On a grey Tuesday in early March, unknowingly the last days before life as we know it would completely morph in the wake of COVID-19, Don Toliver is rapping along to Drake and Future’s “Life is Good” in the car. Life is good for the 25-year-old Houston native. Tonight he’ll play his debut album, Heaven or Hell, for the first time at a private listening party at Electric Room in New York’s Meatpacking District, but for now, Toliver’s mind is still in grind mode. “Where is the studio you’re at? I might have to pull up on you,” Toliver says over FaceTime to a fellow Houston artist, Ashton Travis. “Isn’t your album release party in a couple hours?” Travis retorts. “Me and La Flame [Travis Scott] were just talking about that—you overwork yourself. Your album is about to drop, you should be celebrating!” Don ends the call and turns to me. “The music has done so much for me, how could I not wanna stay locked in?” he says. “He doesn’t know I be having fun, though.” He smiles, shifting his attention to the round-the-block line for Ellen’s Stardust Diner in Times Square. Work-life balance feels like a breached contract these days, but Toliver seems to be managing just fine. “I’m in the studio a lot, but I don’t like to over-do it. Some people just make it all about the work. I like to catch a vibe.”
There’s an efficient “work smarter, not necessarily harder” tenet to Toliver’s method, though it’s undeniably his unique vocal inflection that makes the rapper stand out. Reminiscent of a Kid Cudi hum or a Key! croon over an 808, there is no replicating a sound this singular. Toliver proved that to be true when Travis Scott and the Cactus Jack unit invited him to Hawaii in 2018 to finish the Grammy-nominated, triple-platinum album Astroworld, where he earned the nickname “Donalulu” for contributions that left the rambunctious Scott at a loss for words. He doubled down on his efforts to attain perfection on Nav’s latest album, Good Intentions, showcasing consummate range and impressing his contemporaries, once again.
He did all this without making much of a peep. I mean, if you knew, you knew, but for the most part, nobody knew. Toliver was purposefully mysterious, his story practically unknown—even to his parents. “I didn’t tell them I was making music for a while,” Toliver says. “By the time they found out, I was killing it.” A quick summary: Born Caleb Zackery Toliver, Don grew up in the Houston suburb of Alief, known as the S.W.A.T (South West Alief Texas). He moved around as a kid with his mother, Carla, and his father, Bongo, a musician himself who appeared on a couple of records on the Houston label, Swishahouse. With the emergence of his own musical talent, Toliver spent most of his days in trap spots, listening to Gucci Mane and Bankroll Fresh while hustling for profit.
At 16, Toliver recorded his first song, “Bitch I’m in the Building.” Canvassing the scene like a politician, Toliver hit open mics, art shows, and strip clubs, seeing what worked. The OG Houston rap legend Chedda Da Connect got wind through local clubs, and signed on as his manager. Toliver knew he finally had every piece of the puzzle to take his career to the next level, including the manpower needed to push his songs beyond Texas borders. Atlantic Records came calling in 2018, around the same time Travis Scott caught wind of Toliver’s music. First impressions go a long way, and Toliver signed on to the Cactus Jack imprint, unofficially becoming Travis Scott’s subsequent protege. In the year since Astroworld, Toliver delivered the zany Bobby Womack-homage mixtape, Donny Womack, a placement on Eminem’s No Regrets record, and “No Idea,” an unintentionally viral Tik Tok hit.
Last November, on the first leg of the Astroworld tour, Travis Scott arrived at a sold-out Madison Square Garden with a lineup that included rappers Gunna, Trippie Redd, fellow Cactus artist Sheck Wes, and a DJ set from Virgil Abloh. The crowd was suffocating in the pit area, moshing—or rather, raging, as Scott calls it—with bodies flying into each other at the rate of scrap metal from an exploded bomb. On a night where Compton’s rap behemoth Kendrick Lamar performed “Goosebumps” and Scott’s girlfriend, the beauty mogul Kylie Jenner, joined him on the amusement park-themed ride, a new mystic character was about to steal the show, and no one knew it yet. A stocky wrestling-like figure with faint blonde dreads emerged from the red-flare smoke, and Toliver sang “Can’t Say” over a hypnotic Wondagurl beat sampling Fat Pat’s 1998 “25 Lighters.” The ride dipped and bent, and Don’s journey was on full display: from crafting his spellbinding sound, to slowly rising, showing bursts of potential and inspiring whispering buzz, to reaching a piqued interest and then suddenly going radio silent to keep a steady allure. Heaven or Hell, Toliver’s first crack at a full-length project, is the drop that showcases the peaks and valleys along the rapper’s meteoric rise.
On the album, he is as pensive as he is instinctual. The cover is graced with a Matt McCormick painting, a sort of metaphor for Don’s world: a deserted road with two pathways. This is a story of duality, in substance and in exercise, for the Gemini artist, who straddles an inclination toward seclusion and emerging rap fame. A choose-your-own-adventure extravaganza, Heaven or Hell manages a splitting range of emotions, giving the listener room to experience the project in multitudes. (Take the jump from the snappy “Cardigan” to the mournful “Wasted,” for example.) Where Toliver might lack in lyrical storytelling, he makes up for in melodic measure, infectious ad-libs, distorted instrumentation, and an idiosyncratic tempo. Between “Had Enough,” the standout JACKBOYS track featuring Migos’s Quavo and Offset, and “Spaceship,” the grungy, bass-kicking Sheck Wes-assisted anthem, Don proves once again he can enter other artists worlds and still leave completely under his own pretense.
But sitting at Jue Lan Club for dinner before his listening party, he’s blending in. In a green beanie, black ski pants, and, naturally, Travis Scott’s new SB Dunks, he settles into a booth at the notorious rapper’s haunt just a few blocks from Madison Square Garden. A host escorts him through a secret door, past the kitchen and into a private room called “Graffiti Alley.” The brick walls are covered in art commissioned by Brooklyn graffiti artists; Aladdin’s Princess Jasmine is painted with a red banana over her mouth. The bulk of the evening’s cast—including Cactus DJ, Chase B, the videographer Whitetrashtyler, the A&R maestro Sickamore, and Marley and Van Joe, Don’s old friends from Houston—clink glasses, awaiting a duffle of weed. Backwoods are broken down and family-style Chinese filters in. Smoke fills the air as the album blares through the speakers, and Toliver dips further into his Southern drawl, transitioning from a slumped posture to a confident bravado: “We on our Houstock tonight. It’s real brolic.”
They discuss what the night might entail as game plans and invitations are finalized. Toliver directs his friend Bizzy’s overzealous son to grab his cardigan for a photo, and he’s off. Traffic is heavy on the way to the Electric Room, and before the driver can even point to the aux cord, Toliver has it in hand; he quickly hits play on—what else?—his own album.