Jelani Blackman talks debut album 'The Heart Of It'

Interview Focal Point: Jelani Blackman

A steady ascent has seen Jelani Blackman pick up famous collaborators from Gorillaz to Ghetts along the way, but with debut LP ‘The Heart Of It’, the Londoner is standing front and centre.

“I have to be calling people out if I see them pouring it wrong,” Jelani Blackman says, smiling over his pint of Guinness in a London pub garden. “I see a lot of people not even letting it settle these days, especially in Central [London].” While the sacred rituals of the Guinness pour are precious to many, these specific requirements are also indicative of Jelani’s current headspace overall. After a slow-burn start to his career, these days he knows exactly what’s right for him. “It’s been a challenge to get into a space where I’ve felt really comfortable in knowing what I want,” he nods. “It took a little while to work out.”

Since 2016, he’s steadily made a name for himself across a series of EPs, singles and high-profile features, with the critically-lauded full-length mixtape ‘Unlimited’ released in 2022. Throw in a hotly-received Fire in the Booth session and a viral performance of single ‘Hello’ which racked up over two million views, and you’ve got all the hallmarks of a hype train gradually picking up speed. Similar to his performance on Colors, Jelani is a calm conversationalist who allows his carefully chosen words to flow, but ping-pongs into animated peaks when something excites him. While it feels as if he’s unspooling a snowball of thoughts at times, it always comes governed by a friendly, collected composure.

His extended search for his definitive musical direction has seemingly been made more complex by the fluid worlds he operates in. His uniquely gravitational baritone vocal, always underpinned by subtle melodic trills, fluctuates between rapping and singing. He’s worked with everybody from Fred again.. to Wolf Alice, Ghetts and Gorillaz. While many are besotted with herding musicians into scenes and tagging them with a neat label, Jelani refuses to be boxed in - not out of protest, but out of necessity.

“There’s been loads of times in my career where I could have just said ‘This thing is working - let me make more of this’,” he reflects. “But I’ve always wanted to be authentic to myself. I’m a complex person, and I think a lot of artists are able to strip themselves down and reduce themselves to be a one-dimensional thing that is really accessible. But I was never able to do that.”

While he understands the practical element of tags and genre for the purpose of discussing music, he also can’t help but recognise the inherent laziness to it. “People just want to say you’re ‘this’,” he ponders, tracing the trappings of an invisible box with his finger. “But it’s never enough for people. If I say I’m a rapper, people want to know what type of rap and artists I compare myself to. Then it’s an annoying answer if I say to just listen to the music, because they’ll listen to two of my tracks and still not have an answer. That’s why it becomes redundant to pin down the music in the first place. I’m me, I’m Jelani - that’s the music I make.”

Jelani Blackman talks debut album 'The Heart Of It' Jelani Blackman talks debut album 'The Heart Of It' Jelani Blackman talks debut album 'The Heart Of It'

“The thing I learnt from working with Damon [Albarn] is that there’s no cut-off point for having fun with music.”

The multi-faceted sound of Jelani Blackman is suspended in full force across debut album ‘The Heart Of It’, from the silky R&B of string-soothed opener ‘Feel The Same’ to the fierce fervour of ‘When You Feel It’ and ‘Izit’, the latter of which welcomes a guest spot from Kojey Radical. Between the bangers, there are dusk-lit ballads (the gorgeous ‘Rise’ with Biig Piig) and open-armed soul-bearing (the haunting ‘Line Up’). Allowing space for the lyrics to be heard was paramount and Jelani considered the interplay between his words and the music more than ever.

“I wanted to get across everything,” he explains of his intentions for the album. “Everything that makes me, everything that makes my voice. All of the wide scope of things that I think about all the time.” It’s a tall order but Jelani possesses a compelling ability to cast a wide net and reel in sharp observations. The themes across the album scale the vast plains of romance, politics, identity and race, which he trawls with a flow that is both pacy and patient in equal measure. His deep vocal casts a spell of sorts over the words carved out by his sharp penmanship, which brings an addictive clarity to his songs.

On ‘Voice’, named after the Black British newspaper, he eyes the flimsy political spectrum. “Nowaday politics has no function / Has no conscience / Too much chat bullshit in abundance,” he observes on the track. “We’re at the start of something and end of something,” he raps, alluding to a political tipping point. Today, he doubles down on the idea. “It’s not sustainable for things to continue in this way without something drastic happening one way or another,” he elaborates. “If the Tories win again, they’ll feel so emboldened that they’ll take a step too far which will change the fabric of what the society is. If not, they’ll be out - and hopefully there’ll be, if not a massively significant, then at least an incremental change in the next period to better times.”

