About three quarters of the way through Late Nights, Jeremih’s long-awaited, appearing-out-of-nowhere new album, you might catch a sudden wave of deja vu. You might hear the opening bloops of “Don’t Tell ‘Em” and think, “Oh right, this song.” “Don’t Tell ‘Em” is an old song — not geologically old or anything, but old enough that it sure feels weird suddenly hearing it in the context of a brand-new album. Jeremih dropped “Don’t Tell ‘Em” at the beginning of summer 2014, and it went on to become a big crossover hit, one of the highest-charting of Jeremih’s career. It peaked at #6 on Billboard last October, and it already feels like a distant memory. It’s still a great song, but that clipped, minimal Mustardwave production has already pretty much dropped out of the pop and R&B mainstream. And Jeremih has moved on, too; there’s no other song on Late Nights that really sounds anything like it. The effect is something like how it might’ve felt if Sufjan Stevens had dropped “Chicago” right into the middle of Carrie & Lowell. Maybe you’re happy to hear it, but it still takes you right out of what’s happening. And that’s mostly because it’s a sudden and stark reminder of how long it took Jeremih to make this fucking album in the first place.
When Late Nights came out on Friday, with zero advance warning, the general reaction, even (especially) among fans, was something like this: “Wait, what? Really?” We’d given up on waiting. Jeremih’s last album was All About You, which came out in 2010. The Late Nights With Jeremih mixtape, the sublime and critically beloved nu-R&B manifesto that rebranded Jeremih as something more than a sturdy hitmaker, came out in 2012. Nearly a year and a half ago, he released an odds-and-ends mixtape called N.O.M.A. (Not On My Album), and then he proceeded to not release an album. This thing has been in the works for a long time, and it’s tempting to blame its endless delays on Def Jam, Jeremih’s label. But while Jeremih has been critical of Def Jam in the past, in this new FADER interview, he mentions that Def Jam had been “begging and pleading for me to drop it.” So it wasn’t label pressure that kept Jeremih from releasing the album. It was his own internal pressure. “I was trying to make sure I was in a better space,” he says. Late Nights, then, is a product of old-fashioned artistic perfectionism.
Among those of us who love Jeremih, it’s tempting to get annoyed at him for spending so long farting around, for missing his moment and finally releasing his album with no rollout during the busiest time of year for his genre. (Def Jam released so many albums last week; Late Nights couldn’t help but get caught up in the rush.) Jeremih should be a huge, generational star. He’s handsome, smooth, capable of generating these slick little melodies with no apparent effort at all. There’s no friction on his voice; he glides over tracks like a skiff over water. He’s a singer of uncommon rhythmic sophistication, and he can deliver his lines in these quick little bursts where it’s almost like he’s rapping. On the Late Nights track “Giv No Fuks,” he sings alongside Migos, and he’s the first R&B singer I’ve heard adapt the Migos flow to an R&B delivery. He can just do things like that. He can do anything. And yet career-wise, he can’t get out of his own way.
But that’s the weird Monday-morning quarterbacking and fantasy gamesmanship that we, as music fans, do so often online. We want the best for Jeremih, so we worry that he’s torpedoing his own chances at stardom. But that has nothing to do with the actual music on Late Nights, and I submit to you that it’s a good thing, at least where we’re concerned, that he took so long working on the album. After spending the past few days with Late Nights, it’s really an exceptional piece of work, a slick and of-the-moment commercial R&B album that has all these great little auteurist touches and that could’ve only come from one person. Jeremih certainly made some commercial concessions in putting together the album; it’s tough to imagine why else he’d include the version of album opener “Planes” with the putrid J. Cole guest verse when there’s a much better version with Chance The Rapper out there. (Seriously, Cole’s “dick so big it’s like a foot up in your mouth” line is exhibit A for anyone who wants to argue that Cole is not an elite rapper.) But it’s also an album that uses the musical language of commercial R&B to cast a gentle spell, one that’s worth getting lost in.
