Not too long ago, a breakup propelled London singer, songwriter and producer MNEK into making the exact sort of drastic changes you do when you’re newly single. He “took some time off,” having worked as both a behind-the-scenes songwriter and solo performer since his mid-teens. He lost some weight. He hit reset. And he used that moment to inspire the songs that are due to appear on his long-awaited debut album. It’s a weekday afternoon, and he’s telling me all of this in his east London studio, eating some delicious-smelling Korean fried chicken (which he’d timed to arrive at the door just as he did. A finesse).
“Because I was in that relationship,” he says, his voice dipping into the silky puddle of its baritone, “I spent so much time with that person that I never really had a second to myself to be like, ‘oh, OK – what do I feel like as a young man? And what do I want?’ I’m still figuring that out. My new music opens up the conversation that I’m allowed to figure that out.” At 23, he’s already picked up credits writing for Dua Lipa, Stormzy, Madonna, Beyoncé, MØ, Craig David, basically every British pop girl group manufactured in a talent search since 2010. His studio door, scribbled with the metallic signatures of those who’ve passed through its doors, sports names from Jorja Smith, Diplo, Charli XCX and Nadia Rose to Jax Jones, Melo-X and Chloe & Halle. I’m almost surprised to hear that he’s been able to pause long enough for a breath with all of that going on. The thought of fitting it all in makes my head spin.
But that prolific output is exactly what helped him refocus and self-reflect. “This constant feeling of, ‘I have to have everything figured out’ is not going to get anyone anywhere,” he says, covering his mouth politely mid-chew with a perfectly manicured hand – metallic blue on the nails. “I’m constantly evolving. This album, at large, is about learning and breaking out of what you’ve been taught. It’s about challenging those ideas, creating something new, whatever. It’s open to interpretation.”
He’s right. He sounds his boldest on this new material. I can’t say too much about the album yet beyond its huge debut pop single “Tongue,” which we’re premiering the brand-new visuals of here. I can tell you, though, that MNEK uses the album to sing about love, lust and the frustrating fuckeries of the world over beats that marry his usual sharp pop sensibilities with thuddering basslines and a vocal that practically clasps its hands and bows a knee to the peak of 90s R&B. It’s been a long time coming – he’s worked in the industry since he was 14 – but already “Tongue” hints at the album’s irrepressible energy. It leans back and bellows that MNEK has arrived.
The track’s slick, sexual tension dinner party video, directed by duo Bradley & Pablo (Charli XCX, Frank Ocean, Nicki Minaj, Migos and Cardi) plays a large part in that. Watching it feels like that moment when you look over at a friend you’ve known for ages, see them in their element – say, sharing a glance with their live-in lover or working on a big passion project – and you realise, shit, they’ve grown up. We’re not kids anymore. Dressed in a satin, fluorescent pink shirt and trouser co-ord during the video’s dinner dance scenes, MNEK looks more openly queer and more confident than I can ever remember seeing him.
“There’s an underlying sense with ‘Tongue’ that… it’s really… it’s real,” he says, pausing to think for a second, tucking one of his pec-length dreads behind his ear. “I mean that in the sense that now I’m not afraid to touch on relationships and on my sexuality in my videos. I feel as though it’s an important thing to put into my visuals, because those are the main source of visual content that I have. There are only so many interviews I’m going to do, there are only so many TV appearances I’m going to have. My visual medium is my videos, and I’ve got to feel as though I can put my truth in that.”
Though I wouldn’t say that MNEK ever hid his sexuality before, he’s settled into it now. In the video, for example, his fellow black male love interest sits across the opulent table as they play the ‘will we, won’t we – should we?’ game that anyone eye-fucking out on these streets will recognise. He laughs, remembering working alongside the actor who played his potential lover. “I was on the phone with his girlfriend on set and she was like, ‘oh, so you’re taking my man for your video?’ and I was like, ‘damn straight I am.’” He giggles again. It’s almost more personal that a straight actor played the part, he continues, because that stretches the boundaries of black masculinity further than where they currently rest. “So if the straight man is comfortable enough about his sexuality to cosplay as a gay man in a music video” – another giggle – “then I think that will speak to people, at large.”
MNEK has always straddled that sort of broad audience – queer, straight, pop-house, R&B, black, the white British mainstream. Since he debuted in 2012 aged 17, as a solo artist on Rudimental’s “Spoons” then was longlisted in 2013 on the BBC Sound of 2014 poll, he’s been steadily cranking out high-octane and sometimes sweet-as-syrup pop as producer, songwriter and lead artist. Yet in 2014, it seemed as though an album would quickly follow his pop-house single “Wrote a Song About You,” with its huge dynamic build, climactic chorus and the sort of production that defined that Gorgon City/Disclosure new-house era in British pop. EP Small Talk arrived in March 2015. A Zara Larsson collab pushed him into the top 20 across the US, Europe and the UK in July 2015. Then… well, then he put out several singles as lead artist ("Don't Stop Me Now" in 2016, "Paradise" and “Deeper” with Riton last year) that hinted at an album to come. That full-length release, though, appeared to be placed on ice.
“Because I’ve been doing music from so early, there was a sense that, ‘OK, if I started this quickly then everything should move quickly. Everything should move at the stage with which I got into the industry.” Instead, he did it his way. And now he gets to watch while his fans – and maybe the fans of artists who were introduced to him when he featured on their tracks – take in his progress so far. I ask how he’s had to adjust to being known by the Zara Larsson, Stormzy or Dua Lipa core crowds on top of his own. He laughs again. “I see lots of different reactions to ‘Tongue’ than I did to ‘Blinded By Your Grace Part 2.’ With ‘Blinded by Your Grace,’ I had the mums, the aunties texting, talking about, ‘oh, I love this song, it’s so beautiful. God.’ Then ‘Tongue’ is all the gays being like, ‘YAS, GO OFF. Bop. My wig,’” he shouts. “But it’s fascinating. That’s the cool thing that music can do: make you feel this or that way. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to achieve – I’m a music guy, you know? That’s my occupation. All I can do is to my job.”
You can find Tshepo on Twitter.