Not every artist is a fan of touting their new music releases on TikTok, the booming app where countless, specially-made short videos can spontaneously cultivate instant viral success. Gemaine, an emerging singer/songwriter from Compton, California, is one of them.
“I don’t like the way artists are getting pushed to do TikTok and make it a part of our career like you have to be on this thing consistently and giving this time and attention on a consistent basis,” Gemaine tells Rated R&B over a video call.
“The pressure I’ve been seeing every artist go through is the one thing I don’t like about it. It should be a tool, but not something that’s a part of you. It’s something you should utilize when it makes sense for you. I enjoy it as a consumer, but I hate that it is pushed like a job to do. I don’t want to be a social media influencer. I want to be an artist. I want people to be excited about the music I put out.”
Ironically, Gemaine broke into the music industry as a viral sensation. In particular, his break came courtesy of a six-second Vine, the predecessor of TikTok, that would later become known as “Freaky,” his debut single released in 2014. Since its release eight years ago, the earnest slow jam has amassed more than 17 million plays on SoundCloud and 6.7 million streams on Spotify.
As his star rose, Gemaine offered up his first project, Curious, in November 2015. Supported by the viral smash, the 10-track release featured other favorites, including the closed-off “Let Me In.”
A few weeks before this interview, Gemaine came across the Vine for “Freaky” on YouTube while searching for one of his most recent videos. Beyond his style choices and his youthful voice, he noticed far more about that time in his life through that quick clip. He remembers living under no constraints.
“I remember waking up, like, ‘I wanna just make a video,’” he recalls. “I was just a kid, catching the Gardena 2 bus to South Bay with no worries, no expectations, just having fun and just doing what I love. I didn’t have a manager. I didn’t have any interest in music. I just wanted to sing.”
Before “Freaky” gradually formed a foundation for Gemaine and his promising music career, the 26-year-old talent didn’t initially foresee the star quality he’s attained thus far.
His controversial environment drove his misleading impression, mainly because he didn’t see pursuing a career in singing and arts as the standard. Gangsta rap had a near-constant, crippling presence in Compton, his hometown, where he kept his head low away from the temptations of the troubled streets.
“It was so different and not as common for somebody wanting to sing from Compton, or at least I didn’t see it as much unless it was somebody in the choir or school plays,” says Gemaine, who didn’t get a foothold into performing arts until high school.
In the interim, he stayed in touch with that creative side of himself through his admiration for the vocal stylings of Motown titans Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye as well as hit songs by Usher and Robin Thicke.
“I have a thing for music that you feel, and that is the core of R&B. You feel it,” he says, referencing R&B artists who were first ingrained in his mind as a child.
Like many great superstars, Gemaine, at a young age, also had church as a common origin to feed his hunger for music. Self-taught on the piano, Gemaine, a fan of the drums as well, credits his fast-tracked learning of the intimidating instrument to repetition.
He says, “Lucky, I have the ear for notes and am able to decipher notes. Early on, I’d take a day and spend hours playing the same two chords over and over until I knew it muscle-wise. It was more about muscle memory and figuring out what keys to hit. I was beating it into me. My hands would get locked from just being in a certain position for so long.”
Gemaine eventually progressed his skills from scales to pulling off entire songs. “One of the first songs I beat into me was Bruno Mars’ ‘When I Was Your Man’ for like two-three weeks straight, I remember just playing it until I couldn’t anymore,” he recalls.
When Gemaine immersed himself in playing instruments, he involuntarily ignored the gift stored inside him from the start: singing. It wasn’t until he starred in a high school adaptation of the teen musical-turned-television series Fame that he knocked the socks off the director and girls who looked on at him, belting notes in amazement. Still, he had reservations about dedicating himself to singing.
After he finished high school, Gemaine found it easier to breathe life into his future as a singer. He did it by outgrowing the pressure to be what he described as “somebody for someone.”
He says, “Singing is something I like to do. I wasn’t outwardly expressive about me singing, and one day I just woke up and was like, ‘Man, I’m about to just start singing.’”
From there, Gemaine, with the help of his brother and his guitar, took the bus and frequented a local Guitar Center, where Vine devotees boosted his confidence through engagement from freestyles. “To be accepted like that was the icing on the cake, and it felt good,” he says.
Two full-length solo projects and a pair of EPs later, Gemaine returned in early 2022 with his eyes set on a run in the collaboration sector. Joining him and his close studio affiliate YMTK (Young Murph The Kidd) to execute this vision was Charlie Heat, a Grammy-nominated producer who scored major exposure for his work on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo.
Their trio’s first output, “No Questions,” exhibited Gemaine’s spectral falsetto and a tight songwriting and production chemistry worth attracting the attention of lovers. He was more sexually forward on the follow-up “Lay It Down” before drastically switching gears sonically with the release of the island-flavored “Conditional Love.”
About the creation of the last song, Gemaine says, “The way of love is conditional love. Love isn’t real, at least in our age. Everyone only loves you under a certain condition. It’s always a list of something you must do even to have a chance with them. I don’t think that’s love to me. Writing a song about that has been on my heart, and I’m glad it was on a dance beat (laughs).”
All three songs have led to New Jack City, their new album, which is out now. The project’s title puns on the swag and street code exhibited by the gang culture in the 1991 cult classic of the same name starring Wesley Snipes, Ice-T and Allen Payne.
