Ghetto Lenny is especially unique when it comes to his organic creative process. Whether that's crafting his next collection of music or designing clothes, the skill set to execute his vision remains the same. "I approach everything the same way. If I think a shirt is incredible, I say, 'That's a hit song,'" he explains. "I'm a marketing guy at my core. If I wasn't doing music, I would still be introducing ideas on how I like branding and marketing."
Fallen, who produced almost all of GLLS, compared JHN's work ethic to that of a professional athlete's, which only inspires him to go harder. "He wants to be great," the beatmaker tells Billboard. "Every single time. Whether it’s four in the afternoon or four in the morning, that type of intensity and energy is infectious. We run through ideas upon ideas until we find something special. We're never afraid to keep searching. We want to stay excited by what we’re creating, and so we never get too caught up on one idea."
For the "Brown Skin Girl" artist to make it to music's A-list, he's going to need the proper team around him to make that happen. Enter Roc-A-Fella Records co-founder Kareem "Biggs" Burke, who signed JHN to his Circle of Success Management company earlier in 2019. Biggs believes in SAINt's ability so much that Ghetto Lenny's Love Songs is the first project he's been an integral part of in 14 years.
Take a deep dive on the rest of our interview, as SAINt JHN talks everything surrounding his second collection of songs, what stood out to him about NYFW, the impact of "Brown Skin Girl," why he loves the directness of the strip club, and much more.
Billboard: When you were put on to my radar a couple years ago, I'm stunned to find out that you're 33 now.
SAINt JHN: You made that up. You started the interview with some shit that you made up. You and I are just talking for the first time.
Well if Wikipedia made that up, that was going to lead into my first question of how does it feel to be having your moment now, after the ten years or so of grinding?
I think it takes an unbelievable amount of hours for anybody to master their craft.
The Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours.
I don't know if it's 10,000 hours necessarily because I couldn't count what it took. It's like any sport, day in and day out.
I'm more asking, with kids being thrown into the spotlight at 20 or 21, are you happy you had that time to mature as an artist?
I'm in my moment right now. This is real time. To me, it's the same thing. It doesn't matter when it happens, it's right now and your story. You still made up that part you keep trying to come back to, I recommend you drop that part.
Alright, no more of that. Onto the project, why title it Ghetto Lenny's Love Songs?
It's just the next collection I wanted to make. I make music in terms of collections. That felt like a summer collection that I wanted to introduce. I wanted to talk about love in the way that I know it and it's a little contorted.
You say you're a designer when it comes to making music.
I say I design music. I can imagine it and sort of picture it. I think about all of the things I do in the world and say that I'm designing it because it takes the same skill set. It's the same skill set to make clothes or make a car -- not saying I'm going to do that.
When was the project recorded?
I'd say over the last six months. There was another collection I was going to release last year, but it would've came out differently. It just evolved. I think everything has seasons, even romance. The spring and fall feel like a romantic time, but in the same you kind of want to be a little more selfish.
On "Wedding Day" you rap, "End up as a low life, trying to be a hero." Explain that.
I think that's where ambition takes you where I'm from. I came up from a whole lot in Brooklyn. I came from desperate circumstances. The objective might be to hope for the best and do the right thing, but sometimes it might take you down some false paths and places you shouldn't go.
How about getting A Boogie on "Monica Lewinsky?" That's an NYC affair with a title that has shock value.
His story resonates because we come from a similar place. He happened to be familiar with my music, and I love his music as well. Biggs ended up making that call. It just started with that, it's self-explanatory. I don't think much about what I want to say, I just express it and review it after. I was actually by myself when I made the record.
How did "5,000 Singles" come together?
That's my favorite ratchet record right now. That's an inspiring record. While I'm having all the models at the fitting trying on the new collection, we'll play that record. We get to see how it motivates them. It gets a reaction every time.
You told Apple Music that this collection would be played at your wedding if you married a stripper? What made you say that? Was that a fantasy you had in mind when making the project?
I just love strippers and I can't hide it. They just weasel their way into every part of when I'm thinking of something. Okay, you like the ignorance, I like the ignorance. If you want champagne spilled, I want champagne poured. You like confetti in the air, I like seeing money fly. When it's that direct, it's almost inspiring. It's like being in a theme park. We all know what we came for, and we're expecting to have a great time.
I wanted to put it into the context of me falling in love with a stripper. That would be the type of life that I want. An idea that she's not afraid to be expressive, aggressive, sometimes scandalous, or romantic. I like the strip club because it dials into that fantasy. If I got married to a stripper, that means I'd be married to someone who understands seduction. She could lead and guide me.
Are you searching for mainstream success? Do you want those major looks and Hot 100 placements?
I want to be [Michael] Jordan. You can't want to be Jordan if you don't want to be No. 1. I want to compete. There's one league, and that's the premier league. What else are we talking about? People start making new metrics up because they can't be Jordan. Same old metrics. Is it No. 1? Does it sound the greatest? Is It honest? Is it inspiring? Is it going to be here in 10 years?
Who is the Jordan of music?
There's only one.
What are we talking about then? You asked me, and you knew the answer. Anybody telling you there's a different Jordan has a different metric. Jay is Jordan. He's done things that nobody else could do. Ain't nobody hit all of the marks. Kobe is Kobe and Jordan is Jordan. You can't say Kobe is the new Jordan. Kobe is just Kobe.
What did Jay-Z mean to you as a kid growing up in Brooklyn?
