The first time I met SAINt JHN, he looked and acted like the biggest rockstar in the world.
Standing in the front yard of an Airbnb in Austin, Texas, the Brooklyn rapper wore a leather jacket and oversized sunglasses. Killing time before an on-camera interview with Pigeons & Planes, he cracked jokes about collecting the finest silks in the world, and whenever anyone asked him how he was doing, he replied, "I'm feeling sexy." Wherever he went that week at SXSW 2017, he was easily the most confident, magnetic personality in the room.
At the time, though, SAINt JHN wasn't the biggest rockstar in the world. He was a year removed from releasing a song called "Roses," which received some buzz on blogs but hadn't yet turned into the massive hit he knew it could become. He had writing credits for artists like Jidenna and Gorgon City under his belt, and he was in the process of turning his full attention to a solo career, quietly uploading catchy songs like "Reflex" and "3 Below" to SoundCloud. His sticky melodies were beginning to turn heads around the music industry, but he was still a well-kept secret among his small fanbase.
The rest of the world hadn't caught up yet.
Still, SAINt JHN remained confident. In 2018, he released his first full-length studio project, Collection One, which included songs like "Roses," "Selfish," and "I Heard You Got Too Litt Last Night." Then in 2019, he caught the eye of Roc-A-Fella Records co-founder Kareem "Biggs" Burke, who announced a return to the music industry by signing SAINt JHN to Circle of Success Management Company. Building on that momentum, he released his second project, Ghetto Lenny's Love Songs, in late 2019 and went on tour.
Then, something unexpected happened. Imanbek Zeikenov, a 19-year-old who was working at a train station in Kazakhstan, came across "Roses" and made an uptempo dance remix for it. After initially uploading it to the internet without permission in late 2019, Zeikenov's remix caught fire on social media. By spring, it was everywhere. In April 2020 alone, it racked up over 4.5 billion plays on TikTok, and by summer it had become an inescapable hit across all platforms, peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. According to Rolling Stone, it was the song of the summer.
It was a turn of events that no one predicted, but SAINt JHN was ready for it. He had been preparing himself for a moment like this since releasing music as Carlos St. John in Brooklyn ten years earlier. SAINt JHN was always confident something like this would happen. He just didn't know when the world would finally catch up to what he was doing.
"I took it as a reminder of the momentum that I built over the course of the last couple of years when people weren't paying attention, back when I put out 'Roses' and no one cared," he says now, reflecting on the momentum he's seeing in 2020 as he prepares to release his next collection. "Back when 'Selfish' and 'Reflex' came out and didn't become big hits. I took it as an opportunity to make up for those missed opportunities, when the world wasn't ready for it. But they must have been ready this time, because they knocked on my door."
Making the most of the opportunity, SAINt JHN holed up in Los Angeles during the pandemic and recorded a new collection of songs that he appropriately titled While the World Was Burning. As he worked, an A-list cast of collaborators joined the creative process, including Kanye West, Lil Uzi Vert, Future, DaBaby, Kehlani, 6LACK, JID, and A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie. At one point, as SAINt JHN reveals to Complex, Kanye even threw around the idea of executive producing the album alongside Rick Rubin.
Days before the release of While the World Was Burning, SAINt JHN caught up with Complex to discuss his breakout moment, flying to Jamaica with Kanye West and Buju Banton, and more. The interview, lightly edited for clarity, is below.
You've had a hell of a year in 2020. How does it feel to have such a successful year while, as you put it, the rest of the world is burning?
Let me ask you a question. When you say I had a hell of a year, what does that look like to you? Because I'm inside my own body and I have my own perspective. Help me understand. What happened this year for me that would constitute a "hell of a year"?
I think people are finally catching up. I remember hearing "Roses" when it first came out in 2016 and wondering why it wasn't more popular at the time. So it's cool to see everyone finally discovering that song four years later. Everyone is finally catching up to the work you've been putting in for years.
I think you're right. That's cool to hear it from your point of view, because I don't often hear what it means when people say, "You've had a hell of a year." Like, they might have seen me on one PBS documentary, and that might be a lot for them. But you've got a better vantage point, having watched since 2016. You know all the things that you believe I should have had, but they didn't happen yet. This year you're probably going to see a lot of it.
You've always been confident. You're not surprised by any of the success you're seeing now, are you?
No. Not even a little bit.
