I am buried deep within the walls of KSI’s Bank-of-England-vault-like three-storey home and I am drinking a bottle of Tropical-flavoured Prime. Everyone is drinking Prime: the photographer is drinking Prime, the PR is drinking Prime, the private chef is drinking Prime, this guy who I don’t know and don’t understand what he’s doing here is drinking Prime. When KSI — real name Olajide Olatunji, casually referred to in conversation as JJ, and known internationally by his YouTube moniker, which stands for Knowledge, Strength, Integrity — hears I’ve never tried the ultra-hype energy drink he co-formulated with Logan Paul, he takes matters into his own hands, hauling a 12-pack of the Meta Moon flavour out of a cupboard and placing it in my arms.
Walking home with it, I think I would have got less attention if my jacket was stapled with £50 notes: “Whoa, is that Prime?” a charity fundraiser breaks out of his patter to ask. “Where’d you get that? Where’d you get that?” At a pub nearby, the barman silently pours me a pint and notices my crate before, as nonchalantly as possible, hitting me with: “That’s the KSI drink, right? You get an online-only order, or…?” Last week, a secondary school issued a new rule change forbidding the selling of Prime on its property (KSI gleefully sent crates of the drink to the affected area); there are rumours that a supermarket chain is struggling with supply issues because staff buy it all before it reaches the shelves and resell the drink on eBay. As I finally make it down the road to my house, the cardboard crate disintegrating beneath me in the rain, a 12-year-old boy bursts free from the safe umbrella huddle of his family to run up to me and simply say: “Prime!” It’s 10 per cent coconut water and BCAAs for muscle recovery, sure, but it’s also essentially Supreme in a bottle.
It is hard to know where to start with KSI. Or, more pertinently, it is hard to know where you first might have experienced him. In the week leading up to me visiting his fortress-secure home for a shoot, everyone I speak to knows of KSI from a different angle. My 38-year-old dad friend knows him because once the YouTube algorithm figures out that you are a bloke, it serves you endless videos from his culture-conquering banter channel, Sidemen. A gamer friend of mine tells me, as we succumb to another Fortnite duos failure that was definitely my fault, that she knows KSI from his gaming videos of the same series. My girlfriend only wants me to ask him about Celebrity Gogglebox, absolutely nothing else. Two 22-year-olds I meet in the pub when I need to beg someone for a phone charger so I can get home have both watched him for a decade: one actively, because he loves KSI, and one passively, because he doesn’t but needs to know what all his mates are talking about. The reason YouTubers keep boxing each other now is purely and totally down to KSI taking the decision to train into incredible shape and fight fellow content creator Joe Weller four years ago — essentially, he got hench in the way that changed a sporting industry forever. There’s also a restaurant franchise and a vodka brand that I really don’t have time to get into. All this from a man whose original catchphrase feels like an Ancient Sumerian bar joke, which, over thousands of years, has been stripped of all available context: “I just scored a sweaty goal, get your tits out.”
So, I am here to answer one question, basically. Given all of the above — given the iron grip KSI has on culture just purely by being KSI, a reality that sees him mobbed in restaurants while Keanu Reeves, sitting just a few tables away from him, is completely ignored — why, well, why does KSI make music? Or, more importantly: what is KSI getting out of music that he isn’t being served by the many, many sprawling arms of his entertainment empire?
The urtext of KSI’s music career is ‘Lamborghini’, a 2015 track that kind of sucks but in a very brilliant way. “‘Lamborghini’ was basically a song I put out as a joke,” KSI tells me. I keep expecting that famous punctuation of his YouTube laugh — puh-huh-huh-hee-HUH! — but in real life he is quieter, controlled, totally earnest. Emerging from a swamp of view-magnet YouTube diss tracks that were very, very of a moment in 2015 (the year the concept of ‘Zoella’ broke through from her cosy YouTube enclave and became a mainstream punchline; that year you had to know who Alfie Deyes was, whether you liked it or not), ‘Lamborghini’ is… well, it’s about having a Lamborghini. “Lamborghini, La-Lamborghini,” KSI rough-raps, before a P Money verse that’s so comparatively smooth it’s like Messi playing against League 2, “Bitch I know you see me / in my Lamborghini.” It has the energy of that juvenile impulse to make up two lines of a rap and keep repeating them over and over again within your friendship group but fed through a production-quality computer bought by a millionaire who has enough social currency to DM rappers and ask them to come to his house to record with him. Although it isn’t exactly good, it is a whole lot of fun. “I was just able to buy a Lamborghini, and I did a song about it,” KSI shrugs, “and then it did really well: chart-wise and view-wise. And I was just like, ‘Huh, maybe I should take my hobby seriously.’ And that’s what I did.”
