I’ve got a bone to pick with Labrinth. I interviewed the singer/songwriter/producer in September 2014 about his imminent second album, which was called Take Me to the Truth and was due either in November or December of that year. But it never arrived, and I can’t help but feel that my article was in some way responsible for the lack of trust that people have in the media these days.
So here we are, in a King’s Cross hotel bar in October 2019, doing another interview about Labrinth’s imminent second album. It’s called Imagination and the Misfit Kid now. “This is my second second album! It’s madness!” he laughs, far from beaten down by a saga that has dragged on much longer than certain political processes, for example.
“With that album, everything that could happen to stop it from going out, happened,” he explains. It sounds like it was the age-old problem of the talent wanting one thing while his record label and management wanted another. “There was friction between us. I wanted to release the record because it was done, and they thought I could do a bigger, better record. Our relationship broke down. I think they had difficulty understanding what I was doing, and it got really messy. It hurt my confidence, my creative juices.”
Born Timothy McKenzie 30 years ago in Hackney, Labrinth made his name in the early part of this decade with some big pop favourites. He co-wrote, produced and sang on Tinie Tempah’s first two hits, Pass Out and Frisky. Then he carried on in the bubbly dance-pop vein with his own hit singles Earthquake (also featuring Tinie) and Let the Sun Shine. But there were some small signs that all was not going quite to plan. He hated the expensive video for his single Last Time, with its naff CGI blue aliens, and his biggest seller turned out to be the soppy Emeli Sande duet Beneath Your Beautiful. It was only the sixth song to be released from his debut album, Electronic Earth, in 2012, suggesting no one was expecting it to be so popular.
His comeback did get started in 2014 with two singles: Let It Be, a big, dramatic orchestral number with Bond theme vibes, and Jealous, a heartbreaking piano ballad about his absent father. The former just missed a top 10 placing while the latter went to number seven and eventually became a platinum seller. Far from flops, but enough to give those around him the jitters. He clashed with his A&R, the individual at his record label chiefly responsible for the development and release of his music. “Not even a diss to him, but his perspective on music and his experience of it was constant success. These records were more challenging. It wasn’t instant gratification,” he says.
Labrinth is one of very few artists signed to SYCO, Simon Cowell’s record label, who didn’t come from Cowell’s various TV talent shows. It’s as mainstream an environment as they come, so if he sometimes talks as if his new material is on an experimental par with Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones, it’s perhaps understandable. “I was exploring, making new ground for myself because I am an artist that constantly wants to grow,” he tells me. “I didn’t want to be that guy in Magaluf performing the same song over and over. It felt like the crown that I had was becoming a burden on what I actually want to do as a creative. People were pushing and pulling, saying, ‘What the fuck are you doing tearing down this beautiful money-making machine that we created and making these weird funk records? Your audience is not gonna get this shit.’”
So he split from his management team (though Cowell himself remained highly supportive, he says) and said yes to the last invitation he received, which was to go to LA and write with other people. “Nothing was going the way I wanted to, so I stopped trying to control it. I’d built this massive beautiful castle and I had to let it go and just let life happen.”
He liked being a relative unknown out there. He tells a story about attending a Hollywood party hosted by a “big-time manager” and being invited to play a song at the piano in front of guests including Jimmy Iovine, Adam Sandler, Moby, Paul McCartney and Bono. He did Jealous, and says that industry types immediately started trying to sign him up, unaware that he already had a career. “I liked that nobody gave a shit about who I was. ‘If you impress me, you impress me.’ I really enjoyed that freedom. It felt like the beginning again.”
He gave one song, Losers, that was meant for his second album, to The Weeknd, who put it on the number one album Beauty Behind the Madness in 2015. He worked with some dance producers, singing Fragile for Kygo and Higher with Sigma, and did a cute duet, Make Me (Cry), with Miley’s little sister Noah Cyrus. He wrote Nicki Minaj’s song Majesty alongside Minaj and Eminem, and most profitably, began working with prolific hitmaker Sia.
“She was a guru for me,” he says. “She wanted me to win because she loved me and thought I was talented. I haven’t met that many artists in this industry that were able to lend a shoulder. There was this constant support, and that helped me to get out of my mental blocks.”
They wrote so many songs together that they kept a whole album’s worth for themselves, got A-list producer Diplo in to give them rocketpower and released them as Labrinth, Sia & Diplo Present… LSD in April.
That seems to have unlocked the floodgates for Labrinth. His second album of 2019, released earlier this month, was his original score to the HBO TV series Euphoria. It’s an edgy teen drama, heavy on the sex and drugs, starring Zendaya, who kids know from her Disney Channel days and slightly older viewers will recognise from the recent Spider-Man movies. It’s on Now TV over here. The music still sounds recognisably like him, with its mix of gospel-influenced vocals, organic instrumentation and electronic zaps, but you can tell he loved the challenge of writing something other than a hit single.
“It was actually way more enjoyable than making an album – no restrictions, no demographic to try to please. But the music became important to the audience anyway,” he says. “I just wanted to make some crazy shit, but they were coming back saying they love these songs, asking if there was an album.”
Now he’s almost ready to release Imagination and the Misfit Kid, his second album proper. It’s a concept collection about a child who sells his imagination to a businessman in exchange for success. A big question is asked near its finale: “Who are you gonna call when you’re standing on top of the world and it still don’t feel like victory?” It’s not hard to tell where he got the idea from.
“You start off in the music industry so pure, and you become the CEO of a company without even noticing,” he says. “There’s this creative kid and this stockbroker businessman, one on each shoulder, one saying, ‘How can we sell more records?’ and the other saying, ‘I just want to make some wild shit that my mates will lose their minds to.’”
Seven years without an album, then three in 2019 – it looks like things are very much back on track. “Maybe I got seven years’ bad luck. I don’t know where I broke a mirror. But seven years are up,” he says.
Then I get an email from his people: “The album release date may be pushed back.” This time, I hope it’s less serious. He’s been missed.