He was the greatest source of inspiration. My dad wasn't actively involved in my life so I got raised by the television. Just because I could see the TV and get my inspiration direct. I got my rules of thumb right away. Watching someone like him open so many doors and do it with such integrity, that's what people miss. When you do it and it has sincere integrity, it lasts.
He says, "You was who you was before you got here." I still live by that rule. People talk to me about having a degree of success, "What are you gonna do next? You got to stay grounded." I don't got to stay grounded, I come from the soil. You're watching my elevation, but it still feels like the floor. All they're doing is lifting the first floor to the 31st for me.
I was interested to hear that a lot of your early inspirations were street rappers.
Rap is rap. You qualify street rappers, but you got to know that I'm a black kid coming out of Brooklyn. There's only rappers for me. I don't know the distinction that you're making for street rap and not. I don't come from the suburbs. I don't have to make that classification. There's people that have stories I relate to and then there are ones I don't relate to. So you having the objectivity saying that's a street rapper. I'm like, "Oh is he?" That's just a story I know.
You'd have to admit rap has been categorical.
I think there's people that focus on certain types of subjects, but you'd call Jay-Z a street rapper? So if you wouldn't respectfully call him a street rapper, then you can't respectfully call my taste street rapper. We all have stories and they bleed in different ways. He comes from the streets, but so do I. Even you listening to me, you miss all of that. You wouldn't classify [me] as a street rapper. But if you listen to the details, there's true stories. Where do you come from?
Westchester, New York.
Then everything is street rap to you. Anything a little aggressive is street rap to you then.
You've been all over for Fashion Week. Who are some of your fashion inspirations?
At the risk of sounding arrogant, I won't say [myself]. I really like old people's sense of style. They aren't buying anything new or caught up in the trend. Everything they got is authentic. They might have something from the '60s in the original Pucci print. That's inspiring to me. You see an elderly person walking to the supermarket? They're the flyest person in the world. The socks don't match the sneakers, the sneakers don't match the silk shirt or the coat, but the shit got so much spirit. Legendary shit. They've just decided who they are and they accept it. I like that.
Talk to me about your Christian Sex Club merch line.
I don't have merch. Christian Sex Club is a brand. Merch is the shit they print on Champion t-shirts. Unless you call Adidas and Nike merch?
I do not.
Cool. Put me in a classification where you put the other guys at. I want to be in a store with the big boys. You're about to see it. I'm not wrestling with anything, but my ideas are now coming to life. I didn't necessarily want to put it in stores before. E-Commerce is business to consumer and I like that it's direct. I can talk directly to whoever wants to buy from me. I like that. I don't want no middle-man.
I'm talking to people, communicating ideas, building a world out, and I don't want anybody in-between that. I associate middle-men as the people between me and my dreams. I'll put in stores now because I want to place it where people can see.
Can we get rid of consumers ordering something from an artist, but having to wait 4-6 weeks for it to ship out?
It was because we cut and sew straight from China. My brand is straight direct to consumer. I wanted to avoid the retail component of it. When I have an idea, I want it to be executed today. We need real production time. We're not screen-printing from a t-shirt that's already made and sending it to you from my homie's house in New Jersey. I sold the shirts for $15 because I wanted you to get something you wanted.
Were there any trends that stuck to you at fashion week?
I saw black people in fashion. From every corner of the stylists, to the designers, makeup artists, hairstylists, production managers, and photographers. I got to see us represented. That's incredible to watch. I went to the Fenty show, it was unbelievable. It's on a level. I don't have the words. Fuck what y'all did before, that's what it was saying. New rules.
Every time I hear new rules, I get excited because that means my ideas can live too. We can at least color it in a way we want to be represented. There's more shades in the Crayola box. The Pyer Moss was an incredible display. The African heritage was so woven into the storytelling of his designs.
With "Brown Skin Girl," I knew it was an impactful record, but being a white kid in his 20s, I didn't realize how much it meant to the community until I saw the reaction online.
It's music, though. Did you like it? Did it feel authentic? That's it then. If you don't know the language, then it doesn't have to pertain to you, but the emotion is still the same. If they sung that shit in French, I wouldn't know what the fuck they're talking about. Even if you don't know my language, you know my pain. "Brown Skin Girl" is an example of that. The story doesn't have to be your story. You're a fan of Jay-Z? Those aren't your stories, so you don't have to relate to think that's incredible. That's a story for who it belongs to, but the pain is shared.
Right, but the message does feel different when you relate.
Yes, so for people that look and feel like me, it means the world to be able to say something for our daughters. For that purpose, we have a song that we didn't have before. We got a moment and a champion cry. Think about what we talked about, before getting to Beyonce and Blue Ivy and The Lion King. That's a great script with the best possible cast. That's a hit.
When you look at the response to it, it tells you how needed it was. It's like people were waiting. It was that level of support. I started in Jamaica. It's the first song I sent to my mom. I came back to America and Beyoncé heard what I had done, and she does what great artists do: they make good things better.
What's up next for you this year?
Tour. The collection is out, I got the No. 10 song Shazam song in the world. Last year wasn't like that before. My plan is to turn good to great. I'm gonna release my next collection of clothes. I was in a group home as a kid, and I want to give the sneaker we're designing to the kids on tour so I can touch real people and impact them. I had Jay-Z do it for me from the TV screen, but I want to take it closer than that. I'm the 11-year-old version of myself in my head everyday, and I'm selling to him.