Gemaine says he and his two collaborators watched New Jack City while creating their project. “We felt like we operated the same way as them. That’s why we loved that movie so much,” he explains. “It hit us in a way to where we felt we should just call [the project] New Jack City. We felt like we’re the New Jack City.”
In Rated R&B’s interview with Gemaine, he talks more about New Jack City, his evolution as an artist since his first project, and why music was his salvation.
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You shared a post a while back and said that “LA raised me but music saved me.” Could you elaborate on that caption?
I’m proudly from LA, but I know that I would definitely have been lost if I didn’t have music. I didn’t realize until I started doing music how lost I was. It’s dangerous when you’re living without purpose because you just don’t care. You don’t have the motivation to be serious in anything if you don’t know why you’re here. Finding purpose with music saved my life because that changed everything for me.
I was just such a goofball, and I didn’t care about anything. I wasn’t that good in school. I was a troubled child, somewhat. Once I found music a year out of high school, everything changed. I took every day serious, and I take everything serious now. I’m a hard worker, and I want to be successful. It’s almost like a 180-degree change from who I was before music to who I am now.
Your first project Curious arrived in 2015. How does that former version of yourself as an artist compare or contrast to the artist you are today?
I love the fact that I’m still true to myself. The only thing that’s changing with me is experience and knowing how to make songs better and my voice better. I’m still daring to do whatever and not afraid to do sh*t that nobody [is] doing. I like that I’m still curious to do different things, that’s why I named it Curious. I was figuring out who I am. I definitely have figured out myself a lot more. I’m way more assertive and intentional with everything I do on a creative tip.
You first worked with Charlie Heat in 2021 on his Valentine’s Son project on the title track. How did you two connect for that release?
We already been working a couple of times, and I just remember him calling me in like, “Yo. Can you pull up on me? I wanna get a song from you and put it on my album.” Then, I got to the studio, and he just told me how his album was gonna be called Valentine’s Son, and that’s his mom’s name. He wanted one of those songs to be dedicated to his mom. So he played the song, and he told me a couple words he wanted in there, and it happened like that, honestly. It was pretty easy once because I knew what to say. So it worked out.
How would you describe your creative relationship with Charlie Heat?
We have respect for each other. We are both daring. We both want to make a mark in music. We don’t take it as a hobby because this is our livelihood. We both work hard. It makes it easy when we get in [the studio] because we also are friends, and we care for each other.
Also, YMTK as well. He’s in every session. He’s like my close creative partner that I always bounce ideas off. He’s writing on every song with me and everything. It’s the combination of us three. It’s always a fun time and a dope experience.
“Play Too Much” featuring Too $hort is among the standouts on the album. What was the driving force behind the song and collaborating with him?
At the time, I was dealing with relationship issues with my girl. [I] got out the whip mad as hell, went upstairs to the studio trying to be cool [and] calm myself down and work. Charlie and Murph sensed it and were laughing. I’m like, “Yeah, man, got me f*cked up.”
Charlie jokingly played the chords, and we all started laughing. Murph is like, “No, no. That’s it. That’s the song.” I’m like, “Bro, Nah. Let’s be for real now.” That’s like a song I never in my life would’ve at the time intentionally made. The first words that came out of my mouth, they took it seriously and made it a song. That was just a pure accident. It winded up working to my benefit.
Too $hort is really cool with YMTK, the executive producer and co-writer on all the stuff we got coming out. So, it was more of a favor for him. When he heard the song, he loved it and got it back to us quickly, which I was surprised about.
It’s definitely one of my favorites on New Jack City, for sure.
I’m glad. Honestly, I was fighting against that [record]. I always liked it, but I didn’t love it. I didn’t appreciate it as much because I’m over here trying to do a certain style of R&B. They’re like, “But, G, this is also you. This is also what you do.” It just grew on me as I played it and tested it out for a couple people. Seeing how people react to it made me look at it differently, and I was like, “Maybe it’s tight that it ain’t something people would necessarily expect from me.” It’s cool not to be predictable sometimes.
I have to admit that when I listened to New Jack City, I felt like some songs like “Just Wanna” are more nostalgic and throwback while others such as “Giddy Up” felt more of a progression. Is that a fair analysis?
It is. I’ve gotten that remark before. I feel like that is honestly just a little bit of my style. That is my style of how I like to make my albums. I don’t like it to be a monotone album. I understand how people made albums [where] it was a consistent vibe throughout, but I feel like the way people listen to music is playlisting. No one even listens to albums the same anymore. They make a playlist of their favorites, and they put that sh*t together (laughs). That’s kind of what I do — just create my own playlist and make it be the album vibe.
How do you think New Jack City will fit into the current R&B landscape?
Honestly, I don’t want an album that fits in too well but just fits in with what’s going on. I think it’ll be something people have to get with and learn to like. It’s going to definitely be [for those of an] acquired taste.
I wouldn’t be surprised if people do not like or get it immediately. It’s definitely different. I know certain songs on there like “Just Wanna” are not what people are doing or listening to. I definitely can’t play the fence and just make records that I think everyone will like every time. I gotta test the waters.
Stream Gemaine and Charlie Heat’s new project New Jack City below.