Big Lean's Open-Hearted Music Is Here for a Good Time and A Long Time
“Don’t judge a book by it’s cover, you know what I mean? I might be a slim guy, but very strong at heart.”
Photo By Jake Kivanc
“We likkle but wi tallawah” is a Jamaican proverb said as a forewarning to not underestimate one’s ability or strength. If you’ve listened to select records from Big Lean, you’ve likely heard him lace the saying in a bar or two and its placement is of no accident. For the artist, who uses the phrase as a nod to his Jamaican background, it’s a disclaimer to anyone who’s ever second guessed his ability: “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover, you know what I mean? I might be a slim guy, but very strong at heart.”
The 28-year-old rapper, born Lorenzo Lee-jae Wright, is on the brink of breaking out far beyond the borders of Parma Court, a neighbourhood in the northeast Toronto suburb of Scarborough—an area widely known for its prevalent violence. His neighbourhood is nestled just south of Eglinton Avenue and Victoria Park Avenue but is widely known for its prevalent violence. Though the sentiment is one that is cliché, music is a savior. It’s one that aspiring artists hailing from Parma Court’s east end streets have and continue to look towards as a means to change their realities and Lean is of no exception. “Music is a big thing in Parma Court”, he says in an interview with Noisey. “We had a lot of people to look up to that were doing their music thing—doing it on a big scale... it’s a small neighbourhood but a powerful neighbourhood.” Now, he’s one of those people, but before him there was Blits.
“I read a dictionary, it said something like, sudden attack, surprise attack like blitzkrieg. So I just said, ‘Yo, Imma [sic] surprise them rap cats’. A sudden attack, they don’t expect me”. These are words said by Kareme ‘Blits’ Parks whose rap legacy has been immortalized through YouTube videos. Blits was an upcoming rapper from Parma Court who was on his ascent into fame before his untimely death during a fight in 2006. “He was one of the most confident rappers I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Lean of his friend. “He just believed in himself so much. He rapped anywhere in front of everybody and the man rapped his heart out too.” Under the lyrical mentorship of Young Tony—more widely known as OVO Hush—while carrying the spirit of Blits, he tackles each new record with a suave and mesmerizing lyrical bravado, often pairing infamous Jamaican Patois-inspired Toronto slang over down-tempoed production.
After the release of his projects, Can’t Stop Now, Something Gotta Give, Enough is Enough, and a slew of singles—most notably “Stamina,” “Smooth Operator” and “Gwalla”—Big Lean has been able to make music a viable career affording him a life different that what he knew. It also helps that he received an assist in the form of an Instagram shoutout from Drake. He’s worked steadily building his catalog with a mission to change the conception of what people believe about the capabilities of Parma Court residents, especially its aspiring artists: “I always think that people think Parma Court is just, ‘You guys are not serious about music. You guys are just hood rappers making YouTube videos’. What I have to say back to that is my music is playing on radios in Nigeria now and then Australia and Miami.”
But it hasn’t always been this easy. In fact, it still not easy. Toronto’s industry is different, to say the least. Where other countries have industries that can support artists, Toronto operates on a “monkey-see-monkey-do” model. This means even though people have relentlessly advocated for our rap and R&B artists to get better access to funding, or more radioplay, it won’t actually be done until a large corporation can profit off of it. “They kind of wait until the American side accepts you first,” he shares, which is a common barrier that Toronto artists contest with on their way to stardom. Even though he’s accumulated the success that he has, Lean has experienced the very Toronto-specific barriers firsthand, and still has to navigate it: “I’m still facing barriers, I don’t feel like I made it... It’s still not easy for me to get on radio... MuchMusic, it’s still hard for me to get on there.”
But Lean pushes forward and alongside good company. His collective/record label Da Degrees, comprised of himself and artist R.O.Z, hope to reach bigger heights. Lean shared in an interview with Exclaim that Da Degrees talks back to the co-sign often needed for Toronto artists to solidify themselves by adopting a “for us by us” approach to garnering support. On what legacy he hopes he can leave imprinted on those watching the Da Degrees from afar, he says he hopes people don’t forget that, “They’re [Da Degrees] the real deal. They’ve been through it. They live what they rap. They stuck together through hard times, very hard times. They’re still very professional even though they came from the project neighbourhood. They’re just the best to ever do it that came from Toronto.”
Sharine Taylor is a writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.