CURTIS J IS THE MAN: ‘SWEETER LOVE’, AFROBEAT INFLUENCES & SECRET UNRELEASED TRACKS
Fresh off the success of his landmark track ‘The Man’, Curtis J is back in the spotlight with an effortlessly cool R&B offering titled ‘Sweeter Love’. Curtis has become synonymous with his signature blend of Afrobeat positivity inspired by his Nigerian heritage and the intricate wordplay and rhyme schemes he developed during his time as a fire breathing trap MC. However, like many artists, lockdown life enabled him to experiment and discover a new element of his artistry, adding silky smooth vocals to his already crowded rap resume.
‘Sweeter Love’ is a far cry from the artist we saw enter the game as a solo artist alongside Darkoo on ‘Gas Station’ back in 2017. With one quick spin of the full-bodied saxophones that open this track, it becomes rapidly apparent that Curtis has been ruthlessly disciplined in his dedication to honing his craft. His contentedness with constant graft applies to all aspects of being an artist as he recently made his stage debut to bring the sultry sounds of previous hits like ‘Check Your Balance’ to a live audience for the very first time.
Alongside a carefully cultivated community of top tier producers like AJ, Jo Jo F and The Writers Block, Curtis has brought his visions of crowds singing his lyrics to fruition by fusing the feel-good nature of Afro-swing beats with the relatability and sharpness of UK underground lyricism. With so much in store for Curtis’s future, we sat down to chat ahead of the release of ‘Sweeter Love’ to discuss all things Afrobeats, his new record deal with Polydor, the making of ‘The Man’ and the plight of artists in the age of social media.
First off, how has the last year or so been for you? What’s been your big takeaway from all the madness in the world over the last year?
I feel like my Covid story is a little bit different from everyone else’s. The beginning of lockdown was obviously an extremely stressful period, but at the same time, it created a lot of opportunities for our music to be seen simply because everybody was left alone on their phone and with social media. So I tried to utilize that time as much as possible by dropping new songs consistently whilst building up to the release of ‘Check Your Balance’.
When that track was received really well I was aiming to start doing shows as many of my friends began receiving show bookings following the release of their biggest track but obviously at the time that just wasn’t a reality. Then when you get people telling you “Rah man, this tune should have popped off differently” but it hasn’t because of a lack of shows it can be frustrating. Nonetheless, I’m definitely blessed because a lot of great things have happened during lockdown like getting signed by Polydor.
In terms of inspiration, I’ve never been dependent on anything other than just day to day life to get inspired. A Lot of my tracks aren’t written either, I just try to let it roll off the top and create a melody for a track first before moving onto the lyrics. However, during the lockdown, I found that I did have to change my sound and brought in a lot more instrumentation onto my tracks. I also changed my approach to recording in that now I go into a session and just vibes and no longer feel like I have to prove myself every time because everybody already knows what I’m on now.
Your recent track ‘The Man’ is an absolute tune that really showcases your adept level of pocket control. Is it true that this track is actually about the day you got signed to Polydor records?
That track was literally created the exact day that I got signed to Polydor! I went straight to the studio and the only way I could describe the way I was feeling was, “I feel like The Man!”. The whole experience has been crazy especially considering how much has changed just since ‘Check Your Balance’ was released. That’s really what ‘The Man’ is about, you know?
From a production standpoint, the beat was from scratch on the day too. I feel like it’s always best to record the first time you hear the beat, that way it actually captures the specific energy and atmosphere at that time compared to stringing it out over multiple days and locations. As soon as I heard that beat it made me want to jump, I just love the energy because it makes you feel this combination of aggressive and hyper.
Following the success of ‘The Man’, you’re now coming through on a more romantic vibe with ‘Sweeter Love’. I absolutely love how that track opens with this beautiful R&B style saxophone. Did this track grow out of that saxophone?
It actually started off with the keyboard progression laid down by my producer. How it happened was…imagine this…I had a night studio session booked from 5 pm to 5 am. By this point, we had recorded about three or four songs and different artists are walking in and out all the time. It gets to the point where everyone is either asleep or falling asleep until my producer starts whacking me on the leg shouting “I’ve finally got it man! Let’s finish this!”. He hit play on the track and within 30 minutes we had completed the song and left the studio. To this day I still don’t know how, but the important thing is that we got it done.
‘Sweeter Love’ doesn’t sound like anything you’ve released so far and hits as if it’s inspired by something totally different from your previous work? Growing up, what music was playing around the house as a kid? Did you listen to a lot of R&B?
I used to listen to a lot of Micheal Jackson when I was younger and my Dad used to make me listen to Lionel Ritchie. I started to discover everything from Chris Brown to Westlife and all the way down to Boyz II Men. I was definitely an R&B baby!
You recently jumped back on stage after a long hiatus due to Covid, how was it being back on stage again? Now that you’ve got to perform these lockdown tracks live have you got a new favourite song to perform?
It was super nerve-racking! If I’m being honest, these shows have been my first few performances ever. I’ve never had the chance to truly perform my own music to a live crowd before. It was amazing to watch people really listen to my music and see them vibe to it, especially when ‘Check Your Balance’ came on. They literally started to sing the lyrics back to me and I couldn’t believe it. It got me so juiced up because that has always been the vision man.
When it comes to a favourite, both ‘The Man’ & ‘Check Your balance’ were so much fun. ‘Check Your Balance’ is obviously a track that people know a lot more so it’s somewhat easier to have a good time with, but ‘The Man’ has some serious energy bro. When I’m performing that track I just can’t stop bouncing, even if you have never heard the song before the beat is going to make you want to bounce.
