SAINt JHN Steps out From Behind the Scenes With Debut Album ‘Collection One’
Rapper on the rise, SAINt JHN spent much of his childhood in Guyana, and has spoken of how he recalls walking barefoot and showering in the rain. Without any formal musical background, he managed to infiltrate the industry, writing songs for such big names as Usher, Joey Bada$$, and Jidenna, working behind the scenes, just as you can hear him doing barely audibly under Krolle’s singing in the album’s first moments. Eventually, her vocals stutter and morph up, as high hats tease a rhythm, and in a flash, the hardest beat ever drops, and SAINt JHN grabs the reins. Writing songs for others is one thing, but it’s only natural for a true artist to want more. And so, SAINt JHN presents his debut album “Collection One.”
“Collection One” begins with faint, droning bass murmurs, over which guest singer Janelle Krolle sings some introductory lines. You can hear SAINt JHN singing along with her faintly, just mumbling the words, and lazily half-reaching for the notes, as if sketching out a melody extemporaneously. Without any time lag, Krolle’s voice presents the lines in fully realized form, precisely articulated and perfectly pitched. Hearing JHN’s and Krolle’s voices deliver the lines together gives the sensation of creating something out of thin air, and seeing it materialize in front of you instantly.
From his first bars on “Lust,” SAINt JHN demands attention with his strikingly distinctive accent. There are countless rappers who hail from Caribbean origins, and flavor their vocals with occasional cultural signifiers. SAINt JHN puts a new spin on this, and elevates it to a new level. Having grown up shuttling between Guyana and Brooklyn, he has developed a unique, hybrid, cosmopolitan accent, which he seems to overdo at moments for extra dramatic flair or laidback swagger. The resulting voice is at once relatable and unclassifiable. SAINt JHN grew up largely on dancehall, and he bears the mark of its melodically driven take on hip hop. Much of modern mainstream hip-hop is approximately equal parts rapping, singing, and autotune, and JHN sticks mainly to this recipe.
In 2018, it has become the norm to jolt erratically from sappy melodies to machinegun-rhythm rapping and back, with yelps and guttural noises thrown in here and there on whims, all the while gurgling and warbling in a sea of autotune that morphs spoken lines into melodies with the most alien intonations. Such is the evolution of art, and this new vocal standard imbues hip-hop with a bold, free, spontaneous fluidity that can be exciting and engaging. SAINt JHN has got this style down, and his dancehall exposure appears to have made it an especially effortless exercise. The way mellifluous melodies just roll off his tongue, presenting single lines as catchy hooks in of themselves, it’s easy to see how SAINt JHN was able to make a name for himself as a songwriter. However, the sing-rapping shtick gets old quickly. Even if SAINt JHN times his syllables and tunes his phrases just right, his nasal delivery, awkward timbre, and limited vocal range, at times, is hard to take, for instance during the WTF moment that is SAINt JHN’s first verse of “Roses.”
In “God Bless the Internet,” JHN reflects, “Maybe I should not be drinkin’, ‘fore I speak my mind, that’s not ideal,” and he might be on to something. Granted, he pulls it off most of the time, and there will be some listeners who love the sound of his voice just as it is. Still, the strained pronouncement gets repetitive, and the album might shine brighter if SAINt JHN perhaps varied his vocal stylings a little more.
There’s a reason dancers go crazy during the breaks in songs, and it’s the same reason Helvetica stands out so much more than Victorian script on a page. Countless contemporary hip-hop producers saturate their tracks with gratuitous filler and studio-happy tomfoolery, treating and tinkering with sounds until discrete elements are inaudible, and all individual instruments blend into a single, uniform, glossed-over, plastic pop monstrosity. The hard-hitting uncluttered production on “Collection One” is a refreshing approach that greatly befits the music, and imbues it with a verve and vitality that make it pop and resonate. The drums are front and center, with taut, bang-on-the-table snares, crisp rimshots, and high hats shuffling through stereo in slick trap-triplets. There’s the primal immediacy and no-bullshit swag of an NYC subway drummer that kills it with two sticks and a bucket. Rapping is merely speaking without the framework of a propulsive beat, and the beats here allow SAINt JHN’s rapping to realize their full force. There’s some serious bass on this album, enough to give hydraulics to even your iPhone speaker. The outrageous, gliding bassline of “3 Below” is downright raunchy, and the sheer physicality of the music is irresistible. Throughout the album, instrumentation, samples, and sound candy are employed with a judicious discrimination, making use of negative space, so that each sound means all the much more.
Much of SAINt JHN’s lyrical output is the typical rap braggadocio. Nate Dogg once told us, “I got hoes in different area codes,” and rappers worldwide have paid tribute with their own takes on this profound sentiment, but SAINt JHN is on some next level shit. In “God Bless the Internet,” he sings, “You’re not a girlfriend, yeah I should be faithful / I think of you like Wi-Fi, and I think of her like cable.” Genius. Skilled rappers sling words together in slick snippets that make nonsensical gibberish somehow sound badass. In “Surf Club,” JHN rambles, “I’m Guccin’ away / I’m Louien’ away,” and it sounds just about right. In “Roses,” he sings, “Turn up baby, turn up, when I turn it on / You know how I get too lit when I turn it on.” It comes at the precise moment when the beat drops and the growling bass envelops you, and while it could hardly mean less, it could hardly sound better. Moments later, he continues, “Can’t handle my behavior when I turn it on / Too fast, never ask, if the last don’t last.” It’s the “live fast, die young” spirit that has been at the core of popular music since at least the ‘60s. Today it seems, at times, that hip-hop is more rock ‘n’ roll than rock ‘n’ roll.
In “Ni***a S**t,” SAINt JHN asks, “Who, who the fuck gotta go to work Monday?” On a Saturday night afterparty that has run well into Sunday afternoon, it’s hard to imagine a better line to liven up and mobilize a crowd. SAINt JHN alludes to Lenny Kravitz, declaring, “Bitch, I’ve been a star, I know I’m a star / I’ve been Ghetto Lenny, except without the guitar.” Regarding the reference, he has said, “He’s a black man in a world that doesn’t look our shade. And I liked the rebellious nature of it and the sex attribute.”
It should be noted that SAINt JHN is also a model, having appeared in Gucci’s “Guilty” campaign alongside multiethnic model Adesuwa Aighewi. Along with the bragging and boasting, SAINt JHN dedicates a fair share of his lyrics to celebration of blackness from an aesthetic standpoint. We are all somewhat subject to cultural conditioning, and our aesthetic sensibilities are subconsciously shaped by classical, often antiquated, Western standards of beauty. Most artists are quick to confirm to prevailing notions of sex appeal, lest they alienate a portion of their market share by being deemed too alternative in their taste. In this environment, voices like SAINt JHN’s are rare and special. SAINt JHN’s lyrics in “3 Below,” “I don’t mean no disrespect, no / But I prefer Shaniqua over Lizabeth” might strike as rather jarring and divisive, but they could also be seen as a commendably bold, well-due statement of empowerment and inclusion.
Listening to SAINt JHN is going straight to the source. If you enjoy listening to the work of any of the artists for whom SAINt JHN has penned songs, “Collection One” will expose you to the spark behind the flame. Behind every hit, there’s a visionary whose contributes. That said, “Collection One” is a commercial album, because SAINt JHN writes commercial music. This record merely cuts out the meddlesome middleman. Sure, it may be rough around the edges, but many would argue that it’s the edges that matter most.
“Collection One” is available March 30 on Apple Music.