In our age of chronic over-exposure and information saturation, Jelani Blackman knows the value of patience: the importance of staying quiet until you know exactly what it is you want to say. When the West-London born musician first found success back in 2014 with his “Twenty//Thirty” – a nocturnal, poetic take on spiky, semi-spoken RnB – the temptation for many would’ve been to capitalise on the buzz immediately.
Indeed, an experimental track with the legendary Brian Eno did come soon after, but that aside, Blackman took his time. Speaking to me over a crusty phone line, he explained, “I just didn’t want to jump the gun…After the unexpected level “Twenty//Thirty” got to, I didn’t want to then follow it up with something that at a later point would make me think, ‘why didn’t I just wait and make sure I was happy?’”
When his debut EP, “1-4”, eventually dropped at the beginning of this year though, it became clear that his measured approach had paid off. Describing the record as “less of an EP and more of a collection of the first tracks of my sound,” the evolutionary “1-4” boasted a true standout track in the form of “Submarine”. The song has duly found Blackman plenty more fans with its genre-defying hybrid sound: oscillating between a soul driven piano refrain (with the backing vocals to match) and something altogether darker, the track goes some way to establishing what we could’ve come to expect from his future projects.
And then “Julanji” came along. With chaotic portent, the cover of Blackman’s newly released mixtape riffs on the Jumanji reference of its title, and that change of mood – away from the (mostly) restrained thoughtfulness of Blackman’s previous work, and towards a rawer, wilder impulse – doesn’t stop there. At the tape’s rambunctious core are seven rapid jungle tracks remixed, mashed up, and chopped and screwed like some purple rinsed, Houston take on London’s early 90s rave scene. If that sounds like a good idea, it’s because it is. With Blackman sharing production duties with a host of noted names including Count Counsellor and Yami, the record’s beats are second to none, and Blackman rides them with a flow and lyricism that drip with a newfound rage and a looming menace.
When that term comes up in our conversation Blackman seems pleased, confessing, “menacing is good – in the end, all I wanted was for anyone to hear the things I write, and feel something. And anger is a really key emotion and I’ve often felt angry,” before continuing, “in fact, there are a few things in my life where I’ve always had this underlying sense of frustration and with “Julanji” I wanted to do that again and experience those feelings again. Sometimes those emotions override the other things that you want the music to feel like, but with “Julanji” I did whatever and didn’t really worry about it.”
Nonetheless, Blackman’s keen to stress that this record doesn’t signify a sea-change in his individualistic musical style. “Julanji” is a detour, a musical experiment occurring not instead of or in opposition to his main output, but rather concurrently with it. “I really like to explore different avenues – being versatile in music is the lifeblood of it really – and I didn’t want to stay in the only lane that I had begun to explore with my main music,” he explains. Given that Blackman’s played saxophone since he was a child before flirting with grime in his teenage years, versatility in style should come as no surprise.
Regardless of the kind of emotions Blackman is engaging with however, it’s that process of personal exploration, that self-chronicling, which he values so highly. “Often I might make a song when I feel a certain way, and then it may come out when I don’t necessarily feel that way anymore, but it reminds me of a time,” he explains. “Which is quite nice actually as a kind of reference to a past me….I’m not necessarily that person anymore but I know that person.”
In fact, for Blackman the rediscovery and resurrection of past selves is a ritual that occurs anew once more when he performs his music live, noting, with genuine affection, that “there’s nothing like playing a song that you’re creating again in a new situation and people are making it with you.” Well, with a second EP on its way soon – one which develops on the path established by “1-4” and sets out to bring a cohesion and a sense of clarity to Blackman’s burgeoning sound – we’ll doubtless be witness to many more of his arresting selves: long may they multiply.