Talk to me about filming that music video for ‘The Man’, it looked like you guys had a blast making it. What was the concept behind the general/the kingpin/the man characters throughout it?
First of all, massive big up to Meeks & Frost who directed it and produced the whole project, they did a fantastic job on it. I essentially just spoke to them about the idea I had in my head revolving around different sections of society in Nigeria and showing that through the characters of the general, kingpin and the youth. The youth just want to party and become ‘The Man’ in their area but in actuality, the general is the ‘The Man’ and that can lead to a lot of conflicts, something I wanted to touch on in the video.
Your first introduction to an international stage was actually alongside Darkoo on ‘Gas Station’, how did you and Darkoo come to link up on this track?
Literally that song just ‘happened’. I have no idea how but that was actually Darkoo’s first-ever track and my first track as ‘Curtis J’ the solo artist. Before that, I was in a group alongside Odeal and my friend Zilla and then we switched management and focused more on growing ourselves and it’s crazy to see how far we have all individually come now. I realised that I could properly sing from the reception to that ‘Gas Station’ verse because everyone was mad surprised when I switched it up from rapping to singing and told me to keep experimenting with that sound. I actually released a small EP just on Soundcloud called ‘The Ride’ that shows my development and progression with that sound as I figured out how to incorporate more singing over the drill beats that I was rhyming over at the time.
Do you typically work with a tight-knit group of producers or do you work with anyone that grabs your attention? Is it important to cultivate that producer & artist relationship?
I’m always open to working with new producers as long as we can actually work together physically because I hate trying to get things made online. I’m a massive fan of the creative process that goes into making a track and it’s just different when you have guys just send you beats and you can’t tweak or change things in real-time. When I was starting out I would jump in loads of different studio sessions with different producers but I figured out that there is only a certain type of producer that will really vibe with me and help craft the vibe that I’m looking for.
Now I’m currently working with a small team of producers so big up AJ, Jo Jo F, The Writers Block and Sparz. I think it’s crucial to have a familiar relationship with your producers because then they aren’t even going to play you certain songs because they already know what your reactions are going to be. They understand what you like and you know how they operate so it never becomes about correcting each other or trying to translate your ideas because they just get it.
You recently teased an unreleased track ‘Deep in my feelings’ on your Instagram, where the hell is that track? It was such a vibe I need to know if we can expect that to drop soon.
Haha, that track will definitely come out at some point under my name. I really wanted to release that track as part of a full body of work. I want to be able to surround that track with songs of a familiar sound and emotion and give you guys a full experience instead of just releasing that one track and moving on. It’s also really interesting to see which songs that I tease will bring out the biggest reaction from my audience in order to gauge what sounds you lot are enjoying most at the minute. So the aim is to make more of that ‘Deep In My Feelings’ sound and then put that track out there.
At this point in your career, what’s the hardest thing about an artist in the era of social media?
Your sound always has to be on point. You can’t be lacking with your sound at all because there’s always a new wave of artists coming through. It’s important to have and convey your uniqueness in order to stand out and more importantly stay around. The other tricky aspect is staying relevant whilst also focusing on the music. You can’t just be an ‘artist’ anymore you also have to be your own social media manager or an ‘influencer’. You always have to be doing a lot more than just making good music in order to be relevant and from my point of view that just shouldn’t be the case. It’s always been the case that people want to see artist’s personalities but isn’t the music that they’re supposed to connect with more?
We are at a stage now where some artists don’t even view their craft as art. Music is the art form that allows us to show people how we feel and reveal our personalities but today a lot of people are more interested in seeing you act goofy on social media.
You’re a proud South Londoner so I have to ask, if you wanted to show someone the real heart of your hometown, where would you take them to get some peng food?
My favourite area in South is Bermondsey because that’s where my studio is so I end up spending most of my time there. Close to the studio is one of my favourite food spots called Lebanese Grill on Kent road, we also have Bagel King just around the corner from there as well. If you’re looking for African food I would take you back to my hometown in Woolwich or if it is a Caribbean kind of day I would go to Peckham.
Is there a younger up-and-coming artist you’re associated with that you think we should check out?
There’s a guy that I just finished recording a track with called Buju who is very cold. He made a dope song called ‘Feeling’ with LADIPOE and he’s just made the switch to becoming an independent artist so definitely go show him some love!
If Curtis J was putting together an Astroworld style festival full of all your favourite artists, who do you want to headline?
Let me be smart about this one. I would say, Naira Marley, WizKid and King Promise!
What’s one thing on your bucket list?
I would love to do an African tour one day.
What have we got coming in the future bro? Are you focused on shows or is it all about studio time to craft the album?
Before the end of this year, you can definitely expect to see a project from me. Obviously ‘Sweeter Love’ has just dropped and you guys can definitely expect to hear some more hits coming as well.
Lastly, finish the sentence: “When my career is over I hope I am remembered for…”
Changing the Afrobeats game and for the lives I’ve impacted with my music.
Styling by Joshua Meredith
Image 1, 3 & 4:
Tracksuit – Ahluwalia
Sneakers – Axel Arigato
Jewellery – Feather Pendents
Glasses – Gentle Monster
Top – Feng Chen Wang
Trousers – Feng Chen Wang
Sneakers – Axel Arigato
Glasses – Gentle Monster