ELHAE was pretty sure he’d never touch, let alone consume, any part of an octopus in his lifetime. That is, until today. A curled tentacle is plated before him, grilled and garnished with pickled celery and capers, and he's conflicted about the moment to come. The stylish singer/rapper—the black skully snug over his finger-length locs, pinstriped tee, cuffed slim jeans and black & white Old Skool Vans scream Urban Outfitters ad—has sampled his fair share of foods while touring the U.K., Japan and the like. On U.S. soil, though, he sticks to the familiars (burgers, fries, Chick-Fil-A) more than he'd like to admit. But here in L’Amico’s sunlit and lively dining room, humming with the energy that comes with a warm-ish New York day in cold seasons, he’s going to take a risk.
When his publicist, Jason, first slid the plate over to him, ELHAE recoiled. His own order was a very safe roasted chicken with Tuscan kale and a Coke, but he soon softened to the idea of trying a modern delicacy. “I just want to say I did it,” he says, putting on a brave face. The skeptical end of the table is screw-faced as he cuts off a square from the fatter end of the charred tentacle, one with significantly less of the suction cups that freak him out, and lifts it to his mouth. “It’s chewy,” he says after pausing to analyze the bite, “[but] it’s not bad at all. You know what it is? It’s a mental thing.”
Before this life lesson in mind-over-matter, ELHAE, 26, was simply trying to recover from a succession of late nights prepping for the release of AURA II, the 10-track project picking up right where AURA EP, his 2015 career jumpstarter, left off. Two nights before this fancy lunch, ELHAE and his pianist Matt Dunlap were in Atlanta, holed up until morning hours rehearsing new selections before hopping on a flight to host a listening session at the Apple Store in Williamsburg.
When he'd entered the space that evening, illuminated by the huge LED blowup of his KETU and Simbayu-designed album artwork, he'd done so knowing that the past eight months of work were worth the wait. A mix of bonafide fans and attendees curious about this ELHAE character—his moniker stands for Every Life Has An Ending—huddled around the mic stand like it was story time, with some even FaceTiming friends in on the intimate session.
Once his visible nerves settled, he plucked and performed new tunes from the tracklist at random, starting with the Rockie Fresh-guested “Circa 09,” a ride-worthy nod to bittersweet memories of an old flame, and then going into “Something,” AURA II’s liveliest song (and the one someone's going to label “tropical house”). It was the first song to get the video treatment and, to the label’s delight, the song that got an encore performance during the listening.
He switched gears with “Bang Your Line,” a body roll-inducing slow-burner blessed by Ty Dolla $ign’s trademark raspy. This gem, co-penned by Verse Simmonds, almost wasn’t his. “Terrace Martin had a beat that he created, and then him and Ty had already worked on the beat together,” he begins. Ty’s A&R Shawn Barron felt the song was a good fit for ELHAE, but after he cut the record, they temporarily reneged. “We get hit with the, ‘I think Terrace is going to use this for Kendrick’s album,’ so that was out of the question for like two months.” ELHAE later regained permission to have the song, but only with an entirely new beat. That’s where producer duo Ayo & Keyz came in. All the hoopla made the song one of ELHAE’s favorite AURA II experiences. “It’s very stressful, but at the same time, I love music. It’s really fun to crack those codes in a sense. Figure out how is this going to work out.”
“Cause I can see your aura/It's bright surrounding you/And baby its so purple/I wanna see it blue,” he sang on “Blue (Interlude),” the song that capped his Brooklyn performance after “Drama,” an infectious nod to skirting relationship theatrics, and the slinky “Otherside.” Omitted from the evening’s set list was the brilliant and breathy “Slip & Fall” featuring Eric Bellinger, a standout and the second song in the chamber since the idea for AURA II was birthed (“Advice” was first). It’s music you can make love to, if you wanted.
Right now he’s on a wave with his newest release, a sexy assemblage of moods strung together by thudding 808s and high hats, warped organs and hollowed reverb, and he doesn’t plan on taking a toe off the board while he’s riding it.
“At this point, it’s just catering to what people love from me.” Right now, people love the consistency of his singing voice, as evidenced by the nearly two million SoundCloud streams amassed by AURA II's predecessor. His voice, a polished confection of futuristic hip-hop autotune and the prodding love notes of R&B’s past, is a go-to millennial sound. It’s the same equation that made new voices like Bryson Tiller, 6lack and Tory Lanez hard to turn away from.
It’s the bridge that connects new school kids to old school sounds. He was raised on a singer’s diet of church tunes, The Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye and The Police, but was also drawn to the diverse hip-hop sounds of Pharrell, T.I., Jay Z, Talib Kweli and Mos Def. That fusion music has now become his hook, line and sinker. “I don’t want to stray away from [this]… I try to refrain from that as much as possible. I know eventually I’m gonna want to switch things up again, but I don’t think right now is the time.” He flirts with the thought of pulling an Usher or Chris Brown and veering into the pop lane down the line, but he assures that at the root of everything, his foundation will always be R&B.
ELHAE’s long-playing project All Have Fallen, released via Atlantic Records, made it to No. 19 on Billboard's R&B Albums chart. He’s clearly on to something, but knows there’s work to be done and people to reach. “We’ve yet to really tap into the markets we know we can get. We’re still building momentum, and I think AURA II is a good start of that,” he says. When ELHAE first started seeing progress on SoundCloud, he’d browse through the analytics to see where the traffic was coming from. London topped the list, followed by metropolises like L.A., Houston and New York.