What gave you that confidence? What kept you going?
Well, I know how to make a plan. I just had to stick to something I knew I was going to execute. And it was easy to execute something that I believed in. I'm making music that's autobiographical. These are stories that I've experienced firsthand. This is music about a life that I know, and I'm applying my talent to it.
I know how slow the world is to new ideas. We are all resistant to things that force us to change or to grow. Change is usually uncomfortable, and it's a slow process. So if I'm the guy that I think I am, and I'm making the music that I think I'm making, then it would make sense that it wouldn't happen right away. If the bar is raised, then people will have to be told that the bar is raised. They've got to be comfortable with the new standard, and that's going to take time.
I've always thought about music like running for president. I thought about the superstars in music and culture: they're running for public office. They've got to shake all the hands, kiss all the babies, do all the interviews, sit down with all the media. They've got to introduce themselves many times until the world goes, "I know who that guy is. His name is SAINt. I know where he's from. He's from Brooklyn. I know what he believes in." I have to say it enough times that the world will hear it. I have to be forgiving for all the people that didn't hear it the first time, because we're not all listening to the same thing at the same time with the same intention.
Knowing the plan five years out gave me the comfort of knowing it didn't matter what happened today, because I was walking towards my future. As long as I ended up there, at that time in the future, I was going to be good. It wouldn't matter what today brought. It wouldn't matter if I failed today or if I missed. Or if I put out "Roses" in 2016 and people didn't really hear it until 2020, because in 2020 I'd have been ready for it anyway. I was planning for that.
Everything is really clicking for you right now. Did something change? Or is it just the right timing now?
I think it's just a new idea and people needed more time to grasp it. It's clicking because people had enough time to investigate it—even other artists. If you think about it, when a new kid comes to school, he doesn't come into school with the friends from the normal crowd. This is a new kid. He's in a class, he seems intelligent, he's well-dressed, and he's by himself. It's going to take you a long time to walk up to that kid, introduce yourself, and say, "I want to be your friend." You're probably going to watch him for a while. You probably want to know exactly who he knows, how he got here, where he came from, and why he dresses the way he does, before you go introduce yourself. The first people that go introduce themselves, they're the bravest people on the planet. They have so much self-confidence that it doesn't matter who this new person is. That's an analogy so you can understand that even artists took a long road before they wanted to be friendly with me. So I'm not surprised that the greater world had to take their own time.
"Kanye told me, 'I just finished listening to your record 20 times in a row on a jet.'"
What's the most important lesson you learned along that journey?
You're asking me such an important question. It's almost not fair. I've learned a lot of things. I won't prioritize and say one thing is more important than the next. But something that I do know definitively, beyond a doubt, is that timing is the most essential ingredient to everything. But timing doesn't mean it just has to line up for you and fall into your lap. Timing is something that you can sort of work with. You've got to pay attention to it. You've got to be attentive enough to see when it's not working, study why it's not working, understand what you did wrong, come back, and take a better shot at a better time. It's timing.
The "Roses" remix introduced a lot of new fans to you and your music, and it even topped dance charts, which is a new realm for you. Did the sound of that remix affect the direction of the new music you've making? Did it open up new lanes that you might not have seen for yourself before?
I grew up listening to Jay-Z and Beenie Man. And I've written songs for Usher, Beyoncé, Gorgon City... I can keep going. My music is broad. The things that I choose for myself might be different than the things that I choose for other people. It's all just great music. So the remix for "Roses" didn't open up dance for me. I've been making music in that space with this different sound and a different approach the entire time I've making music. I don't think of music in genres. I just sometimes think of music as tempos and emotions. Dance is just a tempo and an emotion. So no, I'm making the same music I would have made anyway, which is just dynamic collections of music. While the World Was Burning is no different than it would've been without the remix of "Roses." I'm going forward.
When you announced While the World Was Burning, you shared an image that said, "I had no intention of making this collection." What did you mean by that?
I wasn't going to put out any music this year. I didn't set out to make While the World Was Burning. In 2019, I didn't say, "Yo, next year, we're going to make a collection called While the World Was Burning. It's going to come out on this date. It's going to have this level of features." But truth be told, the pandemic hit, everything stopped moving, tours stopped, people were at home locked in, and people were dying. I'm sitting here making music, trying to work on getting better sleep, and trying to take better care of myself.