At the time of ‘Lamborghini’s release, KSI had been dabbling with music for years, without necessarily thinking about it as a career. On his gaming streams he often broke into rap, and he was making unreleased tracks with fellow YouTuber, Randolph — but seeing ‘Lamborghini’ (124m views, to date) cross over from a platform he’d already conquered by getting chart love made him reappraise. “‘Lamborghini’ was the first song that made me go: ‘You know what, I can actually do this properly.’ So that’s when I started really honing my skills and really focusing on music.”
“I had a — yeah. Break-up. One of those that really fucks with you”— KSI
One thing that’s really notable about KSI is his willingness to make incremental improvements in public: his first boxing match was rough and flailing, but he came back sharper for his next; his first single was basically just bragging and driving and shouting, but over the course of three EPs his sound quickly evolved and improved into something smoother. By 2020’s breakthrough Dissimulation — his first feature-heavy collection of songs, an actual rap album that was entirely devoid of any dissing of Home Counties content creators with made-up names and too many football shirts — he had a back catalogue that cemented him as a YouTuber who rapped, rather than a YouTube rapper (the album debuted at number two). There was barely a year between that and his next studio album, All Over the Place, but his sound had made a giant stride, again: ‘Don’t Play’ used an astute feature by Anne-Marie and went to number two in the charts as a result; ‘Really Love’ uses Craig David to forge an O Beach-sunset forever banger; and ‘Patience’ uses Yungblud and Polo G and some sparkling Drive-soundtrack-style production for something that must feel stunning while you rev a Subaru Impreza through an empty city centre.
But it was the album’s non-feature single, ‘Holiday’, that really stood out: plucked guitar, a more melodic vocal performance with the AutoTune turned right down to one, and tender lyrics that speak to the pure truth of love rather than how many miles per gallon your sports car does. It debuted at number two in the UK singles chart, was certified platinum, and nominated for Song of the Year at the 2022 BRIT Awards. It proved that JJ could make a song that wasn’t just ‘I’m great!’ braggadocio or that left a 45-second gap for whoever to put a feature on. That energy has clearly made it into album three, whose lead single, cry-with-your-shades-on sad banger, ‘Summer is Over’, works as the dark bookend to ‘Holiday’.
“Yeah, yeah, I had a — yeah. Break-up. One of those that really… fucks with you,” he tells me. It was in October last year, though JJ carried it into an early-January writing camp in LA, and from rough versions of songs I’ve heard from the rest of the album, the break-up, the foundational shaking that came as a result of it, and that lonely-in-a-crowd feeling that absorbs all your energy in the aftermath are major themes. “I guess it’s like, I don’t think anything really hit me like that before. Obviously, I’ve had previous relationships not work out, but it didn’t really hit me that much. I was just like, ‘Ah, OK, another one bites the dust.’ Whereas this one, it was… yeah, it was deep. I’d known her for so long. And then for me to just not be with her anymore, it really psychologically fucked with me. I think that’s why I felt like I had to just make music in order for me to be able to really process it all.”
“Making music has always been about what I experienced or what I’m going through. I just didn’t feel like it made sense to make songs of me just being like, ‘Oh, I’m sick. I’m amazing. I’m happy. I’m enjoying myself!’ when I wasn’t”— KSI
In his new material you can hear raw and real heartbreak, but you can also hear an emerging capital-s Sound, a distinct third-album step up. There will be vibe songs — I think it is technically illegal in the UK for KSI to release an album that doesn’t feature these — but there’s a more mature melancholy at play too, all covered with years-honed glossy production. This is his 808s & Heartbreak, then, if that album was about not having anyone to watch Netflix with while everyone in your hoodie merch collective gets engaged. “With me, making music has always been about what I experienced or what I’m going through,” KSI explains, as he walks me out from his soundproofed gaming room into his even more soundproofed home studio. “So I just didn’t feel like it made sense to make songs of me just being like, ‘Oh, I’m sick. I’m amazing. I’m happy. I’m enjoying myself!’ when I wasn’t. So, instead, I made music which reflected… that.”
