I made a mistake interviewing Tinie Tempah for A Plus: I failed to alert a co-worker — originally from Europe — who I later learned is a big fan.
"Beyoncé," she said, with one hand near the floor, "Tinie Tempah," she said, with the other well above her head.
Indeed, the English rapper is nothing short of being a mega star, currently burning up charts with both his collaboration with Zara Larsson, "Girls Like," and his latest solo single "Mamacita," as well as prepping for the release of his next album, Youth, later this year. He calls the forthcoming set his love letter to London.
But if you think you're unfamiliar with his work, you most definitely saw him take one of the world's biggest stages: the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. He's also teamed up on tracks with Ellie Goulding and Calvin Harris, and is nominated for a few MOBO (Music of Black Origin) Awards, which will be handed out in November.
Beyond accidentally helping to discover a model, performing a concert inside a McDonald's, and getting his brain scanned to show off the effects of music on our minds, Tinie — real name Patrick Chukwuemeka Okogwu — is big into education and helping kids get work experience in sports and entertainment. These, along with more discussion about the concept behind his album title, shows one rapper who's ready to take the reigns as a role model.
A PLUS: What does the concept of "Youth" represent to you?
TINIE TEMPAH: I'm 27 years old now, and I'm just at that stage in my life where I'm definitely looking back on certain moments in a nostalgic way. I guess on this particular album, I'm kind of reflecting on the past couple years. It's kind of like a love letter to London. Essentially, a thank you for raising me, thank you for being there for me, thank you for nurturing me, exposing me to different cultures, different sounds, so many different experiences — good and bad — that have made me into the person that I am now, and allowed me do what I'm doing: be a rapper from England who's been able to have success internationally and whatnot. I guess I've personified the city ... throughout the album. I personify it, so sometimes London comes in the form of a girlfriend, or an ex, or even a one-night stand, or a mother-type figure, or a best friend, but I feel like sometimes, when you think about it, a major city is [those things] when you're growing up, so that's my concept.
The crux of that, there's messages in the album, because it's hard to grow up in any city as a young Black kid with not that much opportunity. But I feel like since I found music, because I found good people who were there to nurture my talent, who had experienced certain things where they could like, kind of educate me and keep me out of trouble and help me learn from their mistakes before I could learn from my own, that's essentially what I'm doing on this album for the next generation of young rappers, young creatives, young talented people. Which is kind of the meaning of the artwork [see above]. I was once that little boy and I was around people, I had these big aspirations. Now I'm the big guy and I'm talking to the little guy, and it's kind of just a circle of life.
How do you think where you’re from shapes you?
It's hard to deny. We're all products of our environment. It's just now we live in a day and age where, because of social media or whatever, there's a lot more of these incredible success stories of young kids in their basements, working on this program for ages, and then selling it for $1 billion. But I don't feel like there's enough celebrated stories of people who have come from really hard, challenged environments where the odds have been against them and they've managed to kind of triumph. Which is why I'm kind of celebrating this on the album, but the idea that we're all products of where we come from is an obvious one, that's why we have accents, dress in certain ways, like certain kinds of foods.
What does style mean to you?
I think style is basically wearing things in a way that only you could. Some people really choose to express style, other people don't care about it so much, but what you wear kind of says something about who you are. ... Everyone could wear a white T-shirt, everyone could wear a blue pair of jeans, but essentially, it's how you wear it: you could roll up your jeans, you can roll up your sleeves, you could cut your T-shirt, you could write something on your T-shirt. There's so many things you could do to make it unique to you.
What are your thoughts on the labels? How do they shape your approach to the music you create?
I think it's a bit sad in a way that we live in a world where there are labels, because I feel that's what creates division. In music, in art, or race, or whatever, I think labels cause division. Someone like me, who has come from a big country, but a small island in this big world, who was doing something that was so niche ... but I want to be biggest and I want my music to touch the world. "No, no, that doesn't happen here," that's kind of what it felt like. In some ways, it's good, because when you come out of London, it kind of gives you an identity. "He's a London artist, he makes this kind of music." I guess sometimes it's hard because everything I make comes from an underground mentality. Everything, even if the song ends up selling 1 million copies, essentially I'm a black rapper from Southeast London, working-class guy — a lot of the producers I work with are not like super-producers, there not working out of super-expensive studios. "Girls Like" was made in a small studio in Southeast London, so I always see that as underground, because it's not like I was trained. But when the music starts to get a certain amount of acclaim or starts selling an amount or you collaborate with a certain type of artist, to you, that might be you being experimental, because essentially, you're still a guy that raps from South London, but you have an eclectic palate. But then someone else might see that and classify it, and put it under a bracket, and i just feel like then it gets a bit complicated, because it's great that my music can transcend where I started. But then, in that field, you have bigger giants, you have Beyoncés in pop — what I'm doing as a guy from South London, if that falls into the same category as what Beyoncé's doing, and then it comes to nominating the best pop song, that's when it becomes an issue. But I guess that's just the way it is.
Do you like taking on that challenge?
I love the challenge, but regardless of what you do and how far you try to push it, someone will always feel like they can put a label or a name on it, but they'll try to restrain it once again, but that's (not) good, but I love the challenge.
What is that passion you have for education?
I enjoyed school. I loved school, and I think the school system is very important and very necessary to be there, and it's been so beneficial for so many millions and millions. But I just feel like everybody is different, and so what might be in the curricula or what might be the statutory subjects that you have to learn past a certain point may not be for everyone. And I feel like unless you're privileged or you can afford it, there's not that many opportunities to say, "I want to go and study this specifically in this place," because sometimes it's hard for you to get into a place like that or to be able to afford the fees. So when it comes to education, I feel like even if I could help 10 people — or like 20 people — really get into what they want to do … When I was growing up, I don't think it was made clear how many different types of jobs there were at school. You could be a lawyer or a doctor, an accountant, a vet, but they don't go into all the different things. Like, you could be a first (assistant director) for a movie director, or you could be a tour manager and start a tour managing company.
I also don't feel there's enough [entrepreneurship] put into education. So, I'll teach you how to be your own man. ... I don't feel like that message is pushed in the education system, so when it comes to education for me, if I was ever in a position — and I am trying to start to try and do that now with the charity — I would want to start and nurture something that makes people want to empower themselves and learn specifically about what they want to learn about. Almost like an alternative learning. I think everything's changed with social media. Technically, the amount of time you spend in school, if you spend on social media in some way shape or form — I'm not talking about talking with your friends or flirting with girls, or guys, or whatever, but if you actually set up a YouTube channel, became a blogger, or started blogging about fashion or blogging about brands or whatever, you could probably end up becoming more successful. If you kind of just ignored that and stayed in school — whereas I feel like before, that wasn't the case. So, now that that's changed and shifted, that power is more in people's hands, and I think people need to be educated and made aware of that, and how to do that.
Cover image: Dan Medhurts / Warner Bros. Records