Jelani Blackman is bringing authenticity back to UK hip-hop

After collaborating with the likes of Gorillaz and Burna Boy, the musician’s latest record has arrived.

For Jelani Blackman, music has always seemed like a predestined path rather than a conscious career move. Since the age of nine, the multi-hyphenate musician played the saxophone and put pen to paper as a teenager, sharpening his lyrical skills while growing up in Ladbroke Grove. He released his first EP, 1-4, back in 2016, and although raw and unpolished, Blackmen would show plenty of promise through his experimental vocal effects, inflexions and genre-fluid approach. As the artists continued to sharpen the tools in his musical arsenal, he’d go on to collaborate with musical royalty, including the likes of Fred Agaian.., Gorillaz, and Burna Boy, just to name a few. While the allure of becoming an overnight success and chasing viral hits can become enticing for many artists nowadays – resulting in obvious attempts to appease the algorithm with trend-chasing tracks – Blackman’s rise was steady, and now, he knows exactly who he is as an artist.

Today is arguably the most important day of Blackman’s career to date. His debut album, The Heart of It, has been released into the world and is now in the hands of his fans, ready for all to digest it in all its glory. Epitomised by its title, the project encompasses all the crucial moments in his life that shaped him whilst displaying his growth both musically and personally. The project kicks off with a melancholic Blackman yearning for better days, rapping “I’m tryna stop this burning rain” on the hook of album opener ‘Feel The Same’. Meanwhile, tracks like ‘When You Feel It’ see the rapper/singer bounce effortlessly across booming 808s with a rapid-fire flow. The Heart of It is as emotionally poignant as it is uplifting, although its most breathtaking moments come when Blackman tackles the most hard-hitting of subjects. On ‘Line Up’ (a track that Blackman himself struggles to listen to), he recalls the racism he faced at school due to his hairstyle. “My school said I couldn’t have my hair, swear? That ain’t fair,” he raps, adding, “I didn’t know that we did that here, said that you weren’t like them over there in the US.” 

Overall, The Heart of It is a multifaceted, introspective, and, at times, playful deep dive into the mind of one of the UK’s most creative talents. And while Blackman may have been on the scene for a number of years, it feels as though this is just the beginning of the most exciting period of his career so far.

Here, we sit down with Blackman to discuss the process behind his album, his relationship with his Mum, and much more…

HUNGER: Hey Jelani! Before we jump into the album, where are you in the world right now? 

Jelani: Hey, I’m in London right now!

And is that where you’ve always grown up?

Jelani: Always, except for the time I went to uni in Leeds, I was always in London.

What was that experience like, and what were you studying? 

Jelani: Yeah, I loved it, and I still love Leeds. It was Brilliant. And I was studying music and philosophy.

When did you realise that music was something you wanted to pursue?

Jelani: It’s always just been something I’ve done. It was never an active decision. And then started taking it more seriously when, to be honest, it wasn’t until after I finished my first record deal that I realised this is the thing that I want to do. I don’t want to do anything else.

Can you remember the first album you ever bought/listened to?

Jelani: Well, the first album I remember loving was actually Craig David – Born To Do It. That was the first one I remember just banging out on repeat.

And moving on to your debut album now, how’re you feeling overall about it being released into the world?

Jelani: Pretty good, to be honest. It’s gone in and out, but this week, I’m very happy, and I’m going to enjoy the process.

The title is The Heart of It. What does the title mean to you, and did you have that in mind even before starting the project?

Jelani: I think it was what I was driving at. When I first started putting it together and having sessions for the album, the thing that I wanted to do was say something significant. And that phrase is how you would describe something significant. So I knew that was what I wanted to do, and then the title came and described what I hopefully have achieved.

And how long had you been working on the album overall?

Jelani: I started in spring last year, and then I had it pretty much finished by December. The hardest part is the last 10% of it. That took a good few months.

Having that title of a debut album, did that add any extra pressure for you?

