“This is a hustler’s story”: how SAINt JHN got a grip on his staggering success
Five billion TikToks. 796 million Spotify plays. Roses – a song Beyoncé turned down – is one of the biggest tracks of 2020. The artist behind it reveals how the hype could have crushed him.
For SAINt JHN, success smells like Roses.
The Guyanese-American artist first composed the colossal breakout hit back in 2015 – originally as a pitch to Beyoncé. After she declined, he decided to half-sing, half-rap melodies in his own smoky tone. Roses, which initially dropped in July 2016, proved slow-burning success, and found a devoted audience in Russia and the former Soviet republics. Last year, a 19-year-old train station worker from Kazakhstan named Imanbek Zeikenov gave it a remix, working in a thick, catchy bassline and new club-ready beat, before throwing it back into the world.
Now, Roses is one of the biggest songs on the planet. The Imanbek remix has been the most Shazamed song in Britain this year and in March it spent two weeks at number one in the UK charts. Future and J Balvin are among those who’ve eagerly hopped on the various remixes. Worldwide, Roses has racked up over 796 million Spotify plays and has become wildly popular on TikTok, where clips of the song have been used over five billion times.
Shirtless on a 60ft balcony overlooking Los Angeles, SAINt JHN is enjoying his moment of vindication. He’s looking back on how far he’s come since the days as a songwriter-for-hire, selling his musical ideas to the likes of Usher and Hoodie Allen. “When you’re playing for a team you don’t own, you’re just practising,” SAINt JHN muses. “It was like gladiator school. I was sharpening my sword at somebody else’s cost. It forced me to create things that you couldn’t deny. When I arrived at that point and people still weren’t hearing me? That’s when I was willing to bet on myself.”
Becoming an artist in his own right had always been the plan. SAINt JHN was born Carlos St. John on 26th August 1986 in Brooklyn. He spent part of his childhood in the city, and another part in his mother’s home country of Guyana, the only English-speaking nation in South America. If you dig deep enough online you’ll find sites that claim his mother is the actress Sharon Rosita, who appeared on scouser soap opera Brookside in the mid-80s. This is absolutely not true.
“My mom wasn’t no TV actress!” splutters SAINt JHN, setting the record straight. “It’s a nice rumour, but my mom is a hardworking hustler from Georgetown, Guyana who grew up with nine other siblings in generational poverty and hustled her way out. I watched her buy her first house, and when you come from nothing that’s a lot. Shout out to Barbara!”
SAINt JHN’s musical education was a mixture of New York rappers like Jay Z and Jadakiss and the Jamaican dancehall stars who dominate the music scene in Guyana, such as Beenie Man, Spragga Benz and Buju Banton. His biggest influence, however, was closer to home. He still remembers the life-changing moment when he saw his older brother surrounded by a circle of kids on a corner on Furman Avenue in Bushwick. “I saw my brother rapping in a cypher and my obsession developed then, truly. I was hooked,” says SAINt JHN. “I was 11-years-old and I didn’t want to go back. I’m still in that cypher on that corner with him.”
Battle rapping may have been his first love, but SAINt JHN soon started to display a natural talent for writing memorable, melodic hooks. “I would always find a melody, even before I knew it was called melody. All I knew was that the records I grew up listening to in Guyana sounded a little different than the records I grew up listening to in America,” he remembers. “I’d be walking down the block writing a rap in my head, and then I’d write a chorus. When you’re a battle rapper, you ain’t got no use for no chorus!”
He didn’t know it then, but it would be a chorus that helped change his life. After releasing an EP under his birth name in 2010, SAINt JHN’s contributions to his friend Azeem’s 2011 track Hurricanes + Tornados caught the attention of music exec Zach Katz at BMG. He invited the pair to meet him in LA, although SAINt JHN is at pains to point out there was no free ride. “Let’s be really clear on that story, I flew myself over,” he points out. “To say he flew me out makes the story sound way more luxurious than it was. This is a hustler’s story. This is a kid trying to make something happen.”
At the meeting, Katz steered SAINt JHN away from performing and towards songwriting. “We played him the records we had done,” he recalls. “Zach said: ‘Alright, cool. Do you want to rap or do you want to make a million dollars?’ He’d heard my ability to do things that I didn’t know I could do yet. He saw me as a songwriter, I saw myself as an artist, but I was egoless enough to take the opportunity.”
For the next two months, SAINt JHN lived with Azeem in West Covina, just outside of LA, recording in a garage and unsuccessfully pitching their demos to stars like Rihanna. “At the time, the songs just weren’t good enough,” he accepts. “It made me go become a better writer. It made me become a better artist.”
He moved back to New York, but he refused to become disillusioned. By 2016, he had reached the point where he had a collection of songs he felt truly represented him. He followed up early single 1999 and the original version of Roses in March 2018 with debut album Collection One, and he landed a modelling gig with a Gucci campaign. In 2019 he appeared with Beyoncé and Wizkid on Lion King soundtrack single Brown Skin Girl, dropped second album Ghetto Lenny’s Love Songs, and toured the world several times over.
It was all a dream come true, but the workload threatened to overwhelm him. In February 2020, after being unable to perform onstage in Oslo and Copenhagen, he postponed the rest of his European tour.
“I was experiencing anxiety for the first time in my entire life,” he tells me. “My breathing was fucked up and I developed additional symptoms I couldn’t quite identify because it was my first time. I didn’t want to put myself in jeopardy or risk my mental health and my physical wellbeing.
“I’ve worked so hard and I want to be here for a long time, so I did the tough thing and cancelled the tour. I think my body was just saying: ‘Chill out for a second.’” He pauses for a moment, then laughs. “Maybe my intuition was saying 2020 was gonna be fucked up anyway!”
Now fully recovered, there are many worse places SAINt JHN could be spending this most fucked up of years than here with his spectacular view over Los Angeles, the city which once spurned him. You could forgive him for feeling triumphant, but ironically he has no time to stop and smell the roses.
As his mind turns back to his day job, SAINt JHN says the music he’s making now can’t help but be shaped by the times we’re living in.
“In Norway, where they’re indoors a considerable amount of the year because of the freezing temperatures, it impacts the way they construct melody and make music,” he points out. “It’s the same here. It’s all tied together. Our inability to go outside, the constant stress and strain of our racial conversations in America, the economic challenges of people not making money and losing their homes. All of this makes us pretty sensitive as people. I think as artists our job is to translate what’s happening. Every artist has their own filter. Every artist comes with their own version of a Brita. You buy according to the purity of the content you want.”