Labrinth has been busy working with the likes of Beyoncé and Kanye West, and has channeled his outlook on the fame game into his own album, writes Ed Power.
There were moments during the past several years when Labrinth could be forgiven for thinking he was trapped in a maze. But then he struck up a friendship with Kanye West and was invited to work on the American rapper’s gospel-tinged new album, Jesus Is King.
All of a sudden, it was as if the walls had parted. Sunlight streamed in and the world made a little more sense.
“He’s definitely got a controversial public image,” says Labrinth, aka London songwriter, producer and rapper Timothy McKenzie. “He’s done some pretty wild shit. I Iike that I was involved in the record where he was trying to find his own redemption and peace. It was in line with what I was trying to create with my album.”
Labrinth’s new LP, Imagination and the Misfit Kid could be considered a companion piece of sorts to Jesus Is King. True, it is secular where West’s is loudly, proudly evangelic. Yet both records take on big issues: the meaning of life, the importance of family, the ultimate hollowness of professional success.
And they each arrive at the same conclusion — that fame and fortune are fleeting and should not be mistaken for what really matters.
“I remember him speaking his experience to me of what led him to his faith. It was a case of, ‘I’m on top the world — and I still don’t feel happy’. That is exactly what my album is about — it is so weird.”
It’s been seven years since Labrinth’s debut album and there is a perception that he may have lost his way and is now staging a comeback. The truth is that he’s stayed busy during that time. He recorded with Kanye, wrote with Ed Sheeran, collaborated with Beyoncé on the score to Disney’s Lion King remake and formed supergroup LSD with producer Diplo and vocalist Sia.
The 30-year-old has also been spending more and more time in America. He achieved a bit of a coup this year when invited to compose the soundtrack to HBO’s teen misfit drama Euphoria. It captured the zeitgeist and so did Labrinth’s gorgeously hazy soundtrack. This introduced him to the series’ star Zendaya, who puts in a guest turn on Imagination and the Misfit Kid.
“If you’re in LA and you want to look like a superstar you have to remember who you’re up against,” says McKenzie. “I’ve come from London and I have had a couple of hits.
That’s entirely as it should be, he feels. It’s good to be be humble. It puts you in a healthy place creatively. He recalls a Hollywood party at which he was invited to step up and sing a song. He performed a track off his 2012 debut album, Electronic Earth. The record was a critical and commercial success, with cameos from Tinie Tempah and Emeli Sandé. In LA, he was nonetheless a bag of jitters.
“A lot of people don’t like not being recognised. They want to be the biggest guy in the room. I enjoy it the opposite way. I’m not impressing people with my back catalogue or having a number one. I’m going to impress them because of how I am as a person. If I’m talented as an artist, that’s going to be the impression I give. If I’m talented enough people will care.
“At that party, I went on stage and I was really shitting myself. I looked around I saw Paul McCartney, U2, [record label executive] Jimmy Iovine, Moby… all these big names. And I thought, ‘woah.. how the hell did I get here?’. It was incredible and weird and very inspiring.”
McKenzie was born and grew up in Hackney, East London. The youngest of eight he came of age in a musical family. Home life was stable. Or at least as stable as it could be given his father walked out shortly after he was born. He was still in school when he and his siblings formed a family-band called Mac 9.
Later, in his late teens, his production work brought him to the attention of the publishing wing of EMI. This in turn led to collaborations with artists such as Maverick Sabre.
Labrinth’s big break was Tinie Tempah’s 2009 number one ‘Pass Out’, for which he had an uncredited cameo. Twelve months later, he released his debut single, ‘Let the Sun Shine’, which charted at three in the UK. ‘Electronic Earth’ followed in 2012, reaching 19 in Ireland and two in the UK.
He is interested in celebrity and how it can be as much curse as blessing. It is one of the themes of the new album. He drew on his own experiences and on those of other successful musicians.
“I was paying attention to what other artists are going through. I took on their character in the songs and made a fantasy, psychedelic version of their experiences.”
But he’s also had positive time rubbing shoulders with the great and good. “I’ve worked with amazing artists. Kenya, Kanye, Beyoncé… every time, I feel they want to push the envelope. They’ve always challenged me. The pressure is on. As a creative, that’s helped hugely.”
He’s hardly X Factor, wannabe pop idol material yet has been signed through his career to Simon Cowell’s label, SyCo. “One thing that has been constant for me is my relationship with Simon,” he says.
“We’ve always got on, he’s always been supportive. Even between the albums, he was always consistent that he didn’t care if was four years, seven years… I should just keep rolling. Most labels would have dropped me by now. Simon always said, ‘I just believe in what you are doing’.”
He pauses and laughs. “I really mean that — I’m not just saying it because he’s watching me on a hidden camera. There are no cameras!”
Imagination and the Misfit Kid is out now