Tinie Tempah is one of the UK’s biggest pop stars. But after his second album failed to live up to his first, he tells Leonie Cooper he’s ready to regain his throne
Tinie Tempah is posing for NME’s photographer wearing an actual crown. It’s a personal gift from Dolce & Gabbana head Domenico Dolce, given to the rapper after he walked in the label’s catwalk show at Milan Fashion Week a few days ago. “I’m gonna just wear it in my house,” he says, with a smirk. “Whenever I get in, it’ll just be there on the side.” Home is a grand Victorian terrace in Hackney that belonged to the late Alexander McQueen – and much of it is preserved exactly as it was when the fashion maverick lived there. Tinie’s own additions include some statement taxidermy. “I’ve got a giraffe,” he says. “And I bought a zebra, just to be friends with the giraffe.”
Today, we’re in another part of Tinie’s kingdom – the Greenwich office block where he set up his centre of operations in 2008. It’s here Tinie recorded his million-selling debut, 2010’s ‘Disc-Overy’, and where he’s since returned after its follow-up ‘Demonstration’ failed to shake up the charts in the seismic way its predecessor did. Now his whole team – on-site tailor included – are based here, and it’s where he recorded his forthcoming third album ‘Youth’.
Tinie released the first taster from ‘Youth’ back in 2015 and, much like ‘Demonstration’, it was supposed to come out way before its eventual release date. When we speak, the album is set for an end of January release after being delayed from the end of 2016; now it’s finally set to hit the shelves next month. “I’m a massive perfectionist,” he explains. “Every single song I’ve made I love a million per cent – not to say I’ve not loved all the other records, but I don’t know how to finish because it’s so complicated.” Quite.
Tinie’s trappings mark the successes of a self-made man. A south London boy and first- generation son of African immigrants, Tinie was born Patrick Okogwu on the Aylesbury Estate near Elephant and Castle, London, a sprawling concrete landmark and poster site for urban decay. “My parents are Nigerian,” he explains. “They came over here, they had me and I went from the council estates to a f**king beautiful townhouse off of my talent.”
Tinie’s well aware that this isn’t the way it works for most young black men, a group who face some of the highest levels of unemployment – and discrimination – in the UK. “[As a kid] you’re told, ‘Yeah, anyone can be anything they want’, and then as you get older and you don’t get the job or you try to go for the job, you realise that there’s another system, a more hidden, intricate system in place.”
The birth and bloom of grime has been crucial in providing a counterpoint to that. The scene in which Tinie cut his teeth shaped the man he is today – not just musically, but in his attitude as well. As a teenager, Tinie spent nights broadcasting pirate radio sessions, dozens of kids crammed into tower-block bedrooms, huddled around a mic, always anticipating a police raid. “Everyone just wanted to be noticed,” he says. “The young MCs, DJs and producers just want to be acknowledged and be told, ‘Oh, you’re good at something, you’re talented,’” says Tinie. Grime, then, isn’t just about the massive tunes and the epic parties; it’s about empowering one of the UK’s most marginalised groups. “Definitely. It’s a platform for them to be seen and heard and celebrated.”
That’s exactly what happened when Tinie released his debut album seven years ago – even if it represented a personal shift from grassroots grime to UK hip-hop. ‘Disc-Overy’ featured high-profile collaborations with pop singer Ellie Goulding, soul star Emeli Sandé, producer Labrinth and DJ trio Swedish House Mafia, and went straight in at Number One. Tinie became a superstar seemingly overnight: he supported Rihanna on her UK arena tour, the record itself went three times platinum, and the sharply dressed star could do no wrong. He was the UK’s great rap hope, our answer to Kanye West, the man who was finally set to smash the glass ceiling for UK hip-hop. Then came the difficult second album. “After the first album went so well, you kind of just think, ‘I sold a million copies of my first album, this is a breeze!’” says Tinie.Not so. Ditching the studio and the set-up that had served him so well previously, he packed himself off to an isolated mansion on the private island of Osea in Essex. “I tried to go all fancy – I went for everything I thought you should have to make a better second album,” he says.
Although not an outright flop, ‘Demonstration’ – which featured Dizzee Rascal and Paloma Faith – only sold a fifth of what ‘Disc-Overy’ had. “It wasn’t received like the first album was,” Tinie muses. “Maybe we over-thought it or maybe we were too sterile, too forensic with it.” It wasn’t just the fans who’d turned away from Tinie. He soon noticed that the music industry types who’d been all over him in 2010 were nowhere to be seen. “There’s me still thinking, ‘Boy from the hood done good,’ selling 200,000 copies, but you could see people change. All these people that patted you on the shoulder, like, ‘Oh you’re amazing, you’re terrific,’ now don’t wanna answer the phone,” he remembers with a sigh. “That’s when I really realised that it was a business.”