Maybe his subsequent fall headlining tour will be able to touch on all the demographic pings. He’s already put out the bat signal on Instagram, asking fans for suggestions for tour stops. “I always tell my friends, it’s like my music has reached places that I’ve yet to go,” he continues. “It’s amazing to me that my voice is in the ears of African people, Australian people, Japanese. It’s ridiculous to me sometimes when I think about that. And here I am in Jonesboro, Georgia.”
Funny enough, his album release fell on the same day global masses received Kendrick Lamar's much fussed-over and record-breaking DAMN., a factoid that doesn't rattle ELHAE so much as it encourages him. "Of course I’m not on Kendrick’s status, but it puts me in the same conversation as him," he says of meshing new music mentions. "It’s a good thing for sure. Anytime you get ELHAE and Kendrick in the same tweet over and over and over and over again, I’m not mad at that. I’m not mad at that at all.”
When Jamaal Jones (as it reads on ELHAE’s birth certificate) enters a room, there’s no flash and boom, but rather a warmth about him that consumes you. Despite all the slick talking he shells out in his lyrics, he emits calm, boy-next-door vibes. It’s the kind of energy to be expected from someone raised in the suburban South.
ELHAE was born in North Dakota, but in a military kid move, eventually found a new home in Warner Robins, Ga., a small town 100 miles outside of Atlanta, with his mother, father and brother. With his roots finally planted in one of the hip-hop's hotbeds, the start of his career began to blossom. Like black moms are wont to do, Mama Jones nurtured her shy son’s singing gifts in the church. ELHAE says that while his father “sucks at singing” and his drummer brother got all the rhythm, vocals were the precious bond between him and his mother. “She was the one that kind of pushed me to the front,” he says. “Sing in the choir, telling the director, ‘Give him a lead on this song.’” Aside from the sanctuary, for a while he wouldn’t sing anywhere else but the car and the shower, where renditions of Sisqo’s “Incomplete” and Fred Hammond songs reigned supreme.
That shyness began to melt away at age 14, when he and friends Xavier Omar (then SPZRKT) and Mark “L9” Freeman formed the group, Movement of Truth. During that time, he was able to lean on his friends as he navigated the tricky beginning stages of artistry. “I learned a lot of my talents,” he says. “Being on stage and how to carry myself on stage, what not to do on stage—it was a lot of trial and error in that group for sure.” By 2010, ELHAE was ready to move from under the group’s protective shadow and into his own spotlight.
By his own admission, ELHAE’s first foray into solo life was purely shooting in the dark. “I didn’t know what my message was,” he says. “I didn’t know what I stood for. I was just a kid that wanted to do music and had good help behind me. All of us were just praying, hoping something works out.”
These scattered thoughts are audible on his 2013 Champagne Wishes, where he invested much of the puerile project’s prime real estate in rapping. “Back then, I really wanted to rap. I still do rap.” Indeed he does. There are a clever few couplets on “It’s Not A Race” and “Drama,” but more than anything else, his rapping plays the assist to his voice, his first love. “It was more about learning your strengths and your weaknesses. I’m not afraid to say—or too naïve to say—I still have very much to learn when it comes to rapping. I feel like I can put together strong verses, but I feel like at the end of the day I’m always critiquing those more over melody, song and harmony.”
Only the people there to witness his first stab at critical acclaim could foresee the degree of his glow-up. His first show as a serious solo artist was a small gig at The SoChi Gallery in Macon, Ga., bringing out a meager 40 or so people armed with cordial claps. It’s a far cry from the shows he’s been doing for the past few years for himself and in support of BJ the Chicago Kid and Blackbear’s tours. He remembers the moment he was on his way to becoming a big deal. It was a sold out London booking where the crowd was thick with nothing but women and “two or three n***as sprinkled in,” and all he could think about were the simple beginnings it all came from. “As they’re singing, you’re thinking in your head, ‘I wrote this in my bed while I had some cereal next to me or some chips or something while Family Guy was on the television,’” he recalls, amazed.
Of course the moments that inspire the music aren’t always so simple. “After I go through something traumatic,” he answers when probed about the timing of his most creative moments. “It’s easy for me to communicate those feelings because that’s kind of how I started with this whole thing. That’s like second nature to me.” Those feels, the same ones that inspired the post-breakup AURA, lead to somber tunes that occasionally raise a red flag to close friends (“If I put out a song and I’m saying some deep sh*t in it, they’re like ‘Are you good, bro?’”) but serve as open arms to listeners who can relate.
In fact, during the post-listening session meet-and-greet at the Apple Store, one unsuspecting attendee found comfort in the singer’s platonic embrace. “He had this look about him like he been through some sh*t,” he says. The “grown a** man” with the hardened façade held a small journal of poetry, which he briefly flipped through before landing on a photograph tacked to the last page. “[He said] ‘This is the girl that I write these poems about. I ain’t never cried a day in my life until I listened to your music.’ I gave him a hug, and he cried! Right then and there,” ELHAE says, marinating on the wonder of the moment. “You don’t really understand how deep that sh*t really goes for people until you get those experiences.”
For someone who just four years ago wasn’t concrete about his purpose, the pieces, like listeners to his sonic offerings, have finally began to connect.