Jeremih: The Black Knight

Meaghan Garvey goes deep with the elusive singer.

The set of Wild ‘N Out is Flowerbomb-scented, bronzer-dusted mayhem, and at any given point, Jeremih appears to be the calmest person in the room. Cast members of the improv comedy series — all oppressively hot, with futuristic footwear and Michelangelo-level contouring — sprawl over greenroom couches and dance to “March Madness.” Timbaland, Kehlani, and Yo Gotti snake through the crowd on their way to the set. At one point I note: “Huh. That old dude looks like Jay Leno.” Fifteen minutes later, Jay Leno is onstage, filming a sketch about a ratchet dating show. Jeremih’s sound-checking for his performance in a few minutes. He pauses for a second to consider whether to do “Don’t Tell ‘Em,” his familiar double-platinum single released in 2014, or “Pass Dat,” a slow-burning favorite off December’s Late Nights (even Thugger’s a fan). “Pass Dat” wins.

For now, Jeremih’s shooting floaters at the greenroom Pop-A-Shot hoop with his longtime friend Chi (as in Chicago), who’s at his side constantly. His game is decent, but he’s more of a Phil Jackson than a Michael Jordan anyway. Exhibit A: “Feel Like Phil,” Late Nights’s sleeper hit, and the final song he recorded for the album (done only a couple days before the album's surprise release). “Being a Chicago head and watching the Bulls win — of course they [had] Mike,” he explains back in his trailer, hovering over a sandwich tray for which he’s requested extra mustard. “‘Course they had Pippen, Rodman, key players, but they’re winning because of Phil’s plays! And I feel like the reason why I’m still here is because of plays that I made, without anybody. And when I make the calls, that’s when things work.”

Late Nights dropped just over two months ago. It's an album more than three years in the making and his best work to date. Over the course of its agonizingly drawn-out gestation, the album wedged a song into the top 10 of the Hip-Hop/R&B Songs chart in 2014 (“Don’t Tell ‘Em”), 2015 (“Planes”), and 2016 (“Oui”). “Planes” is up for a Grammy for Best R&B Performance. But as always with Jeremih, it’s a slow build. His inner Phil plays the long game; he’s a firm believer in perfect timing. It’s a virtue that governs his Late Nights universe, one he introduced on 2012’s cult classic mixtape and has been perfecting since: his utopian world whose slinky orbit manages to bypass all daylight hours. And with Late Nights still sinking into the collective consciousness, he’s already gearing up to release the final installment of what is now understood as a trilogy: Later That Night. Some of its songs were recorded around the time of Late Nights, some are newer, but as ever, he won’t know its final form until the last minute. Though he can say that this batch sounds distinctly like “4 a.m.”

But first there are loose ends to be tied. He has yet to make a video for any of Late Nights’s songs — platinum-certified, Grammy-nominated, or not. Kindred spirit and favored collaborator Ty Dolla $ign — perhaps Jeremih’s only peer in club-driven R&B from a studio rat background — has been bugging him to shoot the “Impatient” video. But it’s nothing new: There’s been a mysterious disconnect between the voice we’ve heard on the radio, ever since WGCI debuted “Birthday Sex” in 2008, and the man himself. “I would feel a way about it if it didn’t work for me,” he admits. “‘Birthday Sex’ was out for seven months before people knew that it wasn’t The-Dream, it wasn’t R. Kelly. When people didn’t know me, they were just going off the music. Which is what it should be about.”

By now, everyone knows the voice — an airy, translucent falsetto, known to swerve into rap-inspired rhythmic experiments — but most still don’t know much about the 28-year-old man behind it. And yet, in spite of his unshakable mystique, Jeremih continues to win: in his own work and behind the scenes, penning hits for Nicki Minaj, Rae Sremmurd, Rihanna. He can’t quite tell if it’s a gift or a curse yet. “It’s amazing that this even happened: I’m not sure about the rest of the songs on the Grammy ballots, but I’m pretty sure most Grammy-nominated R&B songs have music videos,” he says. “But the curse is, me going up there and them saying my name wrong. And they might have said it a little better if I had made myself more visible.” He’s in part referring to last year’s Soul Train Awards, when BET spelled his name wrong in a since-deleted tweet. He laughs about it now — “How could they @ me and still say ‘Jeremiah’? Is someone getting paid to do this shit?” — but it’s obvious he took the error personally.

It’s Jeremih’s essential paradox: persistent unknowability in the face of skyrocketing fame. For a moment, he fantasizes about going to the club solo to remember how it feels; the singer confesses he hasn’t been alone, by himself, in months. Sometimes he tries to go out unnoticed, hoodie up, but “when I try not to look like myself, that’s when I get noticed the most. That’s when people think I look most like myself. It’s almost like a black knight” — and here’s where Jeremih, the whiz kid who graduated high school a year early thanks to exhaustive achievement, shows himself. I’m hit with a wall of non-memories of Arthurian lore, having slept through most of English lit, and admit I have no idea what he means. He cracks a knowing smile.