Jelani: I put pressure on myself to make sure that I delivered something that I would look back on and be like, ‘Yes, that stands up to what I’m capable of doing’. And I definitely feel like I’ve achieved that. 

Right from the first track, the album kicks off in a grandiose cinematic nature. Was that your intention going into the project, to build a kind of cinematic experience?

Jelani: I think one of the things about my music is it’s always been very cinematic. It’s painting a picture, and it’s very visual in the way that I think and the things that I describe. And I love films, so that makes sense. 

Speaking of films, was there anything you had on loop whilst making the album, or anything you pulled inspiration from in particular?

Jelani: There are films that influenced the album, like the French film La Haine. I think some of the energy of that, in terms of the social commentary, but also the juxtaposition between the darkness and the light really fits into the way I wanted to make this album. 

One person that comes up in the album a few times is your Mum. How much of an impact has she had on you?

Jelani: Huge. It’s me and her, really, because I’m an only child, and she’s also an only child. We don’t really have that massive family unit. And my nan passed away recently, so she’s very significant and has always been so supportive.

What was your Mum’s reaction to listening to the album?

She wanted to wait. I did try to send it to her, but she said no!

Will you be listening to it with her?

Jelani: I think I’ll let her do it by herself. Then I’ll get a debrief about what she liked and what she didn’t.

You’re tackling a variety of topics on there like systemic racism, immigration, and corruption, especially on tracks like ‘Line Up’ and ‘New World Order’. How important was it to get those politically charged tracks out there?

Jelani: I think it was essential, really. That’s what makes it different from what I’ve worked on before. In the past, I’ve tried social commentary with lighter vibes. But there are some things on there that are just pure to digest and listen to and to say something important. I haven’t put many songs out like that, if any.

And talking about those kinds of tracks, was there one in particular, from an emotional standpoint, that was the most difficult to write? 

Jelani: ’Line Up’ is the toughest to listen to, but It was actually easy to write. I had loads to say about it, but I always find it difficult to go back and listen to it.

You’ve got some big features on there as well. In terms of the track with Kojey Radical, was there a competitive spirit about it?

Jelani: Not really, to be honest. That has happened with tracks that I’ve written on because that’s the nature of rap a lot of the time. I think that it was more that I had that song already, and I think he came in and just did his thing that elevated it even further.

The tracklist is 15 tracks long. In music nowadays, especially in hip-hop, we’re getting these 25+ track albums, so was it a conscious decision to keep things concise?

Jelani: Yeah, there was no set number of songs to have on there, but I wanted to make sure every song had a purpose. There’s no filler. But none of the albums that I aspire to make have any filler on them. And if there’s a lot of tracks, there’s always a likelihood that there’s going to be at least one filler track. 

What do you hope your listeners take away from the album?

Jelani: What I would love is for them to come away from it and want to see it live. That’s always my goal – to play as much live as possible. That was the main thing for me.

Moving on to the UK music scene, like as a whole right now, how do you feel it has progressed over the years since you were younger?

Jelani: I think it’s probably running parallel to everything else in the world. It’s a tricky time. Things come in cycles and waves, and then one type of music is popular, and then another type of music is popular. It’s never as cut and dry as this thing is taking over. Things evolve and develop. At the moment, I think it’s fine. I’m not mad at it. But I’m not massively excited by it. Like I said, for me the main thing is playing live and the whole live landscape has changed so much since Covid that I think that’s impacted on the music slightly and the way that people make music.

So, the album is out now. What are your plans moving forward? Are you going to relax for a bit, or are you already back in the studio?

Jelani: Well, I think up until Christmas, there’s going to be stuff going on around the album. Then, by that point, hopefully I’ll be able to just breathe for a second and enjoy Christmas. But after that, I’ll be touring at the beginning of next year. And I want to have the next project out next year and music out after the tour. I think now that the first one’s done, I just want to keep it moving.

WriterChris Saunders
PhotographerOlly Dundas
Photography assistantsMarcus Lister, Chelsea Nawanga