While sifting through beat packs online last August, rising rapper JNR Choi stumbled upon one ethereal drill production that immediately stood out to him. While he was initially apprehensive of hopping on the global drill wave, as he found it to be an “easy thing to tap into,” it was a beat he couldn’t ignore.
The 24-year-old recorded what was originally titled “Turn Up” in about 20 minutes, later changing its name to “To The Moon” and filing it away on his laptop below other projects as “priority No. 6.” He did, however, share it with his DJ, who eagerly started playing it at local nightclubs in their homebase of London. JNR Choi recalls men in suits sprinting to the DJ booth with their phones out, unsuccessfully trying to Shazam the record.
“I haven’t seen that reaction to any of my music,” he tells Billboard. “That put in my head that this needed to be released right now. They’re Shazaming it and I’m just like, ‘It’s me!’ ”
Three months after crafting the would-be hit, JNR Choi independently released “To The Moon” on streaming services globally, posting a four-second snippet of the song to TikTok two weeks later. After uploading the tease, he took a nap — and woke up to 20,000 views. Today, the song has been tagged to more than two million videos on the app, including clips from Jada Pinkett Smith, Steve Harvey and Manchester F.C.
“I’m grateful something’s out there like TikTok for independent artists to showcase their music to the world without having to sell their soul,” he says, adding that the platform allowed him and his manager Louis Savage — a friend since 2017, though not his manager until last year — to avoid spending a dime on marketing for the track. By this January, “To The Moon” topped Spotify’s Viral Hits playlist.
Born in West Africa and raised in London, JNR Choi (who prefers to leave his birth name unknown) was starring in runway campaigns for Givenchy, AMIRI and Marcelo Burton before the age that most receive their college diplomas. He always had an interest in music, but it wasn’t until a girl he liked recommended he listen to The Weeknd’s 2012 compilation Trilogy that a switch flipped. JNR Choi became fascinated — and inspired — by the superstar’s ominous melodies and complex song structure.
Yet, “To The Moon” samples a different artist entirely — a detail JNR Choi wasn’t even aware of until long after he initially recorded it. The song samples U.K. singer Sam Tompkins’ cover of Bruno Mars’ “Talking To The Moon” (off the latter’s 2010 debut, Doo-Wops & Hooligans), prompting it to be temporarily removed from streaming services.
“I’m quite ignorant to a lot of s–t, I do what feels good,” admits JNR Choi. “When I got the beat, I was like, ‘This is hard.’ As it was [taking off], someone was like, ‘That’s a sick Bruno Mars song.’ I was like, ‘Oh snap, Bruno Mars?’ No offense, but I’m under a rock.”
As Savage puts it, “that sample clearance process was a test. S–t wasn’t easy, bro. But we found out who we were.” He clarifies that Mars’ camp was happy to help clear the sample for “To The Moon” (JNR Choi later wrote the superstar a letter to personally thank him) and by the end of the month — and with Tompkins added to the song’s official billing — it was back online.
Since returning to streaming services, JNR Choi’s star has continued to rise: at the top of March, Choi signed a record deal with Epic Records and Black Butter Records — both imprints under the Sony Music Entertainment umbrella — with the latter handling his affairs in the U.K. He credits Epic’s “energy” and leadership under CEO Sylvia Rhone for falling in love with the team, a sentiment Savage echoes.
“Every single day, they wake up and bang on the door with the same ferocity matching our energy,” Savage says. “Everyone thinks a major label is a key to every door, but it’s not. It comes down to the individuals. They ride for us like we’re their kids. There’s no cheat codes to this thing.”
With a label backing, JNR Choi is currently at work on his second full-length project, which will follow his self-released effort from 2021. He promises its arrival before the end of the year, and adds that it’ll invite listeners to explore different worlds showcasing his versatility outside of drill. “It’s time to really connect the world through music,” he says. “A lot of Afro influence is gonna be seen in what I’m doing. It’s gonna be a lot of enjoyable music and a fresh sound.”
His breakthrough hit should provide more than enough momentum in the meantime: not even two weeks after his record deal was announced, “To The Moon” reached the Billboard Hot 100, marking JNR Choi’s first entry on the chart. The track soared to a new high of No. 54 on the chart dated April 9 with 45.4 million official on-demand streams in the U.S., according to Luminate, formerly MRC Data, boosted by a remix with Gunna that arrived March 25.
The rework was executed off the strength of Atlanta-based Epic Records A&R Tyshawn ‘Fly Ty’ Johnson’s relationship with the YSL rapper, who was a fan of JNR Choi’s record. A house party-themed music video from the pair of trendsetters arrived today (April 6).
“I keep having to pinch myself because I can’t really fathom it,” says JNR Choi. “It’s quite surreal to even be on the Billboard Hot 100. I’m like, ‘I’m in the race.’ ”