“OK. The black knight would come to Camelot, not only to win the daughter’s heart eventually, but you know those horse games, where they knock the head off the horseman? Straight up! He’ll knock the head off the horseman and keep galloping on. Nobody ever knew the black knight. He just was notoriously known to come and make a killing. People praised him for his greatness, and of course the king’s daughter is interested, but she’s being forced to marry someone else. And the black knight comes in Camelot and wows everybody, and then he leaves.”

So what happens at the end?

“The black knight, at the end, has always had to be unmasked,” he explains. “He always had to take off the helmet one day. It’s like the phantom of the opera, you had to unmask him. And right now, people are still in the stages of unmasking me. A lot of people don’t know how I talk. They don’t know how to say my name right. They don’t know a lot of the shit that is me, underneath the helmet.”

The winds are changing, though, and Jeremih can feel it. If 2015 was a rebuilding year, 2016 is the year of reaping what he’s sown: Late Nights in the rearview, a Grammy nom, a gang of needling contracts near fulfillment. “I hit the reset button this year,” he says. “At the end of the year on social media, I reset my whole shit. The only pictures are the Late Nights cover, because that’s the only thing I damn near wanna see. I don’t wanna see no old pictures or old memories. I even bought new whips, I got new houses, here in L.A. and in Chicago. Let me get rid of all that old bacteria.”

It’s not too often that Chicago stars keep a foot planted in the city after they blow up, but Jeremih's 3-year-old son is there, so he’s back practically every week. He misses bits and pieces of his hometown when he’s gone: the take-no-shit attitude (“I’m used to a woman that talks back to me a certain way, that calls me a goofy when I know I’m being one”), the hole-in-the-wall Italian beef and gyro spots. But if he’s honest, he feels lighter out here in L.A., untethered by expectations and the weight of history. “It always grounds me when I come home and see my son and my fam, but when I’m out here, I feel more at ease,” he admits. “When I’m at home, I feel like I’m giving and I’m not creating. Every day is a depletion, and out here, I feel like I’m being replenished.” Besides, masks are no good around people you’ve known your whole life.

But before he was Jeremih, the black knight with the golden voice, he was Jeremih Felton, a precocious, restless creative who grew up on 109th and Loomis and fell in love with the church choir on Sundays. His childhood activities read like a gifted and talented school’s entire extracurricular program: “Rehearsals, all-city choirs, youth choruses, playing the keys, saxophone,” he rattles off. “Any type of percussion, from Latin jazz band to concert band to marching band, where I played in the all-drum section. Congas, timbales, snare, bass drum … ” Consciously or not, it all shows up in his vocals today: His delivery feels as boldly percussive as today’s most cutting-edge rap, softened with an innate sense of melody. “Once I learned how to play the keys, it went with every instrument I’ve ever learned — once you learn what middle C is, everything relates. So, long story short, if you combine melodies from the piano, and flow from the percussion, that’s probably who I am.” He’s got a grand piano on its way to his new house right now, red to match the couch.

More focused on musicianship, Jeremih didn’t fully tap into his singing abilities until he was about 16, around the time he graduated from high school and began attending Chicago’s Columbia College. (“I was able to skip my junior year. They were like, Yo, you good, you been in everything.”) There, he met Mick Schultz, the rare freshman with his own makeshift studio just down the street on Michigan Avenue. Jeremih had been focusing on production himself, but since Schultz was a producer, he began to explore his writing abilities more deeply. The two unassumingly came up with a little ditty called “Birthday Sex,” and the rest is history: Def Jam deal, two studio albums, each led by a platinum single. But something was off. He felt trapped within his comfort zone; Schultz and Jeremih co-wrote those first two albums.

“We did a great job in bringing out the best in each other,” he says. “But once I got out of that shell I was in, I began to figure myself out. And that’s what I’ve been doing these past few years: my sound, what I’m capable of doing, who I’m capable of doing it with. Late Nights, the mixtape, was right after I got rid of my very first manager and had broken up with my longtime girlfriend, and the mother of my child. Unintentionally, Mick didn’t produce anything on the tape — I only thought about it afterwards. But it was proving to myself what I could do on my own, because people were always telling me what I couldn’t do.” When Jeremih and Schultz finally linked again — on “Paradise,” Late Nights's closing track and most stunning moment, it was the best thing they’d ever done.

As he’s come fully into his own and proved his greatness over the course of the Late Nights trilogy, it’s clear what’s on the horizon: Soon Jeremih will have to be unmasked. He wouldn’t say he’s excited for it, exactly, but he’s ready — if there’s anything he knows, it’s timing. He’s got a week in the studio, putting what could be the finishing touches on Later That Night, and then he’s off to tour Australia after the Grammys. I ask what he’ll do if he wins. “Probably just stop being Jeremih. Like, yeah, I did it, pick something else to be great at.” He’s laughing mischievously, and I can’t tell if some part of him is serious, but I believe him: He's the black knight riding in, slaying, and leaving without a trace.