with my music” because not everyone’s going to mess with this music or my music. It’s really subjective, honestly. 

Well, a lot of people seem to mess with your music right now. “WFM” has over 80 million streams. How do you explain this insane success you’re experiencing?
“Wait For Me” is a continuation of my other recent song, “Stay With Me.” I was initially doing TikTok covers, but then I realized, OK, if I can build my support base off of my voice, let’s see if I can start to build it off of my actual music. So I made “Stay With Me,” and that had blown up only in one territory; it was my first 200,000-view video. And then I remember I was looking for that one track. I was like, ‘I need that one that’s going to take me from here to here.’ It was the most unexpected time: I was sick. I caught a cold, so I wasn’t going to school. And I found this beat and I was like, ‘Wow, this has such a melodic sound to it. OK. Let’s try it.’ I didn’t think it was going to sound good at all. I had a congested nose. I did that chorus, the “Wait For Me” chorus, and I said to myself, ‘Wow, this is great, but I feel like I could do better.’ So I closed my computer, and I put it downstairs in my brother’s room. He actually had found it that week and opened it, and he came up to my room and was like, “Bro, you have to finish this! Are you insane? Do you see how this sounds?” I’m like, “Bro, it’s not that good.” He was like, “Why are you being so hard on yourself? Why don’t you throw a snippet on TikTok? This might actually blow up.” And I was like, “Oh, OK.” So I gave it some thought. I threw it on TikTok and it actually failed four times—I deleted, reuploaded, deleted, reuploaded. Then I did one video and it just… It took off. It was my first video to break over 500,000 views. Now the song has over 1.8 million video creations on TikTok. And I’m just like, wow, this is so surreal. 

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So it just resonated and blew up! Man, the power of TikTok.
It was the lyrics as well, man. I think everyone can relate to that. Its not just a relationship lyric, its a life lyric, you know? I dont understand why you cant wait for me—I dont understand why you cant wait for for me to show you what I got. Or wait for me to show you what I can give you. Its relatable in every aspect, man. I feel like thats why people loved it.

It’s a universal situation, for sure. Are your lyrics drawn from personal experiences?
You know, I’m still young. I’ve went through high school and I’ve met people. It’s not even about just girls or guys. I mean, it’s just everything—friendships, girlfriend, boyfriend. You go through that whole thing and you really find out who’s true to you and who isn’t. When I made the song “Stay With Me,” I had just gotten off of a two-and-a-half year relationship in high school, and that took up most of my time. And when that had ended, I was sad, just like any other teenager would be. So when I was making “Stay With Me,” I was trying to get the relatability in that as well. Teenagers, they go through this heartbreak, and most parents don’t understand. They’re like, “I can’t talk to my mom because they don’t understand. I can’t talk my dad because they’re old school.” So I was like, OK, let me make a song from a perspective of you. So if you ever feel down, you can resonate with that song and you can say, “But he understands. The guy singing this song understands. Someone definitely broke his heart.” [Laughs.] So, yeah, like, it’s just all real experiences and sometimes my music isn’t just based off of me, it’s based off maybe a friend’s story. I sit and I listen to these conversations and I use them in these songs.

In your tracks I’m hearing you sing about themes like temptation, heartbreak, and loyalty. I’m way you older than you, so I don’t know what things are like for teenagers these days. Is loyalty like harder to find among your generation?
Yes. And I’m not just saying with relationships—even friendships. I don’t blame people, because I feel like there are people who are more mature and there are people who just lack experience and understanding. And most times it’s also the way your parents raised you. Your morals and your core values are very important. So for me, when I get into a relationship or when I even get into a friendship with a person, my main thing is loyalty. Like, can you be loyal to me? Can I close my eyes and know that, OK, if I leave you in the room with this amount of money, you wouldn’t go and take that money? I mean, loyalty is in everything. You’re loyal to your parents. You’re loyal to the people that love you. You’re supposed to be loyal to everybody, naturally. When people aren’t loyal to me, I just honestly feel the pain. And I understand the pain. But my way of dealing with it is putting it into my music instead of going to seek revenge because real mature people don’t do that. 

RealestK Toronto artist posing in front of auditorium
Image via Publicist

I want to ask you a bit about of your origin story because I don’t know much about you. Not many people do. So what’s your story? Where did you grow up?
Both my parents were born in Lebanon, in Beirut. And I was born in Toronto, Canada, specifically Scarborough. So yeah, man, it’s not really much to explain about me, you know? [Laughs.] It’s just a 17-year-old kid that was born and raised in Toronto and his parents wanted a better life for him. I got an older brother, as I mentioned. I learned a lot from him, just life things. Everything is key to my environment. My music is my environment. Put me in this environment where I am and you will get so much from me because it’s just the authenticity that I feel that people are very drawn to. I don’t go and throw out songs because I think they’re good for just TikTok. I feel like people think, ‘Oh, this kid’s a one-hit wonder. He made one part of a song blow up and it’s the best part of the song.’ When really, people don’t realize that I made that song in my basement with a MacBook, a USB microphone, and I freestyled. All my songs are freestyles. I don’t write. When it just comes out of your heart, that’s the best feeling. That’s the authenticity. You can’t rewrite that. It shouldn’t be erased and written over. No one could write your story better than you.

“Even my management, with XO and Sal and Cash, my brothers, they have just given me so much room to experiment and actually do my thing without putting so much pressure on me.”

