You know “Roses (Imanbek Remix).” Even in pandemic times, it’s omnipresent. The song, by SAINt JHN, is a smash, the kind that only comes once in a lifetime for some artists: peaked at number four on the Billboard Hot 100; almost 194 million views on YouTube; three million TikToks using it as a background track; more than one billion streams on Spotify. That billion requires some addition—combine the Imanbek remix, the remix with Future, and the other remix featuring J. Balvin (which hit number one on the Billboard 100), plus the original 2016 version of “Roses.”
That four-year-old version is a grim offering, with a video that shows a hospital patient being stabbed in a hallway. Then, in early 2019, a then 19-year-old Kazakh producer named Imanbek Zeikenov colored over the darkness by ratcheting up SAINt JHN’s echoed vocals to an unrecognizable pitch, keeping them afloat on buoyant synths. “It was an aggressive song that became just fun,” SAINt JHN says. “[Imanbek] made it accessible.”
Until then, his biggest hits weren’t really his. He’d written a legion of tracks for other artists, like Usher and Beyoncé, while waiting for the spotlight to swing his way. When “Roses (Imanbek Remix)” went supernova, SAINt JHN had a two-album back catalog that millions of new fans could sink their teeth into. Sensual R&B offerings, including a collaboration with Lenny Kravitz. Melodic hip-hop collaborations with artists like Lil Baby. With the 2020 release of his third album, While the World Was Burning (out now), SAINt JHN is still straddling the fence between the grimy and the gorgeous, the original and the remix. Instead of moving toward that billion-stream bubbly dance sound Imanbek created, SAINt JHN’s leaving it as a doorway for new fans to step into his complex world, offer his take on our collective experiences this year, through the sonic landscape fans have come to love from him.
As he talks about his new album, wearing a black tank top and a cross chain and sporting his signature black-and-blond locs, one hanging inches longer than the rest, he also talks about the success he feels is long overdue. A career that he built mostly to survive. And a creative energy that won’t be confined to music.
In his early years in the music industry, SAINt JHN twice attempted to land a song on a Rihanna project with no luck, but succeeded in writing for Usher, Nico & Vinz, and Jidenna. He cowrote and appears on the Black anthem “Brown Skin Girl” alongside Beyoncé, Wizkid, and Blue Ivy for Lion King: The Gift. Mostly, though, he credits his songwriting work with helping him to discover his own sound. When he wrote “Roses” in 2015 and had trouble selling others on the song, he decided he’d just record it for himself. In 2016, his album Collection One was filled with melodic tales of glamour and grit over synth-laden dance productions and woozy, borderline menacing trap beats. The project, like its creator, felt both accessible and unattainable. In the same way that, during our Zoom chat, SAINt JHN says he still does normal things, like driving his Ferrari to get his own groceries.