Jeremih has been almost famous for the past five years. But with another radio smash and an upcoming album for the streets and the sheets, he’s ready to join R&B’s elite class. It’s better late than never.
Story and Photos by Stacy-Ann Ellis
Jeremih’s fifth-floor suite at the Dream Hotel has turned into a makeshift karaoke spot. Next to a bag of grapes and a half-empty Cîroc bottle on a countertop, there’s a MacBook playing unfinished tracks from his next project, Late Nights: The Album. Singing along, so loud that it breaches the hallways, his three friends from back home in Chicago—Sayyi, T. Taylor and Chi Hoover—match every riff and harmony. Jeremih lumbers into the room, wearing all black, accented by a gold rope chain and diamond Rolex. It’s mid-August and the singer is in New York doing promo for Late Nights, which arrives on October 7 via Def Jam.
He dances for a minute and then stops in front of an LCD flat screen. Singing the familiar notes, he starts critiquing the material and asks his crew if he should tweak this, swap that. The finished project has to be packed and sealed, yet he’s still making last minute adjustments. From the furrows in his brow, you can tell he’s jotting down mental notes. He knows he’s good, but all he can think about is getting better.
After almost five years of tiptoeing around the periphery of the spotlight, Jeremih still hasn’t stepped directly into it. An extension of his 2012 mixtape of the same name, Late Nights: The Album is his chance to align with a more visible constellation of stars. To say he’s the next R. Kelly is a stretch, but the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. This is especially true, given his self-contained music background—he plays the drums, saxophone and piano.
Part of the wave of late-2000s artists who branched out from the Pied Piper’s family tree (The-Dream, J. Holiday), Jeremih is the only one who’s been a mainstay as an artist. His rhythmic-robotic earworms have earned him consistent airplay, guest features and a fond fan base. After the career-catapulting “Birthday Sex,” a soundtrack to bedroom shenanigans, he dropped the 50 Cent-assisted “Down On Me,” which went double platinum, his biggest single to date. But none of it made him a household name. “He’s a quiet assassin,” says Def Jam A&R Sickamore. “This album is going to show people that Jeremih is not a fluke. He’s not a flash in the pan. He’s not a guy who just comes with a hit record every few years.”
Ripe, at 27, Jeremih should be queued up and ready to snag Kellz’s baton, but he’s been keeping his distance from the possibility. “I want to show people all of me, because that’s what I haven’t been doing,” he admits. “To be able to play so many instruments and no one’s ever seen me play, it seems like someone who’s bluffing. R. Kelly is one of the pioneers that I grew up listening to. If he’s classified as an R&B artist, then I want to be like that. I don’t want to have limits either.”
The Late Nights lead single, “Don’t Tell ‘Em,” produced by Mick Schultz and R&B’s current go-to beatsmith DJ Mustard, steadily worked its way up from a party playlist bullet point to snagging the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop chart. The same day Jeremih wrote it, another song that he co-penned—Kid Ink’s “Show Me”—also topped that chart. Taking notes from what’s hot in the streets, Jeremih crafted the new LP to appease ears that crave his rap-n-B mash-up niche. “Planes” (his dirty-talking second single featuring J. Cole), “Dumptrucks” and “There You Go” are all slow-grind, while “You and I” and “Gotdamn” are more party than bed sheet appropriate. His decision to pull from a pool of 2014’s hit-makers is likely to spawn more radio contenders and bottle popping anthems.
Late Nights is the first time Jeremih worked with other producers outside of Mick Shultz (Vinylz, DJ Spinz, Phonix and Needlz all lend their handiwork). But “Don’t Tell ‘Em” reflects the West Coast sound that’s taken over R&B, thanks to L.A. producers like DJ Mustard (Ty Dolla Sign’s “Paranoid”) and NicNac (Chris Brown’s “Loyal”). If you listen to “Birthday Sex,” though, it’s clear that Jeremih was an early adopter of that style. He isn’t naive to the fact that the party-curated genre has a timestamp.
“Turn-up R&B is a wave. Right now, we’ve got the perfect blend of hip-hop and R&B. Everything has been unified,” says Jeremih, who considers Trey, The Weeknd and August Alsina his closest competition. “I think the L.A. sound got so big because when you have people from Atlanta and New York chilling in L.A., it’s hard not to go to a club and not have a record that’s hot. It made me wanna have one myself ’cause I was like, man, I like this feeling.”
On the album, which Jeremih likens to a “big ass king bed in the middle of Supper Club L.A.,” he upped the ante topically, catering specifically to what women want. “I don’t want to say people were disappointed with my first album, but I noticed that the ladies wanted more,” he says. “The songs that people still tweet me about are the songs that cater to the ladies, that we’re making love to and that we’re out dancing to in the club. I wanted to give my fans a body of that instead of scattered pieces so they’ll ride to the whole thing and not skip a song.”
“We really wanted to make an album that represented what goes on from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.,” says Sickamore. “The album sounds like that—like nighttime. It’s a sexy album. It’s a slow album. You feel like it’s about that time.”
Jeremih and his crew have relocated to a brightly lit rec room a couple blocks from his hotel, prepping for a publicity shoot. As the photographer and her assistant test the lighting, everyone is on chill mode. Sayyi is engaged in an intense Ping-Pong battle with one of the three young women who strolled in. Jeremih’s manager, Dilla, hovers over a MacBook on a kitchenette counter with T, playing Late Nights tracks. Jeremih is hunched over a pool table, talking smack to Chi Hoover, betting money that he’ll sink the shot. He carefully lines up the pool cue and launches it forward, sinking the ball. “Bam, give me my ten!” he yells. Chi shakes his head. “Man, that was the white ball. You lost.” Jeremih laughs off the small defeat. He’s betting on a bigger victory with Late Nights. “I’m pretty sure it’s my best work yet,” he says. Pretty sure.
“If it came down to it, I wish people heard different records from me that I know give you a soul R&B sound of music that I know is really my gift, gift,” he says. “But the ones that usually go are the records that radio, the fans and the clubs really love the most. The ones that I know are deep down Chicago-driven records that I haven’t released yet? I have them on the side.”
That hidden soulful side is all Chicago—109th Street on the South Side to be specific. His mother fostered a musical background for her son, whether it was buying drums and a piano to stop him from “breaking all the shit around the crib,” letting him fall asleep to classical tunes or playing him playlists in utero. “My mom told me she always had a pair of headphones on her stomach,” says Jeremih. Exposure to hometown heroes like R. Kelly, Kanye West and Common also shaped his sound. “The crib influenced my whole style of music,” he says. “How I come at a record, my lingo, how I talk and the people I kick it around. It’s just the culture to me.” If things go his way with Late Nights, all that flavor he claims to have been bottling up for so long should be mild sauce potent to listeners on October 7.
Finished shooting the shit, Jeremih parts ways with the pool table and takes his place on the marked spot in front of the rapid fire of flashing lights, stunner shades in tow. YG’s thunderous “BPT” booms in the background, amping Jeremih up as the photographer guides his steps with ego-stroking direction. “Chin down,” she commands. “Hunch your shoulders like that again. Oh, and that smirk? One more time. You’re a natural.”
After much trial and error, his stride is a little closer to confident. “Five or six years ago, I was letting my career be handled by other people,” he says of navigating the industry as a freshman. “Would I have changed something? No. But I stopped giving a fuck about anybody’s feelings.”