Cruel Santino always loved to daydream. The Nigerian artist recalls spending his elementary school lunch breaks poring over The Princess Diaries and Gossip Girl books, allowing his mind to wander into the fantasy worlds nestled between their pages. It didn’t take long before he grew weary of diving into other people’s worlds and sought to craft his own. Born Osayaba Owen Ize-Iyamu, Santino approaches music as world-building and always sets out to create an intricate, immersive listening experience on his projects. His affinity for the unconventional has made him no stranger to change, whether that’s unveiling a new moniker or reinventing his sound with each release.
In 2019, under his former moniker Santi, Santino shared his debut album Mandy & the Jungle, an blend of eclectic sounds—ranging from indie-pop to Afropop, alternative rap, and dancehall—woven into a tale of love and the power of belief. The follow-up Subaru Boys: Final Heaven is his latest multiverse of madness, and though a sharp departure from the smooth appeal of his debut, it’s a testament to the singer’s expansive range. Across the 21-track album, Santino’s attention to detail is more apparent than ever.
Since its March release, Subaru Boys has garnered mixed reviews from fans and critics alike who are unsure what to make of Santino’s evolved sound. “I don’t wake up and say, ‘Today, I’m gonna decide to be this person,’” he tells Audiomack World of his new artistic direction. “This is probably just some part of me or my childhood that’s just come out in its fullest form.” Still, Cruel Santino’s ability to embrace experimentation has made him one of the most exciting and unpredictable artists of this generation.
How did the creative processes behind Subaru Boys and your debut album, Mandy & the Jungle, differ?
Mandy was a really different time in my life. It’s something I could never replicate. When I built the world of Mandy, it was a sort of testament to my life in primary school and high school. Back then, I would just read Princess Diaries and Gossip Girl books, while all the guys in my school were playing sports and stuff. I feel like all of that just connected to the world of Mandy because I made it about a girl who had this power to control girls around the world. And that was just what I built in my head to make the sound.
Subaru is just me now knowing my truth and being more comfortable in my true self. I look back at some things on Mandy and it’s clear Mandy is the safest version of myself. With Subaru, when I’d seen a lot of stuff, gone on shows, and actually watched people scream my songs and show they came there for me, everything just changed for me.
I was just like, “I want to do more for these guys and bring them more into this world.” So it’s totally different because Mandy felt like a risk, but it wasn’t really a risk. Meanwhile, with Subaru, I feel like I was just creating without any conformity.
A lot of songs didn’t make Mandy because I was scared of putting it on there and I’d play some of the songs now and wish I did. And then I’d go to shows and people would know me off just two or three songs like “Rapid Fire” and stuff like that. Those are great songs, but those songs don’t define who I am. I didn’t want that again because I’m a lot more than those songs and at the same time, I just wanna show people what I can actually do. So Subaru is more or less just me in my most comfortable space and Mandy’s me in a safe, sheltered form of creation.
Subaru Boys is certainly quite different from your usual sound. How do you feel about the polarizing reception it’s gotten so far?
[To] my core fans who know the kind of stuff I make or the kind of stuff I can make, I don’t think what I’m doing right now would be surprising to them, which is what I wanted to change. There’s a bunch of people that were expecting me to continue giving them songs like [“Rapid Fire”]. I could do that in my sleep, but that’s not gonna let me grow and that’s not gonna let me be myself and be happy.
So Subaru definitely came as a surprise to a bunch of people that were wondering where the sound was from, but people who know my music or know me [understood it].
My friend once told me that when you’ve reached a new pocket of sound in your life, fans go and fans come. When Kanye dropped Yeezus, people flamed him for it for months. That’s just how it goes sometimes. There’s nothing you can really do about that, you just have to keep going into your sound and keep getting crazy at it.
Has there ever been any point in your career when you genuinely thought to make music to cater to the mainstream Nigerian audience?
Yeah, that would’ve been the project I was gonna drop if I didn’t do Subaru. After 2019, I was gonna drop a project, which I cut short because I was just trying to please people. I just wanted to make a better Mandy, which I think I did. So I have this friend I always go to. We only see each other sometimes and when we do, he would play me new stuff and it would blow [my] mind and I’ll play him new stuff and it would blow his mind.
I was hearing what [my friend] was making and I was like, “Yo, this is crazy.” And then I played him my music and he loved it, but he could tell that I hadn’t tapped into something new. There was something I saw in him that I knew no amount of money or fame could bring: it was the satisfaction of knowing that you’re actually creating new sounds out of your head. At that point, I was like, alright, cool. I’m going to start fresh until I make something I know is true to me. Hence, Subaru.
What do you want this album to mean in 10 years?
I just want it to be set in stone that we set out to create a world with sound, and we did it. We did it from here and we did it with people that are here and we spread it across the world. The fact I could sit here and say I’m gonna make an album like Subaru is something, because you couldn’t do that before. Even to make this album, I know how much convincing I had to do for people who might not have been familiar with anything I’m doing to just trust and believe in what I’m doing.
It is really important for kids growing up to know they can do this. When I was small, I found Santigold, and when I finally spoke to her, I realized something: you never know what spark you might set off in someone, just from them bumping [your music] or from you showing them your world. I want this to be for kids and whoever is out there to just escape and come into the world and make their own stuff inspired by this.
By Makua Adimora for Audiomack