'I Only Blame Myself': Is Reclusive R&B Singer Jeremih Holding Back His Own Career?
Fifty-two different songs have reached the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 in 2014. Only one of them doesn't have an official music video: Jeremih's "Don't Tell 'Em."
"I blame myself," the singer says, sitting on the rooftop of West Hollywood hotel Palihouse. "I had a video scheduled. I just didn't show up to it because of..." he trails off, declining to elaborate. "I'm not going to point my finger at somebody else at this point."
Jeremih is one of R&B's most reclusive hitmakers, but also one of its most talented, with three top 10s on the Hot 100 and 18 hits on the R&B/hip-hop charts during his career, including 2009 breakout "Birthday Sex" and "Hold You Down," the DJ Khaled R&B posse cut featuring him, Chris Brown, Future and August Alsina (No. 15 on the Nov. 29 Hot 100). "Don't Tell 'Em" peaked at No. 6 on the Hot 100 and topped Hot R&B Songs for 12 weeks. (Lorde even covered it in a recent radio performance.) So why does he still go unrecognized when he walks down the street?
"When you can count on your hands how many videos you've done in your career, when you've never performed your hits on TV, something's not right," admits Jeremih Felton, 27. "Everyone always wants to say I'm shy. I don't think so, but there's a disconnect with my fans. I want my fans to see me -- that's what they never do."
Adding to the mystery, his third set, Late Nights: The Album, which "Don't Tell 'Em" precedes, keeps getting delayed. It was pushed back to Nov. 4 from Sept. 30, which would have lined up well with the Oct. 25 Hot 100 peak of "Don't Tell 'Em" (it's No. 10 on the Nov. 29 chart), but the new date has come and gone as well. The LP doesn't have a confirmed street date. Jeremih cites mixing and mastering problems, and says the likely second single, "Planes," had sample and guest clearance issues, with J. Cole replacing Chance the Rapper.
But he also points to Def Jam. "My label is hesitating and not being on my side," he says. "I see other artists and how they're supported. It's hard when I'm on a roster with Rihanna, Rick Ross and Kanye West." (Def Jam declined to respond to his allegations.)
Jeremih says he's ultimately responsible for his stutter-steps, explaining that he was consumed by a court battle with his child's mother while "Don't Tell 'Em" was rising. "I stopped caring about being Jeremih over the last few months," he says. "A lot of people don't know I have a 2-year-old son. His mom wasn't allowing me to see him, and it was messing with me. I was internally unbalanced. But I just got out of that trial and I won."
Still, new drama, this time more public, arose as soon as old matters subsided. Jeremih and his touring entourage are reportedly under investigation by police for causing $700 worth of damage to a Fuddrucker's restaurant in Billings, Mont., on Nov. 5. Police claim the singer's crew threw beer bottles when a manager intervened after a 17-year-old female employee complained about the group flirting with her. Charges haven't been filed, but a local radio station, KRSQ, is banning Jeremih's records. The singer didn't respond to Billboard's requests for comment after the accusations, but on Twitter he blamed the "unfortunate incident" on racism.
The uproar is out of character for the self-described "lover" who was raised in Chicago by his single mother in a house full of women -- "so I'm not going to treat any of my ladies wrong." He excelled musically at a young age, teaching himself drums, piano and sax. "I got my first set of drums when I was around 3. I went from band to marching band to Latin jazz band -- it's like riding a bike."
Jeremih, now based in Chicago and Los Angeles, signed with Def Jam in 2009 after an audition for then-label head Antonio "L.A." Reid, and quickly took off with "Birthday Sex" from his self-titled debut. His second set, 2010's All About You, produced "Down on Me," featuring 50 Cent, which hit No. 4 on the Hot 100. But today, Jeremih criticizes his earlier smashes, which featured Auto-Tune and straight-ahead commercial R&B productions. "It never felt right," he says. "'Down on Me' can't showcase my true talent. 'Birthday Sex' was robotic. When I perform it, I can't give you this church feeling I know I can give."
Dissatisfied with the kind of star he was becoming, Jeremih retreated. He released two free mixtapes and teamed with Shlohmo, an indie electronic producer, for the 2014 No More EP, impressing critics and the Pitchfork crowd. Jeremih wasn't inspired to return to making his own hits until a song he co-wrote, Kid Ink's "Show Me" (featuring Brown), caught on. "The day I wrote 'Don't Tell 'Em' was the day 'Show Me' went No. 1" on the Rap Airplay chart, says Jeremih. "It was like, 'Can you believe the song I helped on went No. 1?' Let me make my own.' "
Late Nights, which the singer describes as "clatchet" -- that's classy ratchet -- grew from there, and Jeremih vows it will be the first true showcase of his talents. "It took me five years to realize what I could do with my voice," he says. "No Auto-Tune -- cut all that off."
Jeremih insists he's determined to boost his visibility, video or not. In May, he appeared on VH1's Love & Hip-Hop Atlanta, and a tour with French Montana for 10 North American dates starts in December. In October, Jeremih starred in a Nissan Sentra commercial, perhaps his biggest look yet.
"I want to show some skin now," he says. "Over the next few months, if you don't hear about me, something's wrong."
Additional reporting by Gail Mitchell.
This article first appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of Billboard.