Magazine Feature

Jeremih on Pleasing His Hardcore French Fans With Hit 'Oui' and His Complicated Relationship With Def Jam

Meredith Truax 

The Chicago R&B hitmaker, 28, lands his sixth entry on the Hot 100.

Jeremih's done a lot of things -- but he's never made the same song twice. The Chicago R&B hitmaker has recently been flexing his range with radio hits "Don't Tell 'Em," "Planez," and now "Oui," a bubbly, sweet song that stands out from much of his often bedroom-oriented fare. The track is currently at No. 48 on the Hot 100, and No. 6 on Hip-Hop/R&B airplay. To celebrate, Jeremih spoke with Billboard about what it was like making his latest hit, the long-delayed Late Nights: The Album, and how he learned French in the first place.

"Right now the world classifies me as an R&B singer, so I'll take it," Jeremih tells Billboard of his unique catalog. One thing's certain -- in the wake of his third studio album, all Jeremih's thinking about is what's next.

Jeremih to Def Jam Records: 'Y'all Don't Even Deserve My Voice'

"Oui" is so much more romantic than most of your bigger singles -- where did that come from?
"Oui" was a little different, as far as the creative process behind it. It was honestly just inspired off of the production. Shout out to Needlz, who actually produced it. I had been sitting on that beat for the longest -- for like a couple months. One day, I just pulled it up in the studio. It was a beautiful day in L.A., it was early, and it was just one of those...I knew what I already had for Late Nights, as far as other records and the emotions that I wanted to tap into, but I also felt like it was the heartfelt record that was missing. Even when I had no idea what it was going to be titled or how I was going to approach it, the beat helped inspire the love-oriented, heartfelt record that it would become.

Do you speak French at all?
I took about four or five years of French in high school, but I definitely don't speak French as well as I thought I did then [laughs]. When I first visited France, a little while after I dropped "Birthday Sex," just the response from them...all through Europe, but more particularly, France. Paris, France is where I have my biggest, my hardcore fans -- they don't mistake me for no one. People know who I am. Not that people don't know me anywhere else, but there, there's no question. I hoped that titling it what I did would mean something to all my fans out there.

You’ve been writing for artists like Kanye West and Nicki Minaj -- do you usually do it in the studio or elsewhere?
When I first got signed, I used to literally pick up a pen and pad. Write bars in my notes, even whole songs. Nowadays, I just go off the feeling. James Brown said it best: “If it feels good and it sounds good, then it’s [musical].” If it feels good, it’s all good.  

If you could do a new song with anyone you've already worked with, who would you work with again?
If it were right now, knowing that the summer's coming up, and the wave that I've been on, I feel like it would be Ty Dolla $ign. We haven't really been in the lab. Just knowing musically where he is -- for the state of R&B, and for this summer -- I think we'd be able to put up another top-charting record. If we actually put our heads together, we could give the people something to party to for the rest of the year.

Jeremih Celebrates Release of 'Late Nights: The Album' In New York City: Live Review

You think you can go up against Drake? He says he has summer '16 on lock.
You know, it's crazy. I've still never collaborated with Drizzy. You know, in his world, he'll have it locked for 2016 but in my world, so will I.

How do you feel about the December 2015 rollout of Late Nights?
The rollout was no rollout. It was kind of what I'd classify as the perfect ghetto rollout. To be out on Christmas Eve at Target and Walmart, doing my last minute shopping that I do every year, it just kind of sucked to go to these huge places where people buy music and not see a single Jeremih album on any shelf in Chicago. I can only imagine outside of the States, I wouldn't think it would be there either. I went out and actually tried to purchase my own album and it wasn't there.

However, as of yesterday, I saw a little post saying Jeremih's Late Nights album has had a top 10 record each year from 2014, 2015, and now 2016 off the album. At the end of the day, the streets let me know what it is, the people let me know what it is, and at this point, the only person who can stop what's going on with me and my music is God. I can't blame anyone else -- I can just continue to be the best me and give my fans what I feel like they deserve. Just to know each year that there was a top 10 record, it's an honor that the album still made noise without really getting the proper noise it needed to make.

You've said that this was your last album with Def Jam. Is that true?
Technically, yes. It was my last with an option. I won't slander anybody's role or position, but I would think after a horrible rollout, that whoever rolled that album out didn't really care, that they would want to release not only me but the products that I make [as well]. Unfortunately, they had an option [to extend] after this last album, and they granted it. They actually didn't want to release me. Here I am, like, “Why won't y'all release me if you're just going to throw it out like y'all just did?” But as long as my fans are there, I'm good.

How The Beatles (Sorta) Inspired 'Paradise' on Jeremih's 'Late Nights: The Album'

What do you listen to for inspiration?
Of course I keep my ear out for the new wave on SoundCloud. But I listen to whoever got something out that sounds dope -- that feels good. There's no classifications to me. I went out to a club last night -- went to a little bar, and there were records that were pop/soul/disco-leaning that I'm a fan of. I actually had to Shazam it because it was something I knew I'd listen to. It was a new rock band actually -- I was like, this is rock'n'roll? But it actually had a little soul influence. There's nothing that I wouldn't listen to, but right now I'm listening to Future, I'm listening to Drizzy, I still listen to old Sam Cooke, Bob Marley -- it just depends on how I feel that day. I just like to continue to incorporate different flows and cadences with melodies over whatever. Right now the world classifies me as an R&B singer, so I'll take it.

Is "Oui" about anyone in particular?
It's about my future wifey. I haven't met her yet. It’s actually incomplete -- I was going to add something on the bridge part, over the Shai reference, but I didn't get a chance to go back to the studio to put anything over it. But I couldn't come up with anything that would complement it, without just being simple. It's just a love song I wrote that hopefully everybody can relate to, and not think that it’s too cheesy or corny.

As far as the title, I could have titled it anything. I want to say there were other ideas, like, "There's no we without you and I" -- just trying to be a little more creative. Often, it's the little things, like the title of a song, that can make a huge difference in its success. I think that's almost the case with "Oui" -- when I hear people announce it on the radio, like, "Oh, Jeremih's coming up with ooo-weee," -- people really don't know how to say the word. I feel like at the same time, it's always good to teach the world new things every day. If people never knew what "oui" meant, or that "oui" was a French word that meant yes, or that you can actually say “oui” without the letters u and i, then hopefully I helped them realize that, and they can just continue to rock with me.

I still have that problem to this day [of people mispronouncing his name], but it just lets me know that I've got a lot more to do that I've got to get to doing.

A portion of this story originally appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of Billboard.