I remember at the top of this year, I was experiencing new emotions, canceling a tour related to physical symptoms. I guess it's anxiety. So I'm thinking of how to take better care of myself when this is happening. I'm not thinking of rushing to put out music. And in the span of a week, I make a couple of calls and a few people make a couple of calls on behalf of me. So many artists picked up the phone and worked with me. That's what happened. I wasn't even going to make this music. But Kehlani picked up the phone, and 6lack picked up the phone, and Kanye wanted to do a record, and A Boogie picked up the phone, and DaBaby was down to do a record, and Uzi jumped on a song.
I mean, it just happened in such a short span of time, but it wasn't my intention. Bro, I couldn't have tried to put this together if I wanted to. If I made a list and I said, "It's going to be Future, JID, A Boogie, DaBaby, Uzi, Kehlani, 6lack, Kanye West, and me, and it's going to be called While the World Was Burning in 2020," I would have never achieved that. It wouldn't have happened. I don't think I had the resources to make something like that happen. I think there had to be some opportunity and a whole lot of God whispering in a bunch of people's ears, saying, "Go." So, I had no intention of making this collection. I was just going to learn how to sleep better, eat better, take better care of myself, and let this year ride itself out. I had an incredible hit record. I didn't have to do anything.
Was there something you were trying to prove with this collection? Did you have any guiding principles or goals?
Considering that I had no intention on making the collection, of course I had no guiding principles or goals. But everything I do, I do the same way. It has to look good and feel even better. It has to sound good and be remarkable in the way it makes you feel. So I didn't intend on making it, but if I'm going to make it, I'm going to do it the way that I would've done it anyway. Fortunately, for me, I don't have to get up and put on a mask to become myself. I'm just who I am. I don't have to read a book to think the way that I think. This is just how I think. So everything I do, I do with the same filter. I want it to be incredible. I want it to be profound. I want it to be compelling.
It came together on its own, and I was just appreciative. I did it. I took it as an opportunity to put it out. I took it as a reminder of the momentum that I built over the course of the last couple of years when people weren't paying attention, back when I put out "Roses" and no one cared. Back when "Selfish" and "Reflex" came out and didn't become big hits. I took it as an opportunity to make up for those missed opportunities, when the world wasn't ready for it. But they must have been ready this time, because they knocked on my door.
"I didn't even know I could be this colorful."
On "Quarantine Wifey," you rap, "Bitch, I'm trying to be the next Kanye." What about Kanye do you take inspiration from?
'Ye dreams without borders. He dreams without limitation. I come from the same lineage. I come from the same school of thought. I want to put a motorcycle in my living room. I want to have a Saint Laurent wall in the living room. I want an entire art gallery of While the World Was Burning art prints as my backdrop. I want a skull rug from the NOT A CULt collection in the corner by my Saint Laurent skateboard that I've never used because I can't skateboard, right next to my Goyard cigar case.
To be that, you have to think in a more boundless, limitless way. I'm from Brooklyn. I'm from East New York. I'm from a place where I didn't even think that this was necessarily possible. I didn't even know I could be this colorful. I didn't know I could be this emotional in music. I didn't know I could be this expressive in clothing. And he's one of the key architects of boundless self-expression in this era.
You have a collaboration with Kanye on this album called "Pray 4 Me." How did that happen?
Kanye called me. I had never talked to him before. We never met before. He got my number from somebody. I mean, when Kanye wants your number, he's going to get it. He texted me first, actually. He said, "This is 'Ye. I just listened to your record 20 times in a row on a jet." And I said, "Who?" Because people be playing with your phone. But look, I knew it was 'Ye. I ain't going to lie to you. I just needed to verify. I was like, there's no other way. I'm at this place in my life. It's gotta be him.
And then he wrote back, "Kanye, man. Can I FaceTime you?" We jumped on the phone and he told me, "I just finished listening to your record 20 times in a row on a jet." He had never heard of me. He didn't know I was managed by Biggs. He didn't know me. He just heard a song, and being the type of artist that he is, he asked about it and said, "Yeah, I want to put a verse on it." That was the first call. And he was talking about "Roses."