Were your parents supportive of you pursuing a music career?
My parents always supported me in my dreams in the best ways that they can. Obviously, them being bit old school, for them, it’s always education first. But they always did tell me, if you do love something, go for it. And always remember, although school is your first priority, never give up on your dreams because you never know your chances. If it’s one in a million, you could be that one. I’m blessed, man. I have the talent, I did my part, and God did his, and now I’m here. It’s just really humbling. It’s really great finally getting the recognition you deserve. Many nights I’d stay up and I’d almost give up. I almost gave up on music a lot. I got teased for it in high school because of my vulnerability. I had a lot of people that didn’t like me in high school. People might think, ‘Oh, this kid was probably so cool in high school.’ I wasn’t. I was a popular loner, you know? I didn’t bother anybody. I just worked on myself behind closed doors and people were teasing. And now the same people are coming up to me, full circle, saying, “Wow, I have you on my playlist. My brother, my sister, found you.” Teachers too. It’s crazy. I have nothing but love for those people. 

After “WFM” blew up, was it stressful having every label competing for you attention? That must have been insane.
All due respect to them—I have nothing but love for all the labels that offered me opportunities, but for me, I feel like the biggest thing these labels didn’t understand was that it wasn’t about how much money you approached me with or what you can give me and who you can pair me up with. This is the thing. During all those emails that I got, none of them—except for the label that I’m signed to right now, which is Columbia—approached me. Columbia came to my front door where I live. All these labels, when you look at their emails, they didn’t know my real name. Even my stage name was mispronounced. It’s just the principle—they were looking for a quick grab and release, you know? ‘Let me get this song under my label and company, let me make some money off this kid.’ But for me, when someone shows up at my front door, takes off their shoes respectfully, goes in and sits with my parents who don’t even understand anything about music and deals with them and with me, it shows the hospitality and respect. It wasn’t about money. I’m trying to show kids that do blow up and have moments like these, do not focus on how much they give you. That’s exactly how they get you. They want to strip away your creativity and put you in a place where you’re under their control. With Columbia and Sony, they have given me freedom.

Even my management, with XO and Sal and Cash, my brothers, they have just given me so much room to experiment and actually do my thing without putting so much pressure on me. I don’t get calls every day saying, “You have to make this song and this song in this amount of time.” No, no, no. It’s more like, “Hey, whenever you have the chance. Do what you have to do in the way that you do it.” They don’t force me to go here, to go here, to do this interview. I chose Complex, you know what I mean? No one chose it for me, because you want it to be as authentic as possible. You don’t want to go from a kid from Toronto to a kid living in L.A. with fake Lambos that are not owned by him, and iced-out chains. Even the stuff you see me wearing right now. This? It’s all coming out of my money. It’s not out of anybody else’s money. It wasn’t given to me. Everything that I have is worked for. There’s a difference between flaunting it and embracing it.

Can you tell me more about your relationship with Sal? What’s it like having him as your manager?
I can’t even tell you the start of it with Sal, man. Sal is just amazing. I can’t even sit here and front about anything. You gotta realize, there’s also a cultural appreciation. He’s also Lebanese. And Cash is Persian. And then you got The Weeknd, he’s Ethiopian. You know what I’m saying? It’s a lot of relatability up front. They can understand the pressure and I guess how I’m seen now in society. Sal’s got artists that he manages like Ali Gatie, who’s also Middle Eastern. He’s got Massari. He’s got all these people. If he managed to bring them from where they were to how they are now, well, he knows exactly what to do with a kid like me. He understands it. He’s not the founder of XO for no reason.  There’s no The Weeknd without Sal. There’s no Sal without Cash, there’s no Cash without… It all comes full circle. It’s a family thing. It’s not like, “Oh, hey, you work for me and you do what I say, and you’ll become successful, and then we’re going to act like we like each other, and that’s it.” No. There’s a lot of things I’ve seen; that’s how it be in the business. They love you one day and when they find somebody better than you, they don’t love you anymore. That’s fake love. There’s really no friends in this industry, but what I can say is that they take really good care of me and I love them like they’re my own family.

That’s amazing. Sounds like you guys are tight. I’ve gotta ask: Has there been any talk about you joining XO? Have you thought about it?
Uh… I mean, I’m not there yet, you know? I haven’t really even gotten to the process of dealing with the label fully and seeing what they do for me, and then also what management has done. This process has just been official as of probably like about a week ago; that’s when we finalized it. So right now, we’re just in the growing process, getting to know each other, getting to be comfortable. But you know, when I went to L.A. the first time I met Sal, I talked to him a lot. We had conversations and I’ve seen how he’s like with his own people that work for him. They’re not just people that work for him; it’s like family to him. I love that. He’s very principled. That’s key. Teamwork makes the dream work, but if that teamwork is just business only, it can really go downhill because you need to have that appreciation for one another to work great with each other. You gotta have respect. So right now, I don’t know. That’s not really in my front tier, you know? But [eventually] I’ll see where I’m at. If I’m at a place where I feel like I can take the torch from there, I’ll take the torch from there. If not, then I’ll see what’s best for me again. I’m just taking it day by day and trying to understand everything.

What can we expect next from RealestK?
A lot of versatility and a lot of authenticity and just more music. More music. The more, the better. I’m going to give the people what they deserve and what they need. So 2022, I’m coming for you.