For a 19-year-old who shares management with One Direction, MNEK uses a lot of very specific late-’80s and early-’90s references to describe his as-yet-untitled debut album, set for a September release on Cherrytree/Interscope. “If [Jimmy] Jam & [Terry] Lewis threw a house party, then invited George Michael, Janet [Jackson] and Peabo Bryson, that would be my album,” the Londoner says.
As a central part of the deep-house revival that’s all over the U.K. charts and quickly taking hold in EDM-hungry America, MNEK has been a guest vocalist on high-impact tracks by Duke Dumont (“Hold On” and the Grammy Award-nominated “Need U 100”), Rudimental (“Baby”) and Gorgon City (“Ready for Your Love”). The lattermost scored him a booking on BBC Radio 1’s “Live Lounge” and recently debuted at No. 4 on the U.K. singles chart. He’s also been collaborating with Disclosure, Diplo and Clean Bandit for their upcoming projects, and wrote and produced new songs for U.K. pop acts like Little Mix, Becky Hill, Javeon and former Sugababes members Mutya Kiesha Siobahn. Kylie Minogue even selected the MNEK-produced “Feels So Good” — a remake of the song “Indiana” that he cut with garage-pop singer/songwriter Tom Aspaul last year — for her forthcoming album “Kiss Me Once,” due in March.
Whether working with others or for himself, MNEK’s songs are the kind one would hear on an album from Black Box, Soul II Soul or Cathy Dennis — full of big-belted vocals, sentimental lyrics and throwback dancefloor beats. And he’s constantly making more of them, too — largely at Major Tom Studios in London’s Hackney borough, where Rudimental held its “Home” sessions, but also at studios in Los Angeles.
“He’s a seven-days-a-week guy,” says Modest! Management’s Will Bloomfield, the day-to-day manager of One Direction, who has guided MNEK’s career since the artist was 14. “He’s been doing a tour recently with [Radio 1 DJ] Annie Mac and he’ll be out all night, then go back to the studio at five in the morning.”
So how did the boy born Uzoechi Osisioma Emenike in London’s Lewisham borough come to discover the brilliance of songs released before he was alive? “It’s the music I grew up with,” he says. “My mum was a big fan of Whitney [Houston] and all the big diva vocalists, and whenever my dad would drive us to school he’d play nothing but new jack swing and Bob Marley.”
He even got to meet one of his musical heroes recently, when Cherrytree head Martin Kierszenbaum set up a surprise introduction. “He took me to this studio, and he’s like, ‘OK, I’m taking you to meet Terry Lewis,'” MNEK recalls. “He was the loveliest guy, so gracious. I always find the most successful people are quiet and humble and really easy to talk to.”
MNEK is readying his debut single for release in late spring, setting up a U.K. release for the album in late summer on Virgin/EMI before arriving stateside later this year. Despite his history, it will be a largely solo affair, with just one featured guest artist, he told Billboard from the red carpet at the Grammy Awards. “I like collaborating, whether it’s Rudimental, Sub Focus, Gorgon City, what have you. But when it comes to my own project, I really wanted to show what I can do myself and what I have to offer outside of that bubble. And I think I’m achieving that.”