This might seem like a surprising pivot in sound and style for KSI but read the runes and glyphs that make up his career and follow the mood and maturity of his all-platforms output and the shift makes sense. His ultra-popular Sidemen spin-off channel, which recently raised more than £1 million via a charity football match that featured the two worst goalkeeping performances I have ever, ever seen, has become the dominant voice in young male banter culture since their formation in 2013. At 29, KSI has been in the public eye for a full decade, and his only real controversy in that time was about nine years ago. He’s been recording this album sober, a decision he made at the start of the year mainly to help with his gains and staying in boxing shape, but a change he found creatively fulfilling, too.
“When it comes to alcohol, I realised it changes me as a person, and it’s detrimental to my body as well,” he says. “But every time I drink, I end up doing something I regret the next day. I just totally move out of character. I got to the point where I was like, ‘You know what? I need to stop.’ But it did make things easier: being able to just remember stuff, or to really see how I was feeling. Whereas with alcohol you either black out or just forget or just feel like shit… you’re not able to home in on what you want to feel or how you want to put something out.” The music shows it: it sounds truer as a result.
And, crucially, he’s never worried about having an audience, and with that comes a certain creative freedom. Ever since ‘Lamborghini’, KSI has been able to put out exactly the music he wants to, because 24 million people will see it regardless (in the UK, he’s the ninth-most followed channel — the only music stars higher up the list are Ed Sheeran, One Direction and Adele). “I literally make the music I want to make, which is the best position to be in,” he says. “I know a lot of artists aren’t able to do that.” It’s not something he’s taken for granted: he’s built a loyal following slowly and steadily over the years and, in a way, pivoting away from playing FIFA to soulful pop bangers about heartbreak was always going to be a risk.
“Every time I drink, I end up doing something I regret the next day. I just totally move out of character. I got to the point where I was like, ‘You know what? I need to stop’”— KSI
“Music literally started as this fun hobby thing I wanted to do, and then it got to this point where I was getting better and better and better,” he says. “And I’m able to just chart all the time. It’s crazy. Sometimes I don’t realise how hard it is to chart a song — I was trying to get my friend Sam, S-X, to get his first Top 40. And I was pushing and pushing and pushing, promoting and doing everything and we just missed out. I was like: ‘Fuck.’ Whereas I’m able to get Top 10s without putting in too much effort. Release the song, release the music video, a few tweets, a few YouTube videos here and there. And sometimes I guess I take it for granted, how privileged the position I’m actually in is.” That fan-base loyalty is a rare currency, and KSI has a lot of it, but he’s still aware that it’s dependent on… well. “Anything I put out, they’re just like, ‘Yes: sick.’” He waits a beat. “As long as it’s good, obviously. If it’s shit, they’re going to tell me.”
It’s funny how often in conversation KSI, a Brit-nominated, platinum-certified artist with number two and number one album chart placements in consecutive years, refers to his music as a “hobby”, but that’s more to do with that fact that he’s always up to something than being dismissive of the form. “A lot of the time I’m in free-flow,” he says. “I’m just going, ‘Yeah, cool: release a song. Yeah, you know, box here, box two guys in one night.’ Music wasn’t deliberate at all: I just got bored of doing YouTube all the time. I don’t want to be that guy who’s in a box — I don’t want you to be able to know what I’m going to be doing next. I like the element of surprise because it’s just more interesting.” This goes for his live shows, too, which he strives to always make unique (it’s also a rare chance to actually see his audience, who are often an abstract concept represented by an ever-rising YouTube statistics page). “Whenever I perform, I just describe it as energy. The way I talk to my audience is like my friends: they know what’s going on with my life and stuff like that. So we just chat and do funny things: people will hold signs up saying, ‘GIVE ME YOUR SHIRT’, ‘Let’s do a push-up contest’, random stuff like that. And when I performed at Wembley, that was the first and only show where I came out in a Lamborghini performing ‘Lamborghini’. So there’s a great energy between me and my audience. It’s one of those things where a lot of my audience after the show, they come out happy, because they’ve seen a complete one-off gig.”
