Merging the worlds of rap, electronic, indie and infectious pop refrains, The Heart of It is an intoxicating alchemy of all the vast worlds Jelani Blackman has inhabited in his eye-catching rise. Filled with dark, rumbling tensions and soaring bursts of hope, Jelani’s debut album announces his latest arrival, with the assurance of an exciting fully-formed voice feeling at home in his singular lane, sights firmly set on breakthrough.
Raised in West London, schooled in South West and North and is now based in East, it’s safe to say London’s cultural melting pot is an endless source for the chameleonic talent. “It’s everything,” he says of the city. “It’s where I started making music, writing lyrics… I hope people come away from this with a better sense of who I am,” says Jelani Blackman, and he means that both sonically and literally. “Honestly, I’m a massive introvert and it doesn’t come naturally to me to share myself, it took a long time for me to be able to transfer my writing from being general and abstract to specific and personal.”
Having started playing the saxophone at age 9 and writing his first bars as a teenager growing up in Ladbroke Grove, music has been a constant in his life. Releasing EPs and mixtapes since 2016, over the years Blackman has gone on to collaborate with the likes of Fred Gibson (Fred Again), Gorillaz, Wolf Alice, Burna Boy, Ghetts and Fraser T. Smith, sharpening his lyrical toolkit and wide-ranging, fluid sonic approach while making a name for himself as one of the most original voices in a burgeoning UK scene, and of course going viral on COLORS. “I’ve taken my time and that’s very lucky. I’ve been able to do things in my own way, at my own pace and work with incredible people still.” Fully independent and primed to release his debut album, The Heart of It, Jelani’s fuelled by the constant growth of his journey. “People sometimes say that I’m underrated and I think that’s fine, but I think this is my best music.”
The title delivers on its promise, with the project exploring a whole range of topics at the core of Jelani’s world – the things that matter to him the most. “The Heart of It is what drives me, what gives me passion to communicate the stuff that I want to communicate and also to feel the things that I feel,” he says. Lead single ‘When You Feel It’ captures that spark-like feeling, Jelani’s flow mimicking a pressure-cooker as it ramps up against the ominous electric guitars, into the catharsis of his breathy falsetto. “It really crystallised what it was to me, when you feel the thing that motivates you, whether that’s food or music or love or frustration, whatever it is, when it triggers that emotion in you, that’s really what I’m touching on throughout. That thing that brings out the realest emotions inside you.”
For Jelani, on this record, that’s everything from politics and race to romance, grappling with his identity to growing and thriving with those around him, the chaos of the external surroundings versus the bliss of a lot of the internal. Throughout, there’s a sense of tension and balance between rightful anger and broad frustration at the state of the world right now, whilst still finding hope and joy within it, in the moments of intimacy, empowerment and connection with others. On ‘New World Order’ he playfully does away with the inconveniences of a system that’s rigged, declaring with his signature bass, ‘no one gets stopped at the border, fuck getting stopped on the corner, tell ‘em it’s a new world order.’ ‘Rise’ is an ode to an intoxicating love, filled with sun-soaked chords and a tenderly whispered appearance from Biig Piig; you can practically hear Jelani’s smile in the lyrics as he confesses his contentment.
‘Voice’ is a song inspired by the historic Black British publication of the same name, both song and newspaper championing the silenced. “I just have a really vivid memory of coming downstairs in my mum’s flat and seeing it on the doormat. It was a constant presence…only as I’ve got older, I’ve recognised the significance that there needed to be a specific magazine just to give the black community a voice.” On ‘Clear’, Jelani beams with his excitement to succeed alongside his nearest and dearest: ‘Swear on my mother, I’m done watching my people suffer, tell them we’ll make it.’ Jelani explains, “the hope in that is reflected in [me] feeling love and care for someone else and wanting things to be better for them.” Led in by stripped back, hopeful keys, the chorus is euphoric, anthemic and more melodic than we’ve heard Jelani before. “I really wanted it to be more musical and have longevity,” he says of his ambitions for this debut, “And I wanted to sing more, I wanted people to be able to sing along with my songs, that’s part of the fun!”
In the run up to the album, Jelani’s playlist remained as eclectic as his own catalogue. Reeling off some of the names on his listening list, it includes Floating Points, Rema, The Fugees, The Beach Boys, Goldlink, Kae Tempest, Wet Leg, Kendrick Lamar. “More than a specific genre, I was really trying to work out and soak in what it was that made an album,” he explains. And when the time came to call on his roster of own collaborators, that same genre fluidity reigned supreme. The tracklist includes features from alt-pop artist Biig Piig, East London’s own Kojey Radical and hyper-expressive grime-punk lyricist Bob Vylan. “I love collaborating with people. And actually, it usually goes the other way around… I felt like it was important to the show where I’m at, I guess I like to show some of the people that I consider part of the same world.” Sonically, the range is just as vast, with rock guitar riffs weaving around a grime rap cadence, jagged, minimalist productions sitting alongside horn-filled jazzy numbers and airy, ambient electronic numbers.
Music wasn’t the only inspirational source for Jelani on this project, “I love film and fiction and I feel like the ability to create a world with words is something which filters a lot into my lyric writing, and also now that I’ve been writing more short stories. I’ve always been a massive reader and my first real passion was books. I read Bonfire of the Vanities when I was 12 and it changed a lot for me. My mum was also a drama teacher and was taking me to exhibitions and plays as soon as I could walk.” Between theatre and art – his first job was at the RA where he’d spend hours absorbing what was on the gallery walls – film was also a huge resource for the rapper. He cites gritty French thriller La Haine as being pivotal for him, in its exploration of social injustices, tensions and disenfranchised youth, while award-winning Oscar frontrunner Banshees of Inisherin raised a question that Blackman finds at the core of his debut album, about the endless quest for peace of mind among social and political chaos. “I think the best songs feel cinematic,” he explains. “They’ve got drama and create a scene or emotion for you to get lost in.”
Ultimately, if The Heart of It was a film, it’d be something of a coming of age story – a dynamic, textured portrait of Jelani and the inner workings at the centre of him. The things that drive him forward, the things that hold him back, how far he wants to go and how deeply he feels about bringing his people along with him: “I think more than in anything else I’ve done, the words in this album are powerful and are the best representation of me and my thoughts. I’ve been deep in the heart of things for a while, my city, relationships, music, racial tensions, societal imbalance. This is me laying it all out.”