But then, towards the end of his album campaign Tinie made a last- minute lunge for greatness, delivering vocal guest spots on DVBBS and Borgeous’ house track ‘Tsunami (Jump)’ and Cheryl Cole’s ‘Crazy Stupid Love’ – and scoring Number Ones with each. A headline grabbing performance at the 2014 BAFTAs during which he high-fived Prince William midway through his performance of ‘Heroes’ didn’t hurt his profile either. “It saved my bacon,” he says, with a smile.
As much as finishing an album isn’t one of Tinie’s strong points, he does have rather a lot on his plate right now. As well as hitting up the catwalk himself in Milan, he debuted his very first catwalk collection at London Fashion Week Men’s in January. The What We Wear line is inspired by sleek Scandinavian design and has more than a ring of the Yeezy about it. “I didn’t think that the new modern man in London had been defined yet,” Tinie says of the collection, which was made in a small room above his Greenwich recording studio. “I still think that people think he wears a long coat and blue blazer and rides around on a big, what are they…?” A penny farthing? “Yeah, a penny farthing.”
Tinie’s more qualified than most British pop stars to start a fashion label. He’s been putting out high street-level garms under the Disturbing London label since the early days and is often named one of the UK’s best-dressed men. How does he look so goddamn sharp? “I’m not gonna lie, it does come quite naturally,” he says. “Even when I was a little kid, my mum always treated me like a prince. I’m her first son, one of four.” That said, Tinie’s personal fashion taste has definitely evolved into something sleeker of late. Are the ostentatious bow ties gone for good? “No, the dicky bows are not necessarily done – they could make a comeback at any time. I’ve got a dicky bow cupboard. I’ve got a sunglasses cupboard, watch cupboard, blazer cupboard, everything.”
Tinie’s got other out-there plans too, including dreams of directing a Little Mix video (“I want to give them a bit more edge and swag”) and starting up a band but not telling anyone who’s behind it. “I’ve identified myself as a creative; I want to challenge myself to anything creative.” Did it take a while to discover that’s what you were? “I’ve always known, but it’s just about having the confidence to be able to say it. When you’re from an immigrant family and you live in a council estate, and you’re like, ‘Mum, I’m a creative!’ she’s like, ‘No you’re not, no you’re f**king not, go and get a job!’”
Now, Tinie’s encouraging designers, musicians and visionaries to chase their artistic dreams like he did, signing young acts to his own publishing company and getting them on his team. Not everyone can be as successful as he is; is he worried about giving people false hope? “Not everyone can be successful but some people are driven by different things,” he reasons. “I’ve met so many musicians who don’t care if they get a Number One, they don’t care if they get a BRIT Award or a MOBO. I don’t think that everyone’s driven by success, but I am driven by success… I try my best mentally, physically, to make sure I’m trying to outwork everybody.”
But his Instagram gives the impression that he’s very much ‘work hard, play hard’. “I’m gonna change my name to ‘boujee b*****d’ at some point this year,” he jokes. There he is in Milan with Lindsay Lohan on his arm, playing a charity football match with Prince Harry, courtside with Thierry Henry, schmoozing with Vivienne Westwood, on the slopes in Val d’Isère, posing with Mo Farah in Dubai and chilling with Calvin Harris in Beverly Hills. It’s knackering just looking at it.
“It’s glamorous, yes! Get over it! I work hard, I work so hard. Every time you see me in any of those pictures, I’m working. When I was in Milan, I was there working. If I’m on a jet, it’s work. If I’m in Vegas, I’m working. If I’m in LA, I’m working. If I’m in New York, I’m working. If I’m in Ibiza, I’m very much working. So it looks glamorous, but I’m working hard for everything that I get. I’m showing young people, the uninvited, that you can be proud and have a glamorous life and you can earn it. Anything is possible. Whoever told you that this wasn’t for you and that you’re not supposed to have this – which is how I felt when I was 14 or 15 – I want to be one of the people that reminds you that’s not the case, that you can have whatever you want.”
It’s this attitude that defines the present-day incarnation of Tinie Tempah. “2017 is not about feelings,” he adds. “I feel that sometimes that’s the way to get the purest product out of a creative. I just want to be 100 per cent honest now and 100 per cent unapologetic. I don’t know how many people thought I was gonna be a one-hit wonder, or one-album artist, or it’s just a grime thing or it’s just a black thing… but I’m still here.”