MNEK Talks Debut Solo Album 'Language' and Creating A Blueprint For Black Gay Pop Stars

Charlotte Rutherford
MNEK

"The perspective that I come from when I sing, when I perform, is of who I am as a black gay man."

In the first track of MNEK's debut album Language, titled “Background,” the London-based singer, songwriter and producer explicitly explains the current transition of his career: “For too long I been in the background, baby,” he sings. “It’s time to step up to the front now so you can hear me out.”

For years, the 23-year-old has worked in the background for other massive artists: Madonna, Christina Aguilera (he wrote “Deserve” initially while he was in studio sessions for Beyonce’s Lemonade), Dua Lipa and even mega-successful K-pop group BTS.

“I actually worked on that the same day I worked on ‘Phone’ on my album,” MNEK said of their collaborative effort which became '낙원' -- which translates to "Paradise" -- on the phenom group's new album Love Yourself: Tear. “All of a sudden we heard a Korean version of it and were like ‘Whoa, this is a completely different song,' which was really the first time that had happened for me. That whole group is super talented and really nice and I really didn’t realize how big they were -- [their fan base] is massive.”

Now, the 23-year-old artist is hoping to build up and connect with his own fan base through the personal and relatable stories off of his new 16-track project.

Having started in the industry at 14, it’s no surprise that Language comes with the polish of a seasoned pop star. On “Correct,” MNEK turns cocky, demanding respect for the work he’s put in, and on “Phone” he spins the tale of a clingy ex into a sickly sweet bop. For “Girlfriend,” he channels classics from the late '90s and early 2000s over a sample of Quincy Jones’s “Ai No Corrida,” with quotable lyrics like “neither you nor your story’s straight.” The track is a definite stand out, as well as “Honey Phaze,” which skews more R&B, name-checking Brandy and Monica. Even the sequencing and transitions of the song are done with the finesse and panache of a consummate professional while the album itself cements the artist as a vocalist.

Billboard talked to the rising artist about the eras that influenced the sound of this album, why his most recent visuals are among his favorite, and what it’s like to create a blueprint for black gay pop stars.

Listening to this project made me think of a lot of the music I listened to growing up in the '90s and early 2000s. Was that purposeful or am I off base?

A lot of my influences were people like Mariah [Carey] and Janet [Jackson] and Alexander O’Neal and Destiny’s Child. For the sound and from the producer’s part it was [Jimmy] Jam and [Terry] Lewis, Darkchild and Pharrell and all the people I love and just making what I wanted to do out of that. Just the stuff that I grew up listening to and things of that nature. It’s a “mutt,” if you will.

Yeah I was just listening to “Girlfriend,” and there’s parts where I think it sounds like Justin Timberlake's “Cry Me A River,” and then other parts where it feels very Destiny’s Child “Say My Name.”

I think “Girlfriend” in particular is definitely one of the songs that is angled towards early 2000s, late '90s, R&B pop and those kinds of songs that were prevalent in that time. I don’t think I was conscious of those songs in particular, but I’d say I definitely wanted a song that had that kind of vibe era wise in tone and all the writing. That’s the kind of stuff I listen to now.

Speaking of the writing, I feel like this is really a narrative driven album and I’m wondering are these your own stories or just stories that might arise from being a black gay man?

It’s more so from the point of view of these are my real stories. These are my true stories. I think the only song that isn’t biographical is “Girlfriend.” I don’t think I’ve been in that before, per se, where there’s a straight guy trying to be my boyfriend. But the messages I wanted to put in the album, I wanted to put things that just made people think and that mirrored their own experiences. The perspective that I come from when I sing, when I perform, is of who I am as a black gay man. So it’s a mix of all of that together and hopefully that poses as a template for some of other, younger artists which I never had.

Not to be like the martyr or king of whatever but I’m excited about what I’m doing, and the people that I can reach.

When you’re thinking about going into the studio or even working with your label, and as you said, not having a black gay pop star blueprint, what is that like?

It’s been a process. It’s a current process that I’m figuring it out, with all this really. The conversation that I had with my label was also just that I want the chance to figure it out. I wanted the chance to make a body of work and come with the creative and all the visuals that I wanted and really give a full idea of what I was putting out there. From a personal point of view it was also about figuring out what that process was and what greater good my music could do besides being on stage and singing. I’m glad that I was at least able to touch on a few things on the album that I hope really resonate with people.

Can you share one or two of those things that were really important?

Well, I really wanted to touch on love from a male perspective. I wanted to touch on how it can be extremely complicated and at the same time it can be great. I also wanted to touch on self confidence. “Correct” is a song and an exercise for me where I’ve been able to reclaim who I am and the good that I’ve done when in real life sometimes I struggle with that. I struggle with owning what I’ve been able to achieve at a young age. So “Correct” is to lift people and make them feel comfortable with themselves so they can feel like the boss bitch that I’m trying to be on the song. I want to tell my stories with this album, but I want people to feel a part of it as well. I don’t want it to be self indulgent.

When I first saw “Correct,” I thought it was interesting that there was this play back-and-forth of ideas we’ve seen with female pop stars with ideas that we’ve seen with like male hip-hop stars. Even the lyrics, like you said, are a little more brash and cocky which is a bit hip-hop.

I wanted to make like a hip-hop video and flip it on its head to show off my personality. I thought that would be visually appealing. I really think we executed that -- me and Luke Biggins did it, and I’m really proud of that. I’m really proud of being able to do things like that. It builds my confidence and it’s all a part of me learning things about this industry. Everyone has been really positive towards it.

How important are visuals to you in the project?

100 percent super important. In the past I haven’t loved my visuals just because I wasn’t given the control I would have desired. But on the other side I really didn’t have the experience to be able to say no to things and to be able to say that with my chest. I had to realize I have to be the boss of what I’m doing and make sure this stuff is represented right. All of these directors that I’ve worked with on this stuff, they can wash their hands after they work on something else -- but that will be on my VEVO for life.

The videos from this album I’ve been so proud of, because I’ve had the input I wanted. It’s about introducing people to who I am visually and what’s in my mind.

Has there been a moment that you’ve looked back to a visual that you’ve thought was sort of quintessentially MNEK?

I’ve felt really, really passionate about the “Tongue” video. It was actually the first video that I really liked. That’s actually just the truth, it was the first video that I was excited to put out. I had never had that feeling before. It’s the same way with “Correct” as well because it’s like my co-directorial debut.

It’s fun for me. To make these videos and literally be in the editing suite choosing the shots and re-working the videos after I’ve made the song to show parts of me that I think people should see.

When you first got started in the industry, there was really no presence of openly queer black artists. But within the past six or eight years, that’s been changing. I would love to get your feelings on the overall market in terms of queerness and blackness.

There’s just a long way to go. I’m definitely a testament of it. I don’t want to blame anything on racism or homophobia, but there’s a lot of segregation that what I do comes with. I’m not necessarily wholly welcomed by the UK black community, industry-wise, because the root of that has a lot of homophobia in it. From the gay side of things, I’m a minority within that — [different than] my white counterparts — which is fine. This is all about me defining my own success and measuring however I’m doing by what I’m doing. So like, for what i’m doing, this is great. 

I’m touching people, helping people, and I’m making music I love. I like to think a lot of other black queer artists feel that way too. It has to start with that -- everything else is so variable and out of our hands and we don’t really have that much control over it. I can only hope that enough people listen to what I do and that enough people fuck with it.