He also thinks the conversation about race is at something of a standstill - a topic he circles on ‘Line Up’ where he unpicks the subtle brutality of British racism against stark piano and cinematic orchestration. “My culture ain’t worth enough / They said alongside yours you’re cursing us, serving us / Messages indirectly that we’re subservient, subversive but it’s what from birth is us”.

“I think it’s impossible to talk about racism without talking about capitalism. Prejudice is not just race-related, it’s economic - it’s marginalising people based on their economic backgrounds and because of the proximity of both of those things together, they overlap a lot,” he continues. “It would be impossible for there to be an end to [racism] or any kind of significant difference while there’s still an imbalance in how wealth is distributed, how communities are treated and how policing works.” He pauses for breath. “The short version - it’s fucked!”

Jelani Blackman talks debut album 'The Heart Of It' Jelani Blackman talks debut album 'The Heart Of It'

“I’m a complex person and I’ve never been able to reduce myself to one thing.”

Throughout today’s conversation, there’s a sense that Jelani’s receptors are constantly left wide open. It’s perhaps an exhausting notion given the modern day barrage of the infinite news cycle, but he doesn’t ever get tangled up in his own thoughts. “I’m very present in the world. I use my senses. I smell everything, I hear everything, I taste everything. Mentally, not as much,” he laughs. “I struggle to maintain a balance of thinking about the present and the future. I’m getting better at dealing with the past.”

When the topic turns to albums he was referencing for his debut, Blackman recalls a road trip with his mum and stepfather. “We drove to France in a red Peugeot and there was this Simon & Garfunkel cassette playing,” he recalls. “I love the folk element and the storytelling but the biggest thing is the social commentary which is interwoven into the fabric of the songs. It’s as much a part of the music as anything else; it doesn’t feel heavy-handed. That’s what I wanted to channel on this album.”

Music sessions in the car aside, he credits the park after school as an arena that whetted his appetite to express himself through song. Meeting up with his mates in the twilight hours, he’d write lyrics and spit them in front of people. “It was very much a live medium. That energy, the emotion and the nerves - that, for me, is what is fundamental in music.” Born into that baptism of fire, the live arena has always been a place of comfort for Jelani and why he looked so at ease walking out on stage with Gorillaz at an actual arena - London’s O2 - back in 2021 to perform their collaboration ‘Meanwhile’.

“The thing I learnt from working with Damon [Albarn] is that there’s no cut-off point for having fun with music,” he reflects fondly. “There’s some people whose ears and voices are made to make music and I felt that with him, the way he wrote on the track we worked on was beautiful.” The experience ultimately allowed him to recognise and celebrate his own strengths. “I’ve been around a lot of greatness and I think you have to find out what makes you great,” he explains. “What I’ve finally tapped into and found out about what makes me great is that there’s nobody who can articulate things like I can.”

These sort of certainties and assurances only glisten at the end of a long, hard search. For Jelani Blackman, it feels as if ‘The Heart Of It’ is just the start.

Jelani’s Little Black Book

Across his debut, Jelani has a wealth of top drawers collaborators dropping in to say hi. Here’s a little bit more about what to expect.

Biig Piig
Offering the female counterpoint on the most romantic song from ‘The Heart Of it’, Biig Piig brings an ethereal, whispered presence to ‘Rise’. “[She] messaged me on Insta the day before I went into the studio and I just said ‘come through’,” Jelani recalls.

Bob Vylan
The London duo pop up on ‘Voice’, peppering grit on one of the album’s most poignant moments, where the conversational tone quickly elevates into a snarl as the song’s structure whirrs into gear around it. “Last year they offered me 80 thou / Ooh wow, I turned it down,” goes the verse.

Kojey Radical
There’s no mistaking Kojey Radical’s rapping chops on the blitz of ‘Izit’, the album’s certified banger. His bars serve up a slice of pure bravado alongside Jelani’s fierce pen; “Aint hit rock bottom in a goddamn minute,” he spits.

‘The Heart of It’ is out 10th November via 18 Records / MNRK UK.

Tags: Jelani Blackman, From The Magazine, Features, Interviews

As featured in the November 2023 issue of DIY, out now.

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