From there, we started developing a relationship. He asked me to come to Wyoming, and I said I couldn't because I was finishing the next collection. At the time, I was in the middle of all the other calls that came in, and the momentum of making this collection had already started. He was one of the last calls. So I said, "I can't go to Cody, Wyoming to work, because I'm working on this music." Then he called me back the next day and said, "Yo, Rick Rubin's here. Maybe we could executive produce it, me and Rick Rubin. We should executive produce it together. The collection." I was like, "Look, let's just start a relationship." So I actually went to Cody a couple of days later. And that was it.
I saw a video of you walking around Kanye's compound with the giant TV. I think Buju Banton was there, too. What was that day was like?
That wasn't the first time that we met, actually. Those are two separate instances. When you saw Kanye showing me around his soundstage, that was in Atlanta. That's the soundstage with a 100-foot TV. Then he has this tank and whatever these other things are called. He was just showing me he's designing clothes in there and premiering videos and movies and just being inspired.
And then we went to Jamaica with me and him and Buju. Bro, it's iconic. It's fucking incredible. It's me, Kanye West, and Buju Banton in Jamaica, making records. We flew down there on a private jet. I had only found out the night before that we were going. Buju's people cooked the most incredible food. The first thing we did was eat. All we were doing is eating because Jamaica is fire and the food is incredible. And then we got into the studio and Kanye was playing music. And if you slipped for a second and thought he wasn't the Kanye West that you thought he was musically, that'd be an incredible mistake. It's brilliant. The music is incredible. I'm as much of a fan now as I was then. But I'm getting to hear music that no one's heard yet. And then Buju playing his unreleased records, and then me playing mine. Look, bro. It's like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson playing one-on-one-on-one.
Did "Pray 4 Me" come out of those sessions in Jamaica?
Nope, those are a whole other batch of songs. That's all I'm going to say.
Another big collaboration you have on this album is with Lil Uzi Vert. What's the story behind that one?
Uzi is super talented. Uzi is Uzi. I was lucky to get Uzi on a record. I appreciate his entire team for being supportive and getting it done. I don't know what it was like on his side, but I think we made a call and they were super responsive. Uzi jumped on the record right away. He actually did two versions. He did that one and then he came back and I asked him to think of the song the way I was thinking of it, and he did it in quick time like it was nothing. He came right back with another verse for the exact same record, "High School Reunion." He just felt like the right fit: me and Uzi going back to our high school reunion.
"I could tell you about all the strippers I've seen dance to 'Trap.' I could tell you about all the things I did with money floating in the air when 'Trap' was playing."
How did being in L.A. as opposed to New York affect the energy on this album?
It doesn't matter where I am. I've made music in so many different places around the world. Being in L.A. didn't change anything for me. It's just, there's a beach close and there's a mountain to drive through. It gives me more opportunities to get in the car and drive, because the car is my office now. I like that L.A. has more roads so I could be at work for a longer period of time. But outside of that, I don't necessarily pull any energy from the city, because I'm not familiar enough with it. I'm from a more transparently aggressive place, New York. L.A. is subtly and misleadingly aggressive. You don't know where the danger is at around the corner. So it's not necessarily a city I play with or take for granted. I don't pull energy from here. I'm in my head when I'm here.
A couple years ago, you started working with Biggs. How would you describe your relationship with him and how he's changed things for you?
Biggs is my brother. Biggs is my long-lost brother that I knew my entire life but didn't actually meet until a couple years ago. And what changed when Biggs came into the picture? We're two people that were crazy enough to think that I was big enough to fill out stadiums. We're two people who were crazy enough to think I'd make music with people like Beyoncé and Kanye West when people hadn't heard of me yet. It made it easy to go into war with another person who believes in the same things you believe in, with the same passion. And he has the experience. He's done this. Jay-Z. Kanye West. I could go down the list and say a bunch of other people, too.
When we met and I told him about my plan and all the things I'm inspired by, he never looked at me like I was nuts. He had seen the most ambitious artists stand next to him and tell him their dreams and make them come to fruition. So when I told him mine, he was like, "Oh, yeah. That's pretty normal." It made sense. So that changed things for me. He had the experience, and my big ideas didn't scare him.
Before the pandemic hit, you postponed your Europe tour because you were dealing with anxiety. What did you learn about yourself through that process?
I'm hesitant to label it as anxiety, because I don't want to self-diagnose myself. I don't know what was going on. My body was changing. It felt like anxiety. It felt like all those symptoms. So anybody who might have experienced that and who has been struggling with that their entire life, I think that's what I experienced. Being in the middle of tour, my body was fighting against me for the first time. I'm athletic. I've been an athlete my whole life, so I'm built like this. Music is my sport, but I don't want to shoot a ball, I just want to play with some silk.