You will not be surprised to learn that Late Nights is an album about sex. When Jeremih sings about sex, he’s concrete and specific and not at all bashful. On “Woosah,” a fluttering mirage of a song, Jeremih happily offers up a line like this: “When yooooouuuuuu put that ass on my face, feel like I’m ’bout to drown and nobody’s around.” The way he sings it, though, it sounds sweet, not crass. When he’s singing about sex, even when he’s making with the forehead-slap “Got your legs in the sky like a plane / Let me guide it, I’m the pilot” wordplay on “Planes,” he sounds both self-assured and excited, ready to disappear into the act. This is legitimately sexy music, music about two (or, I suppose, more) people doing whatever they can to make each other happy.
When guests show up, they tend to offer up a stark contrast. Ty Dolla $ign’s voice has never sounded more ravaged and grimy than it does when he’s singing next to Jeremih. On “Impatient,” their collaboration, Jeremih is crooning, “I can’t get my eyes off of your face,” while Ty$ is singing about “I’ma have you sucking on my fingers while I hit it.” Later on, Big Sean shows up, singing rather than rapping on “Royalty,” and his line about sticking his finger in your ass has me just about ready to write off Big Sean entirely again. (It’s a shame. I was starting to like the kid.) Honestly, I might prefer a version of Late Nights without any guests at all, even if that would mean we’d have to get rid of impressive turns from Migos and Future, as well as that incredible triple-time Twista verse on “Woosah.”
Jeremih is just capable of doing more on his own. His voice is athletic without being gymnastic. He can slide into his upper register without making a big show out of it, and he never does big, noisy gospel-style runs. Instead, he’s a thoroughly right-now R&B singer. He’s understated and sly and weightless. There’s joy in his voice; he always sounds like he’s having fun with what he’s doing. There are a couple of fairly big-name beatmakers on Late Nights, but mostly, he’s working with a small core of producers who understand him and his style, guys like Mick Schultz (who produced his breakout hit “Birthday Sex” seven years ago) and industry veteran Bongo. Those guys give him open space, muted synth tones, and pattering heartbeat drums. It’s an aesthetic not too far-removed from what Drake and Noah “40” Shebib have put together, but it’s built more around Jeremih’s melodic flexibility. And other than “Don’t Tell ‘Em,” every track on Late Nights is of a piece with every other track; it’s been ages since I’ve heard an R&B album that dissolved this pleasantly into the air.
Jeremih isn’t the sort of singer who testifies or who lays his soul bare. Maybe that’s why it seemed weird that Late Nights should take so long to put out; it’s not like he’s Frank Ocean, struggling to find the right words and melodies to capture the feelings floating around in the air. He’s not all that interested in giving us a glimpse of his inner life. But the melodies and stylistic decisions on Late Nights are the result of careful consideration; he’s figured out exactly how he wants to display his voice to the world. And the album ends with “Paradise,” a song that sounds like it should be saying something but which never really does. It’s just Jeremih singing over what sounds like a harp, his voice levitating and weaving in and out of harmonies with the backup singers. It’s a song about luxuriating in the good life, about looking around and realizing that you can’t believe your life is as good as it is. There’s nothing revelatory about that, maybe, but the song just suffocates you with beauty anyway. When Jeremih snaps into formation with the backup singers in time to croon, “Soooooo fucking wasted / Soooooo fucking high,” he sounds like he’s calling down a host of angels. A moment like that is worth the wait.
Late Nights is out now on Def Jam. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• EMA’s tense knife-edge synth-blare score for the movie #HORROR.
• Cassie Ramone’s holiday-themed throwback Christmas In Reno.
• Warpaint passist Jennylee’s solo debut Right On!
• T-Pain’s counterintuitively named Stoicville: The Phoenix.
• Triumvir Foul’s grimy self-titled death metal attack.
• Eugene Quell’s I Will Work The Land EP.
• The Driftless Ambient II compilation.