A guarded romantic opens up about his masterwork, finally.
I heard “Paradise” for the first time in a conference room, playing from an unimpressive bluetooth speaker. The relatively terrible audio didn’t spoil anything: this song—which concludes Jeremih’s long-awaited Late Nights, out today—is compact and floating, a music box lullaby for the beginning of a day. Singing sharp and direct to the ear over an acoustic guitar, Jeremih wakes up still rolling after a tequila house party, next to a beautiful woman. He smokes weed, he crushes tylenol into a smoothie. He looks at his unread texts then puts his phone down to walk outside and take in his magnificent position, in California, living a life. He says he’s from Chicago, and dedicates the song to all the people who love him.
That story and its melody stuck with me hard; in the 16 months that have passed since that first listen, I’ve been aching to hear “Paradise” again. I knew this would require patience—Jeremih, whose last major solo release was a magnificent mixtape also called Late Nights, in August 2012, is a self-willed idealist. Late Nights the album was, for him, a Rome to build, by laying each brick himself, in his own way.
In reality, it went like this: After its unexpected release, Late Nights the mixtape was widely adored. One year later, in May 2013, The FADER mentioned Jeremih was planning a follow-up album, to be called Thumpy Johnson. In July 2014 Jeremih recognized a new audience by collaborating with L.A. producer Shlohmo on an EP. In August of that year, he traveled to New York and I heard “Paradise.” During this trip, XXL reported Jeremih would release his album in September, a claim seemingly supported by the August release of a mixtape of tracks called Not On My Album. By May 2015, it seemed Jeremih’s label was ready and eager to share music—a rep suggested an album would drop in June.
It didn't then, but now it has. Meanwhile, in the past two years Jeremih has carved a soulful mainstream space to thrive in, charting radio singles in the U.S. and abroad, and touring for the first time. When I initially met him, in 2013, Jeremih was in a long-term relationship and with a newborn son. We’ve seen each other twice since—that time in New York, and once in Atlanta. He’s a warm and guarded guy; I have wanted to know more about what this world of Late Nights—where people stay up late, are suspended between feelings, are at home nowhere—means to him now.
On Thursday, just a couple hours after hearing Late Nights for the first time and a couple hours before its surprise late-night release, we talked over the phone. Jeremih was in the car in Chicago, en route to a rehearsal. Below, he speaks about the delay and release of this album, what it’s like to be single and passionate, and how it feels to be a dreamer in the "shark water" of the music industry.
“This third album is not only for R&B, but for my fans. For the label, who’ve been begging and waiting for me to drop it. For my family, and for myself.”
Tell me about where your head was at when you were writing and recording “Paradise.”
I was in Malibu. This was around February of last year. Parties [like the one in the song] was happening a lot. It wasn't just one time. A lot of those nights were pretty random. I had a crib just off Sunset. I was working with [producer] Mick Schultz and my homie Keith James. I was in a good space, and we wanted to do something different. I wanted to show people I could just reflect, in a ballad format. Just knowing where I was, actually being out in Malibu and waking up every morning to that breeze, seeing all the palm trees, seeing the water? That was what paradise felt like, to me. I wanted to put that in a nutshell. And the stories that people, my peers, tell me. A lot of times my songs are about my life, but about my peers as well.
Someone actually asked me earlier, what was one of my favorite records off the album. My barber—I was at the barber chair. We all was thinking, and I said the one that would stand out to me the most out of all the other records, even knowing that it's concluding the album, is “Paradise.” Even knowing how I came on all of the other records. If you could describe my lifestyle or myself in a song format, that's pretty clear and concise, in a straightforward tone, and with some of the better vocals off of the album, it would definitely be "Paradise."
I heard “Paradise” last spring, along with other songs that seemed ready to be released on an album. Why is now the right time to release this album? Why didn’t you release one before?
Things weren't right. A lot of things internally. I was trying to make sure I was in a better space. I was writing a lot of records. Recently, I ended up creating almost a whole 'nother body of work. A lot of the records that actually ended up on this album are fairly new records that I did in the last few months.
