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MNEK: The Queer U.K. Artist Is Ready to Tell His Own Story (Exclusive)

Will the Real MNEK Please Stand Up?

After racking up songwriting and producing credits for the likes of Beyonce and Madonna, MNEK is ready to show the world who he is—and it's anything but typical.

MNEK, a.k.a. 23-year-old Uzo Emenike, needs to correct something in his biography. He's seated outside a north London studio, on break from editing the video for "Correct" -- a bolshie track from his debut album, Language (out September 7) -- and he's barely surviving the city's heat wave in a pair of short shorts and a faded 50 Cent T-shirt cinched by a neon fanny pack. The story goes that he started writing and producing songs at the age of 8. But the truth is even more ridiculous.

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"I struggle with taking compliments on the whole 'Oh, you started so young' thing," says the U.K native, "so until now I've told people I started producing when I was 8 or 9. But my first exposure to music production was when I was 5." That was when, after having listened to his son go on and on about the Spice Girls, Janet Jackson, and Mariah Carey, Emenike's dad took him to an electronics store and bought him Dance eJay, a rudimentary production program. "It was my first inkling of wanting to know about the process of music," he says.

That thirst for knowledge eventually led to his first publishing deal, a songwriting gig at production powerhouse Xenomania (Girls Aloud, Kylie Minogue), and some early hits with the U.K. dance acts Rudimental and Gorgon City -- all this by the age of 19. Songwriting credits for the likes of Madonna, Beyonce, and Christina Aguilera followed, as did some vibrant solo singles -- including his 2015 cut with Zara Larsson, "Never Forget You" -- that reconstructed late-'90s dance and R&B into new shapes.

While his work for others has flourished, finishing his own record has been a longer journey. "I was growing up," he says. "Everything was changing. My dialogue with the label changed too, in terms of what I wanted to achieve. I eventually said, 'I appreciate this baited breath for something like what I've written for these white pop stars, but my story is very different.'"

Language feels like a true reflection of MNEK in 2018, flitting from sultry bangers ("Tongue") to state-of-the-nation polemics ("Crazy World") to the politics of being a straight man's side dish: "Neither you nor your story's straight," he sings on "Girlfriend." It feels like a reawakening after years of trying to conform, like the birth of MNEK the Pop Star.

"I will never be typical, no matter how much weight I lose, no matter how much more hair I get," he says, his metallic painted nails flashing in the sunlight. "I used to think these things would hold me back, and maybe they will, but I see strength in them now." He describes turning a corner after a gay lifestyle magazine honored him as a breakthrough artist. "I saw the impact of me being myself, and decided that I wanted to do it to the nth power."

Related | MNEK Celebrates 'Unconditional Love' on National Coming Out Day

He admits he's still cautious about being labeled a role model -- "I want to continue being ratchet, I want to continue smoking weed, I want to continue being fabulous" -- but he's also keen to reach people who remain unseen. "I see myself as an example of a story rarely told," he says. "When you're working with people like Hailee Steinfeld [who appears on his recent single "Colour"], you're exposed to Middle America and what people there think of people who look like you, and it may not the nicest, but you've also got to think about who it's setting free."

Still, even while it touches on the Black Lives Matter movement, Language is not an overtly political record. "I don't want to come across in these songs as someone who knows everything about politics," he says. "It's my experience. Every day I'm learning, and that's what this album is about." Lyrics on "Crazy World," for example, tackle his coming out: "A father is disappointed by his son," he sings over ghostly synths. "It's not easy coming out to a Nigerian dad," MNEK says slowly, his voice dropping an octave. "I'm still in the middle of that. He's cool, but it's very different, me being out in the public eye, because it's everyone's opinions."

While the singer used to be shy, on and off the stage, he's had to learn how to entertain. "I can't be inconspicuous, and I can't hide for shit," MNEK says. (He is 6 foot 4.) "And when I go out I want to dress up. I want to live my best life."

Photography by Yuval Hen.

Styling by Kay Korsh

Grooming by AJ Juttla

Clothing by Chin Menswear Intl.

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