"The day we stop belly-laughing, being stupid and having fun in the studio is the day I don't want to do this anymore."
29-year-old pop/R&B singer Jay Sean is sitting in a Manhattan studio in Times Square, putting the finishing touches on Freeze Time, his sophomore album for Cash Money Records and fourth international studio album. "If I, or one of my writing partners, is in a bad mood," he says, "Then it's obvious we're not writing anything that day. Period."
Recently, there hasn't been much cause for bad moods— Multi-platinum albums around the world; Only male artist in the past 10 years to have two simultaneous Top 10 tracks; Numerous awards and monstrous singles, including the platinum-selling, Top 10 hit "Do You Remember"; And, of course, "Down," the Lil Wayne-assisted song off 2009's All or Nothing that became a worldwide hit. The track was embraced by hip-hop, pop and R&B fans in equal measure and made Jay Sean both the first UK urban act and first artist of South Asian descent to reach number one on the Hot 100 (as well as racking up nearly 70 million views on YouTube.)
I'm curious if he feels increased pressure after writing a hit song and the answer comes out before I finish the question. "I've been there before and it killed me," says the singer. "It gives you complete writer's block if you think too hard about it. 'Down' was a moment in time. It was great, but it's time to move forward. I write on all my own songs, and the minute pressure comes into your head and you start thinking too hard about it, it's over as a writer. You have to have faith in your abilities as a writer and singer to go, 'If I did that, I can probably do something just as great again, but different.'"
A quick listen to Freeze Time backs up this claim. "2012 (It Ain't the End)," which features Cash Money label-mate Nicki Minaj, bridges the gap between dance and pop, re-imagining the dire outcome of the Apocalypse as a last-gasp effort to celebrate life. It also exemplifies a lot of Freeze Time.Â "Much of this album was written with a feel-good vibe in mind," says the singer. "I have a very positive outlook on life and that's a reflection of my personality. That's how I like to live my life and I like to project that with my music." "Sex 101"—you can guess what that one's about—recalls vintage R. Kelly R&B, while the chugging, train-like rhythm and hook of "Break Ya Back" looks squarely at the club. On the latter, Jay Sean channels the hip-hop side of his musical background. "That's a complete swagger record," says the singer. "I've never done anything like that before. A lot of the intricate flows come from my hip-hop background when I used to write raps."
Growing up in London, Jay was obsessed with hip-hop before discovering R&B artists like Brian McKnight, Joe and Jodeci (he can still out-beatbox you upon demand). "I used to listen to Boys II Men religiously and try to copy the way they used to sing," admits Jay Sean. "I'm a very studious person. When I love something, I want to learn everything there is about it."
This extends past music. While pursuing a degree in medicine at the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, the singer was simultaneously building a large and loyal street following with a fusion of hip-hop, pop, R&B and South Asian sounds. The labels took notice, and Jay Sean dropped out of school to pursue singing full-time. When Me Against Myself, his debut album, finally arrived in 2004, the fan-base once confined to a small area in London was now global. Sales worldwide were brisk, but when the label wanted to transform Jay Sean's sound, he parted ways.
"That was a critical turning point in my whole career," admits the singer. "I walked away from that label. I knew I wanted to do pop/R&B records, but there was no room for my kind of music on radio at the time. The label tried to make me do pop-rock and I told them, 'I'm sorry, but that's not me. That's not why I quit medicine. I love my type of music and this is the artist I want to be.' By that time, I had fans all around the world. I didn't need them to tell me what kind of music I should be making."
After self-releasing My Own Way, his second album, Jay Sean quickly realized that the quality of the music outweighed any industry heft or marketing dollars. Cash Money CEO Ronald "Slim" Williams heard the lead single "Ride It" and agreed, making Jay Sean the first British artist on the label.
In the past five years, you could almost define popular music as pre- and post-"Down".
"I guess that was one of the first real big pop/R&B records to hit the radio and came at a time where music was evolving and this type of sound was being strongly embraced," says Jay Sean. "We knew it was a feel-good song with a strong pop anchor, but it still had that urban sensibility."
Jay's confidence in himself and his music is clear. Yet one listen to "Average Man" off the Freeze Time shows a surprisingly honest awareness of the nature of this industry. In contrast to the braggadocio and "love me" accolades of many of his peers, the song is frank in its discussion of the ephemeral nature and artifice of celebrity and fame.Â "One day, the crowd'll be all gone/And all these crazy days are done," sings Jay Sean, adding, "And when the lights go out/And the curtains all come down/I'm just an average man."
But doubtful anytime soon. As for Freeze Time, Jay Sean is finally in a comfortable place after years of sonic searching. "As a songwriter, I was able to write great pop songs and great R&B songs but I never really had the ability to tie the two together until recently because I was experimenting so much with who I was as an artist," admits the singer. "There's finally a platform for my style of music to be heard."
Back at the studio, Jay Sean, already known from Australia to Algeria and Russia to Rio, is asked about the importance of success in America. The answer, per his style, is humorous, immediate and direct: "America is like the Holy Grail for many artists, including myself, and I realize I have a lot more work to do, but I'm a big dreamer and I love new challenges. It's what drives me. If the next step after America was the moon, I can guarantee you I'd be on the first rocket there."