I didn't want to go into 2016 without giving my fans this. It's not fun listening to these records myself; it got to that point. This third album is not only for R&B, but for my fans. For the label, who've been begging and waiting for me to drop it. For my family, and for myself. For any R&B fellas out there, and to inspire other ones that's coming up. Just for them to see what I'm bringing and how I feel R&B should sound like right now.
There was speculation that the label wouldn’t let you, or didn’t want you, to drop an album.
Well, at a point, that was the case. Where there was, like, no interest in what I was doing. But I started doing me, working with other people, making plays on my own and doing things that I thought was gonna benefit my career. Hopefully that built up enough anticipation—and revenue when it comes to my singles—that this felt like the perfect time [for the album’s release].
Was it hard to leave behind some of the older songs, which you’d once intended for this album?
Yes and no. I'm a firm believer in “Gold don't get old.” Some records that I cut over three, four years ago, people are just now releasing them as their singles. I realize that maybe I didn't know at that time [that they were gold]. I got records with Fabolous and Trey Songz that I wanted to put on the album—they were so good. But they were more summertime-leaning records. And I know that in whichever time, whether those songs will be for me or for whomever, I feel like there's still some gold in them. Some of the old songs may have made the album more, who knows, better. But I feel like I can use them at any time.
“As a lover, and me just knowing that I am, you’re always having to deal with a reckless passion.”
Would you call yourself a perfectionist? Are you nervous to put this album out into the world?
It doesn't make me nervous, but I can say that perfectionist is a word that would be close to the description of how I feel about music. I wouldn't want to put out anything half-assed.
I get it all the time from my fans: "Just drop the album," this and that. It's hard—it's like contradicting to me for people to talk shit about you and at the same time want to hear something from you so bad. When it comes to making an album, for me it wasn't nothing strategic. I just know that Rome wasn't built in a day. I was building up a whole bunch of records that I was sitting on. Bricks and layers of a great foundation. To me, a lot of records are just icing on the cake. With this album, I wanted to put out something that I felt would last a lifetime, that wouldn't get old.
On many of these new songs, you don’t sound worried. You’re hooking up, you “Giv No Fuks.” Do you think of yourself as a bold person? Or as someone who is cautious, who really thinks things through?
I'm a little bit of both. It's mixed emotions throughout the entire body of work. I know how I come out. In my heart I'm a lover. You know, I'm a character. As a single Cancer right now, I think I threw a lot of people off. On my previous two albums I was in a committed relationship. But since then, for the last couple years, I've been able to not have to care about the distant love.
There are songs here where you really sound totally in love, and other songs where you’re describing a thrill—how fun it can be to be with someone new, or to be with someone just once. Do you think it’s possible to love someone and be invested in them, and to take pleasure in those thrills at the same time?
[Laughs] Let's break that down. Yes, slightly, I would say. I definitely think it's possible. I can't say that you couldn't. Someone might just spark your interest, at any time in your life. It might be someone that you've never known, it might be someone that you would always say "I would never be with that type of person." I'm not saying that that's what I was on. I want to say that I was in love. But as a lover, and me just knowing that I am, you're always having to deal with a reckless passion. That's more where I was going [in these songs].
On several new songs, your vocals are super percussive, as much like rap as like singing. Are you trying to push your voice to a new place?
I've always just done what feels right to me on a beat. I'm a singer, I know how to sing, but as an instrumentalist I have no choice sometimes but to come at records rhythmically. That's just what I know.
People can classify it any way they want. But in no way do I want to try and compare Late Nights: The Album to my first two albums. Cause it's a completely different vibe, it's a completely different me. As music evolves, that's what I'm here for—to help it, and innovate. I just wanted to put out something for where I feel music is right now. I've been experimenting a lot, finding out what my voice can do. Late Nights is like a perfect blend of hip-hop and R&B.