Feeling my body fighting against me for the first time, it scared the fuck out of me. I got on stage when I was in Oslo, Norway, and I ran out of breath three minutes into my set. If you've seen me perform, you know I give a passionate and energetic performance. I don't struggle for breath. My stamina is good. I'm an athlete. But four minutes into it, my breath goes and I know I'm in trouble. I'm panicking, but I know I have to push through it. This is flu game Michael Jordan as far as I'm concerned. I could rehash all the things in my life that I've seen on TV or read in newspapers about great men and great women. So I sort of referenced them and I kept powering through.
But I got backstage at the end of that Oslo show, and I was in tears. I felt like I had disappointed myself. I felt like I had disappointed an audience of people who had been waiting to see me for years. But nobody else felt that way. Nobody else knew what I was even going through. I lost my breath control. My nerves were off the fucking charts. I was uncertain about where I physically was. Not mentally, but I didn't know spatially what was going on. I canceled the show after it, five minutes before the doors opened up. There were thousands of people in line, and I canceled the show five minutes before.
I was trying to push myself through it, because I figured it was all mental. I coach myself through everything. I coach myself through the bruises and the scars. I've been able to talk myself through all the things I've experienced. But in this one, I couldn't. My body said stop. So I canceled my tour and it was really hard. It was the first time I felt like I disappointed myself in such an obvious way, but it was also one of the healthiest things I could have done for myself. Because, when my body said stop, I listened. Most people don't listen. They push past it and they find themselves in a new place where they can't reverse whatever they did.
Dealing with this new experience was really grounding. It told me that I had to do more work than I thought I had to do. The work is physical. The work is not just mental. The work ain't just spiritual. Sometimes the work is sleep. Sometimes the work is turning off your phone. Sometimes the work is saying, "Yo, bro, this is a love me day. I'm going to love me all day."
One of my favorite songs of 2019 was "Trap" with Lil Baby. What comes to mind when you think of that song?
I've performed that song in so many different countries around the world. But for some reason, when you say "Trap," I think of the music video. I think of all the women in the Christian Sex Club 'NOT A CULt' sweatsuits. I think of Lil Baby in the Church of St. JHN leather jacket. We started shooting late. It was the middle of the night, and I remember him pulling up to the set. He came through and he didn't have security with him or nothing like that. He was just in the city and he had his people with him. I remember thinking, "This feels familiar." That's how I would pull up, just me and my team, moving small and moving aggressive.
These are just some of the things that I remember from the video. You've got to remember, these songs are small moments and they develop lives. I could tell you about all the strippers I've seen dance to "Trap." I could tell you about all the things I did with money floating in the air when "Trap" was playing. I could tell you about being in Mod Club in Toronto, performing that song. That's closed now. There's just so many moments.
One of the consistencies across your whole catalog is your producer, f a l l e n. You've been working with him since the early days. How has your guys' relationship evolved over time?
He's my guy. That relationship has been going since long before you knew my name and his name. We fight constantly in the studio about what we believe in, just to make sure that we have the type of quality and emotionality that we'd be proud of. I want to know the same thing that he wants to know: that if I left this planet, this music that we made, we did everything we believed in. So our relationship over the years has grown immensely with trust.
We used to work in a room together more consistently, but because I travel a lot more than I did when we first started working, we learned how to communicate over Zoom. We've learned to be less involved and have the same thing fingerprint. Before, I used to be there with him saying, "Hey, move this synth. Cool. Turn the drums up. Cool. Let's add in this guitar. Let's put this violin here."
He's such an incredible producer. And I used to be so hands-on that the fingerprint is still there without me being involved in production. That's how our relationship has evolved. I can throw a ball to him with my eyes closed, he'll catch it, dunk it, throw it back off the court, and I'll make a lay up behind my back with one hand tied. That's the evolution of our relationship. I know him. He knows me. And I'm still going to fight. If he's going to make a stupid recommendation, I'll be like, "Absolutely not."
How have you celebrated your success this year? What's the most extravagant thing you've splurged on for yourself?
I bought a Ferrari in the pandemic. It's my work vehicle.
What's the most important thing you want people to know about you right now?
I'm Black and I'm from Brooklyn.