Show & Prove: Lola Brooke
Words: Georgette Cline
Editor’s Note: This story appears in the Spring 2023 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

Lola Brooke, a diminutive firecracker standing at four feet, nine-and-a-half inches (she’s heavy on the half-inch), is a self-professed Big Gator. She sports a green-and-black varsity jacket emblazoned with the words as she sits inside an Arista Records lounge in New York City on a crisp March day. Her die-hard fans, now known as Gators, started affectionately calling the 29-year-old Brooklyn native the nickname after she once dropped the two words in a freestyle.

The alias is fitting considering she snaps on her 2021 assertive hit “Don’t Play With It” featuring Billy B, which took off last year. Memorable lyrics like the title line and “Gimme beso (muah), extendo (grrah)” have caught the attention of LeBron James and Kim Kardashian, pushed the song onto the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart and inspired thousands of TikTok videos.

Lola’s sonorous voice, with its nostalgic 1990’s flair, and lyrical sensibility that could easily knock down competitors have also earned the support of Meek Mill, Cardi B, Future, who had her perform at his 2022 show, and A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, who welcomed her on his Me vs. Myself Tour in early 2023. Lola has certainly stayed down ’til she came up.

Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn is where Lola Brooke’s story starts. She was raised as an only child by a single mother, though Lola’s father had an active presence in her life. Birthday parties in shelters she lived in were the norm. At 6, her love for hip-hop sprouted after she saw 50 Cent’s “Wanksta” video. By 8, the rap novitiate, born Shyniece Thomas, told her grandmother she wanted to be a rapper one day. “I remember loving entertainers and loving performers and rappers,” Lola recalls. “So, it’s just been in me.”

Poetry and writing rhymes about her height, clothes, school and teachers followed. Rapping was a byproduct of feeling lonely since her mom was often gone working at shelters. “I look in the mirror, I rap to myself,” Lola shares of what she’d do as a kid. “I get a book. I always be writing in the book to take up my time. I learn how to play by myself, and just listening to music.” Throughout high school, lyrics from Fif, Lil Wayne and Meek, despite being from a younger hip-hop generation than those two, hit home. She had a “if he could do it, I could do it” mentality when it came to Meek and respected his hunger. She studied Weezy’s punchlines and admired the Big Apple pride from 50—swag and lingo included. Foxy Brown, Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj also inspired young Lola.

But she still considered rap just a hobby. While the petite lyricist was uploading music she recorded herself to MySpace around 2009, it wasn’t until after she graduated from Bed Stuy’s famed Boys and Girls High School in 2012, that studio time became a regular occurrence. Sessions happened in between attending classes at BK’s Medgar Evers College and the many jobs she had: Little Caesars, Gap, TJ Maxx, Macy’s, Finish Line and a men’s shelter. “It taught me how to be humble,” she says of her time as a shelter residential aide, which Lola’s mom helped her get.

Lola’s music soon started to thrive more on SoundCloud by this time. Early freestyles in 2015 under her nickname Binyy and over classics like Mobb Deep’s “Quiet Storm” showcased her ball-of-fire spirit and voluble lyrical style. “Broooklyn Freestyle” was dedicated to her father, who passed that year. Locally, Lola caught the attention of Eugene “80” Sims, founder of Team Eighty Productions, who signed the femme fatale in 2016.

“Once I got the chance to hear her speak and then rap, I was shocked by how a big voice could come from someone so small in stature,” Sims says. “She had another level of confidence that made you engaged and made you want to hear more of what she has to say.”

The following year marked a major milestone when Lola’s song “2017 Flow” started gaining traction on social media. “That’s when everybody was like, ‘OK, Lola is taking it serious.’ ‘Let’s see what she got next,’” she remembers. Lola resigned from her shelter gig a month later to go full force with her rap journey. Lots of loosies continued to be unleashed and she locked in shows nearby for the next four years, but May of 2021 was Lola’s breakthrough moment when her Dizzy Banko-produced record “Don’t Play With It” dropped. Songs like “Dummy Ummy” also solidified she was a self-proclaimed “top-notch pro.”

A few viral Twitter moments of fans sharing a clip of “Don’t Play With It”—from her 2021 From The Block Performance on YouTube—at the end of that year and the summer of the next led to a flood of new supporters joining the Gators via Twitter, TikTok and Instagram. Future bringing Lola out to perform her hit during his show in her hometown in December of 2022 added to her ascent. “I’m like, ‘Dag, people finally rocking with it,’” Lola reflects on “Don’t Play With It.” “Everybody don’t like to be played with and that’s why it resonates.”

The math adds up. The record received over 27 million Spotify streams, 32 million YouTube views and more than 90,000 TikTok videos, including one created by Kim Kardashian and daughter North. The motion of “Don’t Play With It” earned Lola a deal with Arista Records in collaboration with Team Eighty Productions at the top of 2023. “Lyrically, she’s a problem,” says Kendell “Sav” Freeman, Arista VP/Co-Head of Urban Music, who signed her to the label. “Even when you listen to ‘Don’t Play With It,’ she’s talking witty, she do her thing. And then you turn around and you see her go and do a freestyle with Flex and she smashes that. But then, she also looking like a f**king star while doing it. And you’re like, ‘Yo, who is this? I gotta know who this is.’”

Lola Brooke’s name needs little introduction these days. The positive reception of March releases “So Disrespectful” and “Don’t Play With It (Remix)” with Latto and Yung Miami, in addition to landing a multi-episode role on CBS’ police series East New York means everyone’s getting more familiar with her. Now, Lola is preparing her first-ever project in the form of an EP, to be released before the fall. Gator Season is here, but Lola is still focused on the home team.

“When people think about Brooklyn, the first two people to think of is Biggie and Jay-Z,” she expresses. “I want when people think about Brooklyn, they be like, ‘Lola, Brooklyn, Brooklyn, Brooklyn.’ I just want to be a part of it.”

The love’s already spreading in Lola’s direction—the Brooklyn way.

lola brooke photo felicia abban
Felicia Abban

Check out additional interviews in XXL magazine's spring 2023 issue, including the cover story with Lil Durk, conversations with Coi LerayKey GlockJoyner LucasFridayyLuh TylerDestroy LonelyBlxstCurren$yFinesse2tymesVic MensaToosii, DJ Drama and actor Tyler Lepley, plus a look at how famed hip-hop attorney Bradford Cohen helps clients like Drake and Kodak Black beat their cases, veteran photographer Johnny Nuñez tells the behind-the-scenes stories of 10 of his iconic hip-hop photos, six rappers from six different eras—Melle MelMC ShanRZALupe FiascoB.o.B and Cordae—discuss the change in hip-hop over 50 years and a deep dive into the city of Memphis becoming a breeding ground for new rap talent. 

See Photos From Lil Durk's XXL Magazine Spring 2023 Cover Story

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