Aries pulls out a sketchbook. He flips through its pages, each one filled with drawings and scribbles, until he locates the original sketch of a wide-grinning sun that would become the cover art for Believe In Me, Who Believes In You, his first album since signing with Columbia Records in September 2019 and sophomore album overall, out Friday (Nov. 12). “The album title is me talking to myself,” the 23-year-old, who prefers not to reveal his full name, tells Billboard over Zoom from his Los Angeles home five days before the project’s release.
The cover art indicates a more complicated message is buried beneath Aries’ clever and quotable hooks scattered across the album’s 12 tracks. Boastful single “Fool’s Gold” began Aries’ new era last November and elevated his signature whiplash sound — just when you’ve settled in for an alternative ballad, a collection of beat drops thrust you into an ear-splitting hip-hop soundscape. Aries’ eclectic production was juxtaposed between this summer’s guitar-based, pop rock-leaning “Kids on Molly” and October’s high-octane, rap-riddled “One Punch,” which made it on the NBA2K22 soundtrack as well as on ESPN’s broadcasts this week.
“I’m inside, driving myself crazy and figuring out a balance where I don’t drive myself crazy — trying to get out and reach the sun,” the Orange County native says. “This is a topic I’ve revisited many times in my life. I always say, ‘Sun city in the shade.’ Orange County, it’s a very sunny city. It’s a very playful place outside. But I was in the shade, in my room, and that’s the place I was writing from.”
That’s where he is now, detailing how Believe In Me, Who Believes In You materialized. The cover was originally the photo of Aries now used as the poster for his 2022 Believe In Me Tour. His eyes are cast downward, his hands thrown upward, and his mouth is agape as if he’s either laughing or maniacally screaming. But after playing his friends the album for the first time to finalize its tracklist, they nixed the photo. “This photo is black and white,” they told him. “Your album is way too colorful for that.”
So, Aries did what he had done for as far back as he can remember. He sat down, opened this sketchbook and started drawing until the pages were full. The result is an album cover that is a more vivid self-portrait than the literal portrait ever was. An animated sun that bears a striking resemblance to the spiky, spooky Pokémon Haunter (“That might have been my subconscious mind”) is smiling as vastly as Jim Carrey in The Mask and hovering its human hands directly over a miniscule figure with arms outstretched toward the sky. The sky is dark, despite the sun, and dotted with stars and a storm cloud. The man is Aries. And actually, the full title of the album is Believe In Me, Who Believes In You: Journey to the Sun.
“I used to talk about the sun a lot because I was a kid who grew up and never went to any parties, none of that,” he says. “In high school, I was very much a recluse. The sun, it was almost this goal for me — even back then. I had a mixtape that was literally called I Hate the Sun — don’t try to Google that because it’s not anywhere. I wouldn’t call this album a conceptual album, but it’s the broad idea that the sun is the goal. Get outside, be healthy. That’s the goal.”
Aries spent the first eight years of his life in Wichita, Kansas — “long enough for me to retain fond memories” — but he’s a Cali boy, through and through. Regardless of his location, music felt like home. He was surrounded by music from a young age, as his father was a professional violinist. By third or fourth grade, he was already developing an affinity for rock music by listening to Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory and Meteora albums. He asked his mom to go to Barnes & Noble to buy their Live in Texas DVD, thinking it was just another album of theirs.
“Being probably seven or eight years old at the time, I had never seen anything like it,” Aries says. “It was my first introduction to this kind of live energy — musicians on stage able to move a crowd so well.” Obsessed, he’d locked in his life’s dream: he wanted to perform on stage for scores of people.
As a seventh grader, Aries’ musical efforts unofficially started. He and his friends smoked weed in the alleys behind their parents’ houses and freestyle rapped. “I always just wanted to play on stages as a kid,” he says, “but that made me want to download Audacity and try to spit some bars on my dad’s computer speaker.”
