Exploring Tion Wayne’s back catalogue of music videos on YouTube, it’s easy to get an overview of the Edmonton rapper’s enthusiasms. He puts a big budget lifestyle on proud display: sports cars spinning donuts, motorbikes and helicopters, boobs and bums in close-up in shiny white houses that look like they’ve never been inhabited.
It all seems pretty standard for the genre, until you glimpse a few moments of the clip for his song Home, from the summer of 2018. There he is in shaky phone footage, scraggy of hair and beard, lugging a black bag of possessions on his release from prison. He had just got out after being sentenced to 16 months for affray, following his involvement in a mass brawl outside Bristol nightclub Analog in March 2017, where he was performing. It was his fourth spell inside. “I came fresh home looking Bin Laden… I never lost hope when I was caged,” he raps on the track.
“I felt like I blew it all. My career was gonna be finished,” the 27-year-old, real name Dennis Odunwo, says today about that time. At that point he had a major label record deal with Virgin EMI, had released two full-length mixtapes and a string of singles since 2014. “I’d worked so hard to get to the stage I was. But a lot of my past experiences clouded my judgement and I wasn’t really thinking the way I should have. But when I got out, everything took off, and it’s the music that has taken me away from everything, made me reflect, and live the right life.”
Even that day of release went remarkably well for him. In the Home video, prioritising bling over barbering, he’s seen strolling into a Hatton Garden jeweller’s. Later on the same day, he bumped into the Afrobeats group NSG, who asked him to record a verse for their single Options. “Came fresh home, first thing I done: diamonds,” is one of his lines on the song. It became his first top 10 hit. By October 2019 he was headlining at the 5,000-capacity Brixton Academy, which he sold out in three days.
Though the pandemic has kept him off the stage, his Midas period hasn’t been slowed much. He was a featured artist on two more top 10 singles, Keisha & Becky by Russ, then Houdini by KSI, then topped the bill on his own hit in June last year: I Dunno, which included a feisty cameo from grime kingpin Stormzy. He’s now signed to Stormzy’s label, Atlantic. His latest song, Body, is another team-up with Russ, who’s now known as Russ Millions. It earned over six million views for its video in its first week and is already knocking on the door of the top 20. It features Wayne bragging about having “more than a mill’ in savings” over rapid, clattering beats.
Even so, the narrative of escape through music to better things isn’t quite so simple. “Too rich for the hood but I love this life,” he rapped on his last single, the darker Deluded. Trouble still isn’t that far behind him. In November he was filmed swinging a punch at drill star Headie One – another rapper who has spent time in jail after, as well as before, musical success – on board a plane about to take off from Dubai. A bit of posturing on Twitter afterwards (“Clearly some clout chasing. I’m good, I’m free, a hair on my head hasn’t been touched, I’m having dinner steady,” wrote Headie One, which earned a “crying laughing” emoji from Wayne) and it was over.
I’m told it would not be wise to ask about the altercation today, but Wayne does talk about the difficulties of being well-known in the age of the cameraphone. “I feel like this day and age is the hardest time to be a public figure, because people are watching your every move, and they can misunderstand you from one moment. People are really bored with the lockdown and always looking for the next entertainment. As soon as I get outside I’m trying to keep a low profile,” he tells me. “I block out the comments online as well. It’s just people entertaining themselves. I know myself. I just do me, and let people make their own judgements. So I don’t really get into what people are saying. My focus is the music.”
However, with a debut album almost finished and on the way later this year, he says he wants to tell his full story. He’s currently making a documentary to accompany the songs. “There’s gonna be a lot of people in there: friends who I grew up with, my cellmates, my teachers, even the ones that don’t like me. Everyone that has something positive or negative to say, I want them in it,” he says. “We’ll touch on so many things. I’m not gonna leave nothing out because I want people to understand me on a deeper level.”
There are clues about his childhood in some older songs. “About 14 when mummy got sick,” he raps on Intro, the first track on his 2014 mixtape Wayne’s World. “My mum had cancer twice, when I was in primary and in secondary school,” he explains. “My dad was really busy with work, trying to make sure the bills were paid, and she was in hospital a lot. That’s when I started not being at home much. I got into music, which was my therapy for my parents not being around too often. But I also got in a bit of trouble. I got led astray and got into the wrong things.”
His Nigerian parents – mum a nurse, dad a computer engineer – had a traditional vision of success for their middle child. His music career started to take off while he was busy earning a degree in Accountancy. “I was good at maths, and I love money, so I did think accounting could be my dream,” he insists. “But I fell in love with music, man. You can’t really plan it.”
Today he’s grateful for every step on that exceptionally winding route to success: crime and calculators, fighting and Ferraris. “I’m glad I’m in this position now, but there’s no place like where you come from,” he says. “I’ve got out of the life, but I love where the life took me, all the pain, and everything that made me who I am today.”
Body by Russ Millions & Tion Wayne is out now on Atlantic