In rising to the top of an industry in free fall, the Chicago-based R&B singer Jeremih Felton is something of a prototype for DIY artistry in a resolutely high-gloss genre. Last summer, the Illinois native was studying music business at Columbia College Chicago and writing songs in his spare time with a producer and classmate, Mick Schultz. Working at the latter’s home studio, the pair crafted a couple of tracks that caught the ear of a programmer at a local urban-music radio station.
The second of those tunes, a bump-and-grind ballad called “Birthday Sex”, was an instant hit, blanketing the Windy City through the winter months and earning Jeremih an audience with L. A. Reid, the chairman of Island Def Jam Records. In signing the young singer, Reid secured not just a sure-fire top-40 hit but a ready-made album of lusty R&B songs, each written and produced to industry standards by a pair of relative neophytes. Asked if it was difficult to get Def Jam to accept those tracks as-is for his self-titled debut album, Jeremih explains that was one of his main selling points: he’s a prefab star in the best sense of the term.
“It wasn’t hard at all,” says the crooner, reached on a promotional tour in London, England. “You would have thought that the label would make us branch off and get more songs from other artists they have on the roster—like The-Dream and Ne-Yo, who are both incredible singer-songwriters who know how to make hits. But because we had already brought them a finished product, it made our situation a little different. We had to go back and fix a few recordings, but they were really happy that we could come to them with something we’d done on our own.”
In both their working methods and their sound, Felton and Schultz come off like a younger version of The-Dream and C. “Tricky” Stewart, the songwriting and production team behind some of the era’s biggest pop hits, like Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and Mariah Carey’s “Obsessed”. With its toy-box melodies and stuttering vocal refrain, “Birthday Sex” is Jeremih’s baldest tribute to the Dream-Stewart style, while other songs on the albums variously evoke R. Kelly and Stevie Wonder. When someone tells him he sounds like his idols, Felton accepts it as a compliment, figuring that’s part of the process any songwriter goes through in his first few years.
“I only started singing and coming up with these tracks in 2008,” he says. “I was just doing it in my free time and for the enjoyment of it, and not thinking that I was going to be a recording artist. That wasn’t even in consideration for me at that time. Now I’m being asked to write songs for other artists. So it’s all happened very quickly for me.”
Jeremih opens for Lil Wayne at GM Place on Monday (August 17).