At the same age, he innocently tagged “Aries” — his Zodiac sign — with a paint pen on buildings around town, unknowingly choosing his future stage name. “I involuntarily changed my social circle due to the horrible anxiety that was caused by smoking,” he explains. “I was scared I’d break down and have a panic attack on the way to see friends that I would see usually all the time. At that time, people [had] started drinking and partying.”
In high school, Aries retreated. “The music was the closest thing to me,” he says. Before he was ready to push outside of his physical comfort zone, he turned to the internet to find his community. Or rather, build one: Orange County didn’t have a bustling music scene. He didn’t have any musical training, other than the piano lessons his parents briefly put him in as a small child that he hated. He was truly starting from scratch — spending the remainder of his adolescence mostly alone in his room, teaching himself instrumentation and production or writing.
“Aries shifted the way I thought about making music,” says Biskwiq, who produced and assisted in mixing six of the album’s 12 songs. “There’s this playful element to creating with him that I hadn’t experienced with anyone else before we started working together. He approaches the music he makes almost like an abstract painting, prioritizing how all the elements of a song work harmoniously within the composition — no matter how strange or off-kilter they sound on their own.”
Aries’ innate ability to mix and match was first put on display in early 2017, when he began posting two-minute YouTube videos breaking down how hip-hop smashes such as Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Lif3,” Playboi Carti’s “Magnolia” and Drake’s “God’s Plan” were made. The motivation for the video series was “totally just to get people to look at me for my own music,” he says — and it worked. Millions of views and hundreds of thousands of YouTube subscribers later, Aries dropped the stream-of-consciousness rap single “Genie” and caught the attention of his now-manager Olly Manhi in September 2017.
“I was working as an A&R at the time for Concord Music Publishing in London and found the song on Soundcloud,” Manhi recalls. “My first impression of Aries as an artist was just how grabbing the melodies in his music were. I was listening to the song ‘Genie,’ without any context of the fanbase he’d build on YouTube or any knowledge of him as an artist. Just listening to that song in isolation, and I was hooked.”
Manhi did a little digging and quickly uncovered the digital empire Aries had cultivated. His ballooning following wasn’t exclusive to YouTube, as people consistently engaged with Aries on other platforms such as Discord and Twitch.
“I started to build a picture of an artist who was not only immensely talented but one who also understood very well the online landscape he was in and how to use it to build a fanbase,” Manhi adds.
Aries may have come off as a methodical genius following a self-made blueprint to a T, and he did have a method to the madness that is trying to differentiate in a digital landscape with more voices than ever. In truth, though, Aries wasn’t thrilled to take such an unconventional path.
“I thought, in a way, I’m losing sight of what feels right,” Aries admits. “It’s like, do you really want to use big artists’ names to earn success for yourself? I felt like I was talented growing up, I found comfort in my own skill set. The good thing is that I was self-aware. I didn’t want to pull too much clout, I guess, from other artists.”
Aries earned his own clout with the January 2018 arrival of emo rap track “Carousel.” He posted a YouTube video showing how “Carousel” was made with over 100 layers, too — but for the first time, people from outside Aries’ rabid following were flocking to the song for how it made them feel and not how it was made. The day after its release, “Carousel” was featured on Spotify’s New Music Friday playlist, later peaking at No. 10 on Spotify’s Viral 50 – USA playlist, and pop star Demi Lovato even placed it on their personal tour playlist.
Aries and Manhi had their first in-person meeting in April 2018 in L.A. — the same month Aries put out “Sayonara,” his most popular Spotify single to date, with over 51.6 million streams on the platform. By April 2019, he had generated tens of millions of streams for original music, and he independently released his self-produced, self-written debut album Welcome Home, racking up an additional 200 million global streams. The accompanying tour sold out 21 dates across North America and Europe.
Aries had made it out — and then the coronavirus pandemic struck the United States shortly after he had returned to L.A. from the European leg of his tour.
“If you’re an introspective lad, then maybe it was to your benefit,” Aries says of the forced isolation. “I think it was to my benefit and detriment — because there definitely were points where I was like, Damn, I don’t have as much inspiration as I would if I were at least trying to see people.”
