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“You up on Makonnen?” a friend from Atlanta emailed me last summer out of the blue. I didn’t respond. He then sent me a link to iLoveMakonnen and promised that the EP was “straight fire.” One look at the self-aggrandizing stage name iLoveMakonnen — which no one seemed to know how to pronounce — and the creepy-ass decapitated-harlequin artwork and said message proceeded into my spam folder. A few weeks later, the same project and the track “I Don’t Sell Molly No More” resurfaced, courtesy of Miley Cyrus, of all people. “ilovemakonnen da [shit],” she shared on Instagram, complete with that ridiculous shit emoji that only ridiculous people use. Now, look: I’ve never deferred to Miley Cyrus’s taste in music, but I retrieved the link to iLoveMakonnen. The first two tracks were cool, but the third, a song innocuously called “Club Goin Up on a Tuesday,” came on. I played it. And then I played it again. And again. And again.
“Club Goin Up on a Tuesday” was just so fucking sexy — and it still is. Makonnen’s soft croon and delicate falsetto caresses a strange and woozy beat, produced by Sonny Digital and Metro Boomin, two exceptional young beatsmiths.
“Working with Makonnen is always quick and easy,” Metro tells the Voice. “We always make the beats quick and record the songs pretty quick. ‘Tuesday’ was made within an hour, the beat and vocals included. All from scratch.” Even in its simplicity, “Tuesday” is deliciously infectious, and Makonnen succeeds in turning up the most humdrum day of the week. “Club Goin Up on a Tuesday” became one of those instant on-repeat anthems, the kind of song that you’re compelled to share with all of your friends and even attach a string of hyperbolic emojis to. Apologies, Miley.
Drake agreed. Hip-hop’s kingmaker (who had previously propelled the careers of the Weeknd and Migos) remixed the track in August and gave the unknown Makonnen the ultimate co-sign. “I never thought back then that [‘Tuesday’] would be as big as it is today,” says Metro. Whispers of a major-label bidding war ensued, and everyone wanted to get a piece of the 25-year-old (born Makonnen Sheran) singer/rapper.
Makonnen has remained reticent and rarely speaks with the media (which, of course, only adds to his intrigue). He did open up early on to BuzzFeed in an excellent profile about his unlikely ascent. Growing up in Atlanta, Makonnen sounds like the good kid caught in a bad situation. He describes himself as “the funny guy” in high school, “hanging out with drug dealers and thieves and the pretty girls that were popular.” After graduation, he and a friend got into an accidental gun altercation that left his friend dead. Subsequently, Makonnen spent four weeks in jail and then two years on house arrest. During this time, he found solace trolling the internet on his Gateway computer, blogging and connecting to the world on social media (“I was talking to Adele on MySpace right before she blew up” [on MySpace]) and dabbling in music. In 2014, he got off probation and revealed his struggles with inner demons.
“I was depressed as fuck,” he told BuzzFeed. “I just wanted to kill myself, honestly. But doing music helped me get out of that deep depression, and now everything is starting to pick up and shit.” When asked how he was handling the upswing after “Tuesday,” Makonnen revealed himself to be the quintessential millennial artist: “I’m not too thirsty to sign a deal. ‘Cause a label will really just take all your free music down and you have to be somebody’s bitch.”
Makonnen eventually inked a deal with Drake’s OVO Sound label and re-released his EP commercially by year-end. Seventy-nine million views on YouTube and a Grammy nomination for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration later, and the prophecy was fulfilled. Everyone does love Makonnen.
This week, Makonnen plays his first major headlining shows in New York City as part of his Loudest of the Loud tour. The tour’s name notwithstanding, Makonnen has kept a relatively low profile in the city (save for a fan freak-out at SOB’s, so it’s a rare treat to see the elusive artist in the flesh. If you managed to score a ticket to either of his sold-out shows this week, expect Makonnen to perform tracks from the recently released Drink More Water 5 mixtape and possibly new material from his forthcoming debut album. Let’s be honest, though: There’s only one song I want to hear over and over again. And again. And again.
iLoveMakonnen headlines the Bowery Ballroom April 28 and April 29 at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Both shows are sold out, but tickets are available on the secondary market.