“I’ve known so many people who’ve taken their foot off the treadmill and struggled to get back on. So I’m just kind of like: ‘I need to keep going, keep going’”— KSI
An early play of album three suggests at least a handful of songs that are destined to be played in packed stadiums with the lights down low and everyone’s phone screens thrust white into the air: 2021’s shattering heartbreak is going to linger deep into 2023’s festival season. But it’s possibly a chance for KSI’s audience to see a truer glimpse of their always-on, always-in-4K idol than they normally would. “The thing is, I have so many different mediums to express how I feel,” he explains, “but for me, I feel like music is one of the best ways to do it. Like, yeah, I could go on YouTube and just be like, ‘I went through a hard break-up, and blah blah blah,’ and get loads of views and whatever and then that’s that. But I don’t think it really would have encapsulated the actual emotion and pain that I felt. Even when I listen to it today, I can hear the pain I was in and how hurt I was and how much I was struggling. It’s a different feeling rather than someone just telling you, ‘This is the situation, I broke up.’ When you actually listen to it in music form, it’s just — I don’t know. I don’t know how to explain it but it’s different.”
KSI isn’t thinking about the future, or album four. “I’m always focusing on the Now. I hate when people ask, ‘Where do you see yourself in five, 10 years?’ I hate that question. I’ve no idea! Five years ago, I didn’t think I’d be able to make a song like ‘Summer is Over’, or just box in general!” But one focus is bringing others up to his level. Last year, he launched his own record label, The Online Takeover, who have been selective in the artists they’ve signed: singer Aiyana-Lee, who featured on Dissimulation’s ‘Killa Killa’, and Yxng Dave, who was born after 9/11 happened and performed live at KSI’s last ring walk. “I give them the blueprint and go, ‘This isn’t going to be quick.’ It’s a long journey and you have to be prepared for that. Yes, it’s probably easier now you’re associated with me, but you also have to make good music.”
By now we’ve been talking for an hour and are steadily moving downstairs: in the seconds after we unseal the door to the studio we’ve been talking in, KSI — one of the most offline people in the room over the course of the shoot day — has been urgently needed for two quickly whispered business meetings in a way that makes you appreciate why he might want not one but two soundproofed rooms in his house. But this is part of the kingly role he has ascended to: KSI is a huge proponent of collaboration (I can’t tell you who’s lined up for album three, but it’s good), and that goes for him lending some of his star power out as music as legitimising himself alongside other performers. “Something I’ve always wanted to do is just help out. I mean my whole career has been helping other people out, as well as me being successful. Whether it’s Sidemen to random YouTubers to musicians to boxers, I’m just always trying to help out as many people as possible. It’s more fulfilling and it’s more fun, you know? Rather than just doing everything myself and being the one at the top, alone.”
Either way, album three won’t be the end of this fun hobby that turned into a record label, a number one album, a way of communicating his emotions in public, and a feature with [redacted] on the album [redacted]. “I’m in this space where it’s always evolving, it’s always spiralling, it’s always increasing: everything is exponential. I’ve known so many people who’ve taken their foot off the treadmill and struggled to get back on. So I’m just kind of like: ‘I need to keep going, keep going.’ And for me it’s just cool to see where I end up.” I have six kilos of energy drink to take home on the Tube while children harass me for them. KSI gets to sit back and decide which world he wants to conquer next.
KSI’s new single ‘Summer is Over’ is out now. KSI is an ambassador for National Album Day which takes place on 15th October. The KSI documentary will be available on Prime Video early next year.
For a limited time only, you can get 60 per cent off a digital subscription of Rolling Stone UK using the code KSI60.
Styling: Joseph Kocharian
Grooming: Shamara Roper
Fashion assistant: Bethan Dadson