“I’m a cardinal. I like to do to what I want to do.”
Many of the artists featured on this album also blend hip-hop and melody—Quavo, Ty Dolla $ign, Future. Do you consider those people your peers? Why did you want to work with them?
I would love to work with, at all times, somebody that I really want to work with. But I never want to overdose on features. I have a lot of records with big artists that are just sitting on my iTunes.
How many? How many songs have you recorded in the past couple years?
I'd say about 100 plus records. Some from me really going in, in the last couple months, like I never had. But one of my old homies just sent me three, four new songs the other day. And I was like, man—just hearing the old me, it don't sound too far off from what people might say is the new me.
There’s a thread through some of your music that’s hard to describe as a non-musician—a warmth in the production? How the beat expands at the beginning of “Oui,” or the build of “Remember Me”—these feel like emotional choices, not technical ones.
I come from the background of soul, and production, period, is very important to me. When I first heard the chord progression of "Oui," it immediately brought emotions to my mind. I knew I had no choice to write how I felt the beat was telling me. I just knew I wanted to come at it and express some love. Right now, the game is missing love. Mick Schultz was on the production for “Remember Me,” I think you could classify it as a "classic Jeremih." Vocally, I love that record. I was coming at a lot of records rhythmically, but [on “Remember Me”] I wanted to really just sing and let people see my true tone.
Is it difficult to translate the experimenting you’re doing with your voice on records to singing on stage?
When it comes to product and everything else, presentation is, I wouldn't say, one of my strongest points. Because I haven't really done it that much. I've never really toured before, beside this last tour I was on. I'm still getting used to hour-long sets with a live band, instead of it just being me up there on stage alone, pretty much in the shark water. Which is how my career has been [until now]. And somehow I survived out of it. Right now, that's one of the things I want to focus on. Perfecting my presentation: my performance, and my videos. There's so much more that the world doesn't know about me, because I haven't given it. Presentation is one of those missing links.
As a person who makes hundreds of songs but sometimes feels like a perfectionist, does working in music feel like being "in the shark water"?
For me it has. I was a baby that was thrown in it by myself. Without no crutches, without no parents around. No siblings, nobody to really be in it with me. I've really been on my own. I haven't really had that family in the game yet. Right now, I feel like I've grown up but I still got a lot of sharks to get at. It's all about chiseling and carving out what's messed up, and getting rid of bacteria. In the game, I feel like I’ve grown up. I seen a lot of people come and go. To know it’s been five years since I dropped my last album says a lot to me about how perseverance and never stopping can work.
You and I both turned 28 back in July. This year, I feel old. Do you? Do you feel like you’re entering a new phase of your life?
Definitely. I automatically feel super old knowing that there's a mini-me out here that's the same way I was. Coming home and getting to spend this whole week in Chicago with my son, that lets me see myself all over again. He acts toward people exactly how I remember acting—blatantly doing things myself, as he does. And being around all my sisters and cousins, seeing their children, I realize I grew up completely different than they will. Because I'm in a position that can help make that different for them.
Have you been following the recent protests in Chicago, surrounding the killing of LaQuan McDonald?
I'm having no choice. We just came back from Dubai, and I saw how viral it went last week, the 16 shots. When we landed I saw that the police superintendent was fired. To me, it's unfortunate that it takes something this bad to make things change. At the same time, it's up to the people. It's easy to tell someone to stop the violence, or put the guns down. But it takes the people [to change things]. There's so much crime going on. This went so national because it was completely foul. For a cop to get away with cold blood murder, I think it was a shock to everyone. To see how bad and corrupt these police actually are right now. Hopefully this will make more officers more cautious.
You said your son likes to do things himself. Have you always been that way?
Of course. I'm a cardinal. I like to do to what I want to do. I hate living by any normal standard. If it's a risk that's ever on a table, I'll probably be the one to take it and lead. If people are rocking with me, if they believe as much as I do, then they can ride with me and win with me. Cause I don't wanna lose.