Nostalgia has always been a consistent source of inspiration for Aries. “It’s the innocence of certain memories,” he says, smiling as he reminisces on childhood trips to the zoo with his father. His BIMWBIY track “Outdated” opens with “Mommy’s alright, Daddy’s alright / They just needed a little bread” — interpolated from Cheap Trick’s classic rock staple “Surrender” after he heard it on EA’s Skate video game.
That said, Aries doesn’t necessarily long in the same way to relive his Welcome Home era. He will never deny or be ungrateful for the unbelievable good that came from it: the legion of devoted fans or the opportunity to tour the world. “I’ve seen more things in the past two years than I’ve ever seen,” he acknowledges.
But there was a price. “I was very, very depressed making that whole thing,” he recalls. “Just not in a good place, really, and I would pretty much — for lack of better words — kill myself over every song. Get in my head very often. I used to just make music until it was, like, f–king eight in the morning. It was not healthy. I don’t have a stop button. Or I do, but I would always avoid it. I tend to go down a really dark hole.”
Aries shares that, at one point, Manhi stepped in and encouraged him to take days off because rest would “be more productive than just trying to keep chipping away at something that won’t chip today.” Aries struggled to find the pause button, but he gradually paid more attention to his mental health and chose to prioritize his well-being. “Now, I’m like, ‘Let me cut off before 1 A.M,’” he says. “I want to be in this for longevity.”
Manhi noticed “a necessary change” taking shape just as Aries was turning his attention toward Believe In Me, Who Believes In You: “Aries would work at all hours for days on end to the point of exhaustion to get a song done [for Welcome Home]. It wasn’t sustainable. From the outset on this album, Aries has done a much better job at prioritizing his mental and physical health through meditation and exercise.”
The first steps came in November 2019, between the North American and European legs of tour, at an Airbnb in San Clemente, California. Aries was joined by frequent collaborators and producers Biskwiq, Benji Miller, Pharoah Vice and Slippery Salazar, and together, they “birthed” the guitar-heavy sound palette coursing through BIMWBIY with bass, bossa nova drums and trap drums sprinkled in.
Not a single song was created at that Airbnb — the songs came later, as Aries pumped out at least 50 during the thick of the pandemic — but it was the catalyst, serving as a lesson to Aries that unpolished imperfection can later develop into exactly what he needs. All he had to do, it turned out, was give himself permission and time to look inward and fully process his life’s most recurring theme out loud.
Aries has found that expressing himself visually is just as integral to his fulfillment as the songs. His YouTube, where it all began, has become an immersive world of its own — an additional portal into his mind — as he co-directs and edits all of his animated and live-action music videos with Mattias Russo-Larsson, who emphasizes, “His character is so fully developed. It is such a joy to ideate concepts around it.”
But at his core, of course, Aries is not a character. He is a young man focused on figuring out how to balance all the elements of who he is, which he identifies as “the most important and obvious difference” between this album cycle and Welcome Home.
“While I think it’s obvious when you listen to this album that Aries has emerged from his comfort zone, the concept of aiming for ‘the sun’ shows most in the subject matter of his writing,” Biskwiq observes. “There’s a consistent theme of this determination for greatness that can be felt throughout each song, no matter how cryptic his lyricism.”
“I think where he’s improved the most is in his songwriting and his ability to put more of his life into his lyrics,” Manhi notes. “On Believe In Me, Who Believes In You, I think fans will experience a deeper connection with Aries as a result.”
Aries designed the cover with a keen understanding that it needed to be peculiar enough to demand attention in a saturated market — because fans new and old couldn’t connect with him if they weren’t aware the album existed at all. “I’m gonna be honest: I love creepy s–t,” he says. “I’m a fan of just getting people’s eyes looking at something, and the best way you can do that is with something creepy. I was thinking that if this vinyl was in a record store — Urban Outfitters or something — some random person would see it and go, ‘What the f–k is this?’”
