It has been a whirlwind couple of years for Jelani Blackman. Despite a personal contribution to music throughout most of his life, it was the release of his successful debut single ‘Twenty//Three’ in 2016 that caught the attention of the public, catapulting him into a new sphere of intrigue and creating a demand for more material.
Considering Jelani himself only considered a career in music “a couple of years ago” following the swift success of his debut release, since then, the genre-based enigma has carefully dissected his next moves, culminating in 5-8 – the sequel to his debut EP 1-4.
Jelani spoke to Viper Mag about his career thus far, the issues with defining his sound and staying focused on a career moving at a brisk pace.
We’re talking ahead of your first headline show; how are you feeling about that achievement and is there anything, in particular, you want to convey to your audience through your live shows?
“I want to let them know that I appreciate the feeling – the energy is going to be mad tonight – I’m gassed. I’m just ready. [Performing] live is my favourite thing to do, I like writing a lot but for me, it’s [all about performing] live. It’s like making the music again with people there, it’s amazing, I love it. So, I want people to leave the same way I’m going to feel on stage”.
I know you’ve said that some of your musical influences are the likes of Lauryn Hill, Dizzee Rascal, Ella Fitzgerald and John Coltrane, but because of your interesting sonic direction/beat selection, I’m curious to know who some of your favourite producers are.
“In terms of the scope of what he’s done, I think Kanye West has to be up there for me. As a producer, I feel like he kind of revolutionised how people were making Hip Hop and it made a difference to my experience of music. At the time College Dropout came out I was… I was young, so it had a big impact on me, so seeing how he developed as a producer, I think – more than specific producers – that kind of attitude toward production where it’s used as a tool to express more than just a beat, it’s about expressing what you want to convey as an artist. I like Mike Will. I feel like he moved on from what Dark Child started with Destiny’s Child”.
You’ve recently released 5-8 – the continuation of your debut EP 1-4; how do you think the response has been to its release?
“Good, it’s been nice. There have been two sides to it; new people that didn’t know about my music before and that have seen this as the first thing that I’ve done, which has been interesting, and then people that have come and feel like it’s been the perfect follow-up to 1-4. It was a while ago that I did 1-4, so I think even if people were waiting, by this point, some people would have lost all hope that [5-8] was ever coming, because that’s what people are like, so I think some people were relieved and happy. And the music, even if I say so myself, is good. I spent a lot of time on it, and I think that if [5-8] is the first introduction to me as an artist, you’ll be like, ‘Cool, I can fuck with this’, and if it isn’t, it’s sort of reignited what you were listening to before. I hope it doesn’t take that long again to do the next thing… which it won’t!”
Do you have any personal expectations for 5-8?
“No. It will do what it does, I’m just happy to have music out”.
How different was the process when making 5-8 compared to 1-4?
“It was more considered. 1-4 was just the first four songs and 5-8 is the next four songs, but they’re closer [to what I’m trying to do] but not quite that yet. But it was more considered, I was like, ‘Where does it go from here?’. It was also trying to get out the last parts of my… I feel like I’m kind of done with that stage of my development”.
Were you conscious of trying to sound different on 1-4 compared to 5-8?
“I approached them as two completely separate things. It was the place that I was at and I kind of drew on some stuff but I really tried to not think about 1-4. I didn’t think, ‘This is going to be the Twenty//Three of 5-8’ – I didn’t do that, [5-8] is its own thing, I think. And I think that’s why it still fits into the category of that part of my development because it was another four songs independent of the last four songs”.
You released 1-4 through record label Quality Time relatively early in your career; with the on-going debate surrounding working with labels vs working independently, how do you feel the relationship with a record label affected your situation?
“I think I was lucky that it wasn’t a high-pressure deal or anything like that. It was fully about developing and it wasn’t like a ‘We want this, we want this, we want this’. And, for me, I needed space to be able to make music and a platform to put it out and that support. My music doesn’t really come from a particular genre to have an already established fanbase. I’m not a Grime artist and can put it on a Grime channel and know people are going to pick it up. I kind of needed it to put out on a bigger scale”.
Do you feel like the more successful you become, the more pressure will be introduced into your thinking?
“Yeah, but that will be more from me than anything else. I’m always harder on myself than anyone could ever be”.
People have termed your music as “genre-less” and naturally, people like to be able to define things as a tool of understanding; so do you think that inability to define you as an artist in a particular genre will be to your advantage or detriment?
“So far it’s been a thin line between the two. I’m good a quite a few things, so if I just decided that I wanted to do one thing, I could have been in a completely different position in a specific type of genre, but that’s not me. And also, if I did that, that would be disingenuous. I don’t think that would be me as an artist and I think that’s something that people struggle with, but it makes me, me”.
Do you have any fears with regard to your music career?
“I’m alright, I’m me, regardless. Music is what I do and I love it, but I’m me, so I have no worries about my career. It’s different to a lot of careers – the more you worry about music the harder it is to do it. I think the more you stress the harder it gets”.
Obviously, you’ve worked with other artists, but not on your own songs. Is that something you’ve been doing behind the scenes?
“Maybe… Yeah, yeah. [Working with other artists is] good, I’m just quite picky, I don’t know. I feel like it’s one thing to feature on someone else’s song because they can bring you to their vibe, but, it’s quite difficult to jump on a song that I’ve done because—”
I imagine it’s quite difficult for you to pick artists that would suit one of your songs?
“Yeah, one hundred percent, because [my songs] don’t really sit in a really obvious place, but that’s not to say that [the artists] aren’t out there”.
“Nah. They exist but they don’t exist yet”.
What are your future plans?
“I think the next thing is going to be… Maybe not an album, but definitely songs. A full-length, the whole thing”.