Speaking to the UK artist about his journey from in-demand pop songwriter to solo star, with his debut album Language
“This album is my chance to introduce myself to a lot of people,” says MNEK. At the time of our chat, it’s only been a few days since the 23-year-old pop singer-songwriter released his debut album Language – but unlike most artists releasing their first record, MNEK has seven years in the industry and a slew of Top 10 hits already under his belt.
Even if you’ve not heard of MNEK, you’ve heard his songs. Born Uzoechi Osisioma Emenike, he had a brief spell of going by Uzo, to curve the ham-fisted mispronunciations of his name, before opting for a stage name that literally spells it out (EM-EN-I-KE). He was discovered on MySpace at the age of 14, and went on to write for Beyoncé (on Lemonade’s “Hold Up”), Madonna, Christina Aguilera, Little Mix, and Dua Lipa. He also featured on the No. 4 hit “Ready For Your Love” with Gorgon City, and found recent success with “Never Forget You” with Zara Larsson (“We got certified two times platinum this week,” he says, casually).
So while Language isn’t his introduction to the music industry, it is new terrain for MNEK: we’re finding out who he is as a solo lead artist. The album is a strident collection of pop tracks with innovative beats, infectious melodies, explosive show-stealing vocals, and interpolations of 00s dance classics. More importantly, the album details what it’s like to find your feet as a young, ambitious, and openly queer black musician in the UK. That’s a story we don’t often hear.
The album is bold statement of intent, from arguably the most important voice in UK pop music. But even though MNEK has released a lot of work before now, he’s as nervous as any artist is about revealing themselves on their own debut. “I saw Rolling Stone did a really shit review of the album,” he said, when we met in the Dazed office to catch up on how his first week of release was going. “I was like, okay cool. Well, everyone's entitled to their opinion. But it's like your kids, if someone talks shit about your kid, you're going to say, my kid's fucking beautiful. Fuck what you think.” We spoke to him about what it’s like to step out of the shadows, and to carve a space in the UK music industry that’s all his own.
Your writing credits go all the way back to 2011, even though you’re only 23 now. How did you get your start in music?
MNEK: I signed my first publishing deal when I was 14, and it was from two records I put on MySpace. I was still in school, which meant that I couldn't really have too many sessions, except during half terms or weekends or summer holidays. But it was all I wanted to do. It was sick.
Then I met Brian Higgins and Miranda Cooper from (production house) Xenomania. I was a massive fan of Girls Aloud and Sugababes (who were produced by Xenomania); then I did “All Fired Up” (for The Saturdays) with them, and that was my step into the pop world. Then I met the Rudimental guys, and that opened me up into the house and dance circuit. It helped me go from them to Duke Dumont, Gorgon City, just an ever-growing bubble of people.
How do you know when you’ve made a hit?
MNEK: I just know when I’m super proud of it. It’s very much instinct. With the tracks that I really liked, I heard them so many times. I’m proud of everything on (Language).
“I've had meetings with people that I've worked with and they’re very uncomfortable, you can just tell. And that's okay. I'm still going to do me” – MNEK
Are there any songs that you've given away to other performers that you wish you had held for yourself?
MNEK: Well, that ended up being “Never Forget You”. It was initially just Zara (Larsson)’s song, but I listened to it and I was like, “Okay, this is a hit”. So, I recorded my own version, and said, “Listen, I wrote all the vocal parts, I remember every word, I’mma go home and record the shit out of this song.” Zara's team were like, “Is everything alright?” Then both our labels said we should just do a duet, to which I said no. Zara and I didn't really know each other, so it was awkward, and I was making tunes for her, like we did “Ain't my Fault” for her album and a couple others. We ended up recording the duet, then I held off on it coming out. It was mad.
A week later, I listened to it again, and felt like such an idiot. This thing needed to be out, like, yesterday. It became what it is, and I was very happy to be part of the song. I love Zara, and I miss singing that song with her. Now everything is great, we see each other every now and again, I've been in studio with her for new album. We have our biggest hits together. Proper bond. That Billboard Hot 100 bond.
How did your own solo debut, Language, start coming together?
MNEK: I wanted to really tell like a sonic story; I was very influenced by The Velvet Rope by Janet (Jackson), and Archandroid (Janelle Monae) and The Writing’s on the Wall (Destiny’s Child), and how those albums went from highs to lows but then were really glued together (as) a body of work.
It felt like it made sense in so many ways to choose this title. It was me learning the language of being a recording artist, me learning the language of making a debut album, and who I am, separately from my collaborations. I’ve loved it, I’m having so much fun singing, and creating videos and exploring this side of me.
Have you ever felt like the music industry has made you reduce parts of yourself?
MNEK: You know what? I actually think I've always just done I wanted. I've had meetings with people that I've worked with and they’re very uncomfortable, you can just tell. And that's okay. I'm still going to do me, in the same way that you're still going to do you. You’re entitled to your opinion.
As a result of there not being (another) artist like myself, I've kind of had to just figure everything out and make mistakes from trying certain things out. When I first came out, I was wearing full-on traditional Nigerian wear. I got told by a lot of people that I should just tone it down. I only stopped when I realised there's only so many prints you can wear. But white people would come up and be like, “You're wearing your pyjamas on stage” – that's fucking racist. Shut the hell up.
People will think that I've diluted myself in the past because now there’s music videos where I’m really flamboyant, when actually, I just hadn't figured any of that out, or really dipped my toe in it yet. Probably next year, I'll just look at these videos and it’ll be like when you see your old MySpace profile.
“I’ve felt that my voice is wanted on a lot of records, my writing is wanted on a lot of records, but my visual isn't always the most appealing. I guess if I was less out there, the black community would be a lot more welcoming” – MNEK
Nigerian culture is quite conservative – has that added more pressure on you?
MNEK: Well, as far as my Nigerian identity – I'm sure you feel the same – when you're given a Nigerian name, there's no running away from that. Your parents give you the traditional food, the Nigerian morals, but I can be so many things at the same time. I myself identify as British-Nigerian, and I'm also gay, and I'm also a young adult in London making music. All of things can co-exist as one. I also never want to claim being the first of anything, people like Kele Okereke from Bloc Party have paved the way.
There is a lot of talk of black queer artists being kept in the shadows – for example, you can hear Big Freedia’s voice on a few hits in 2018, but you never see her in videos.
MNEK: I certainly see that thing about Big Freedia. She is so amazing and deserves shine. I saw her live at Birmingham Pride, which was lit.
I think there is a bit of silence when it comes to showcasing the identity of a queer black person. Like the Stormzy situation (when the MC brought out Labrinth out to perform MNEK’s vocals on “Blinded by your Grace” when performing the song on The X Factor in 2017). I think there was definitely something uncomfortable about that. I can't get too deep into it, but I didn't feel very wanted. I've mainly felt that my voice is wanted on a lot of records, my writing is wanted on a lot of records, but my visual isn't always the most appealing. I guess if I was less out there, the black community would be a lot more welcoming. I don't want to ever have to dilute myself, ever, for anyone. But, I'll never ever try to pine to be somewhere that I'm not wanted.
Under “Personal Life” on your Wikipedia page, there’s only four words: “MNEK is openly gay.” But there's so much more to you than that.
MNEK: There is, but then that's obviously been written by someone who doesn't know me. Well, someone should change it for me. Put that I have six dogs or something.
Do you have six dogs?
Okay, I'll update it. What do you want me to put on there?
MNEK: (laughs) I'm a massive Mariah Carey fan. I'm a supporter of marijuana. I am a variety of things.