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St. Louis hip-hop artist NandoSTL takes his talents to T-Pain’s label with debut album

Fernando Tillman II sits on a basketball court in Spanish Lake while wearing a black shirt, jeans and tan boots
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Fernando Tillman II, a hip-hop artist from St. Louis County who goes by the stage name "NandoSTL,” sits in for a portrait on Tuesday at Spanish Lake Park in north St. Louis County. Tillman recently signed with Grammy-winning singer, rapper and producer T-Pain after entering a Twitch competition for the opportunity. While he lost the contest, Nando explains, T-Pain still reached out to sign the musician.

When NandoSTL looks back on the past few years, he sees triumphs and losses.

The 31-year-old north St. Louis County hip-hop artist, born Fernando Tillman II, started gaining traction in 2018, but when the coronavirus pandemic shut down music venues, Lollapalooza and Pitchfork Music Festival pulled concert performances. He went through a serious break-up.

But those moments led Nando to where he is today.

“I realized giving so much of myself away was blocking me from doing any of this stuff I'm doing now,” he said.

Now, Nando is charting a path to music stardom with the help of Grammy-winning singer, rapper and producer T-Pain. His debut album is out in May, following the release of its lead single, Y.O.T.A. featuring T-Pain and Florida rapper and singer Young Cash.

He signed to T-Pain’s Nappy Boy Entertainment label last year after connecting with the artist through a competition on the live streaming service Twitch. Nando didn’t win the competition, but got second place and the two stayed in touch.

“[T- Pain] liked everything that we did so much, it was so different that we always stayed tapped in,” Nando said. “And from that, that was all I needed was a little glimmer of something for me to jump on it.”

Like the St. Louis hip-hop artists before him, Nando’s music is heavy on rap but balanced by melody. While Nelly plays a huge influence on his music, Nando’s roots trace back to his days playing drums as a child in church and in the Hazelwood Central High School Band, where he met another local hip-hop artist, Smino.

But Nando didn’t intend to become a professional musician. He graduated from Fayetteville State University with a mathematics degree and got a job as a financial adviser for Wells Fargo. But while co-workers met during the weekend, he would hit the studio.

“I decided I might as well try, it’s now or never,” Nando said. “Then it turned into this. It wasn't supposed to be this, it was supposed to be a hobby.”

In 2018, Nando recorded his first single, “I Don’t Even Smoke,” off his EP “Good Vibes.” That led to performances at S.L.U.M. Fest and shows around the region, leading to a follow-up EP and more singles.
Nando’s debut focuses on good times and bad — a vulnerable project that focuses on family and dealing with the ups and downs of life.

“When you’re up, enjoy being up because they don't mean nothing but a down is on the way,” Nando said. “When you're down, just know that up is coming, that's, that's really what the project is about.”

The album features contributions from St. Louis singer Bleu, who’s collaborated with Nando for years. Nando credits her for bringing harmonies and soulful backing vocals to his music. Bleu said Nando's greatest gift is the emotions he brings to his music.

“He tells a story within his song, and that's what I love about it,” Bleu said. “He speaks truth; he's very authentic. There ain't nobody like him.”

After signing to T-Pain’s label, Nando shared a wish list with the label head that included his dreams of writing music for Lil Nas X, touring with Chance the Rapper and recording a song with Nelly. The Nelly collaboration is already finished, and Nando said he’s ready to take his music even further.

Nando wants people who listen to his music to understand that life’s a journey that requires perseverance, and even when you take losses, there’s always space to grow.

“You take Ls all the time, but you gotta keep going,” Nando said. “Your next win could be tomorrow, or this evening, or four years from now, you don't know. But if you stop, that's when you really lose.”

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.