The cover’s distinctive eccentricity translates to the lyrics inside, as well as the production. BIMWBIY maintains a kinetic energy from top to bottom, a departure from the slow-burning, more nocturnal Welcome Home. It makes sense, then, that between the two projects, Aries’ metaphorical muse shifted from how the ocean used to calm him to his pursuit of the freedom the sun represents to him.
Aries’ fixation on finding light in darkness is explicitly referenced in several tracks, such as “Fool’s Good (“Hard to catch sunshine waiting by my desk”) and “ETA” (“Sun city in the shade, got my winter coat on”). The last thing anyone will hear in closer “When The Lights Go Out” is Aries softly wondering, “What does the sun even mean to you, huh? You’re inside all day. You don’t even see it.” But when Aries listens to “One Punch,” he can see it all.
“It’s one of my favorites for a lot of reasons,” he says. “You hear it, and you can see a sold-out show to it. That already makes me think, OK, this is it.”
“One Punch” was made with Steven “Kohl” Cabanting, known as Slippery Salazar, who provided an electrifying guitar riff that ties together anthemic beats and amplifies Aries’ uninhibited belting.
“Any time I make a song with [Slippery Salazar], it’s the association that I have — a memory of just me and him,” Aries continues. “It takes me back to when I first started really taking music serious.”
Because what good is breaking free if you’re sprinting toward the sun alone?
As Believe In Me, Who Believes In You enters the world, Aries is returning to his hometown Santa Ana, California, to host his inaugural WUNDERWORLD Fest at The Observatory on Friday night. At the festival, Aries headlines a diverse lineup featuring Brakence, Deb Never, Ramzoid, SSGKobe, Tobi Lou and Tom the Mail Man.
WUNDERWORLD stands for “wonderful underworld” and originated during those high school days when he was operating on a different wavelength than his peers. Now, it’s the artistic brand Aries is actively creating to house his designed clothing or animated visuals moving forward.
“I would say right now in Orange County, there are some people that are trying to make music, and it was never like that [when I was growing up],” he says. “I will say this, with my chest up: I definitely inspired some of these younger kids that are over there trying to do their thing. That definitely feels good.”
Aries can look back now and appreciate how he managed to assemble a lasting career with the benefit of hindsight, especially given the sheer increase in information and resources available for aspiring musicians on the internet from when he entered high school. “I feel like there’s little 13-year-olds that are catching up to where I’m at in a matter of months,” he says.
WUNDERWORLD Fest represents the driving force behind everything Aries does. Aspirationally, he hopes to provide an inclusive space for anyone who has been made to feel like an outcast — those 13-year-olds seeking out tutorials on YouTube and dreaming wildly in their bedrooms. In the literal sense, it is a manifestation of his first love.
“Performing is what I always wanted to do,” he says. “The music was almost an obstacle that I didn’t realize that I had to go through. I mean, I love music. Music is my passion. But the shows, that’s where I get to show people who I am. My energy. I feel like a kid again. I feel like a kid standing in front of the mirror singing those Linkin Park songs.”
Sometimes, Aries has to pinch himself that he isn’t still the kid playing make believe. Luckily, his fans are always right there to remind him. “It’s been four years, and I’ve held onto these fans while remaining an underground artist, which I don’t want to be anymore,” he emphasizes. “I want to keep getting bigger and bigger — play bigger stadiums. That’s my dream.”
Aries will take a big step toward growing his profile as a performer when he kicks off his Believe In Me World Tour in Stockholm on Jan. 15, 2022. Of the 40 dates that went on sale Oct. 29, 14 are sold out — from Dublin or Manchester, U.K. overseas to Denver and New York City stateside.
Still, the artist isn’t under the impression that it’s only going to be rainbows and sunshine from here on out. The BIMWBIY album cover does have a storm cloud on it, after all. But simply, he believes in himself. While he doesn’t know exactly what his future holds, he isn’t interested in trying to predict it either. He just knows he wants to make music powerful enough to endure anything.
“Interpretation is such a strong thing,” he reasons. “However you want to take something and apply it to your own life is beautiful; that’s what art is for. If my art is something that you find comfort in, then so be it. As long as it feels like Aries, then I’m happy.”