I’m in Vienna, Virginia, for Mike Posner’s first night on Ke$ha’s Warrior tour, and the multi-platinum artist, producer, and songwriter has just finished captivating the crowd. With lyrics like, “Do I look like one of your girlfriends, like I care about your day? I don’t,” I’m expecting the Cooler Than Me singer to act just that, but Posner seems far from aloof, the type of guy that uses smiley faces in his texts and doesn’t mind spending time with his mom. Maybe he’s just not throwing on the Bow Chicka Wow Wow for me, or maybe the Sigma Nu graduate has outgrown the frat house and no longer wears his sunglasses inside.
Although his resume includes brushing creative shoulders with artists so well known they’ve earned a mononym (Bieber, Snoop, Wiz, and Weezy, to name a few), he doesn’t seem to have the taste for toys so common in successful artists. Aside from a tastefully expensive-looking watch on his left wrist, he’s dressed casually, and seems engaged and at ease when I meet him. He’s articulate and thoughtful, his soft voice perhaps an accented mixture of his Detroit, hip-hop-centric upbringing and the smile almost always on his lips. He mentions wanting to be a husband and a father one day, and although that’s not in the near future. There’s no tone in his voice suggesting he’s got a new girl each night, either. His latest single, The Way It Used To Be, laments the loss of the one that got away.
Though Posner comfortably self-identifies as a pop artist, he’s covered artists such as Elton John, Tim McGraw, and Soulja Boy, and seems to draw influence from a wide range of sounds. His sophomore album, Pages, is expected this fall, and may prove to be his most diverse project yet.
“Production-wise, it sounds like Sublime mixed with J Dilla, harder hip hop drums with those kind of riffs,” he says. Posner idolizes Dilla – he grew up a hip hop kid, and at one point calls Dilla his hero. He mentions stealing songwriting tricks from Paul Simon, particularly Simon’s use of alliteration. He routinely rocks out to Led Zeppelin and Rage Against the Machine. “I love Rage Against the Machine,” he says, drawing out the “o”. “I always have people over my house and we just play Rage Against the Machine… ‘Come wit it now!’” He launches into Bulls on Parade, playing drums in the air and on the dressing room wall, singing the beat. “So sick.”
I ask him what he’s been listening to lately, and I’m floored by his mention of some extraordinary but virtually unknown acts. He even pulls out his phone to play me a track by a UK artist named Passenger. “Listen to this! This guy’s voice is crazy cool.”
Posner switches easily between somber reflection and light-hearted conversation, and seems comfortable discussing the struggles of his career. One thing is certain: the 25-year-old doesn’t feel a sense of entitlement about the successes he’s already achieved, and he’s paid his dues to get there. “I went to Duke and [good friend, rapper Big] Sean stayed in Detroit,” he explains. “Sean got an academic scholarship to Michigan State, but Kanye told him not to go. We had these other friends named WrighTrax that made beats too, and when I was a freshman at Duke, Kanye wanted to sign Sean, and he wanted to sign WrighTrax also as producers. So when I heard that… oh, my heart broke. I was like ‘woah, I shouldn’t be here, I should’ve stayed home and that would’ve been me.’” He pauses, but there’s no bitterness in his voice – it’s clear this is a part of his journey, not a lingering regret. If fellow Detroit native Eminem’s assertion that “you only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow” haunted him at the time, he channeled it well, recording at night while the dorms were emptied of partiers to prove that this opportunity does not, in fact, come once in a lifetime. Though he’d been making music since the age of 10, he began for the first time to sing over his beats. “I remember Sean called me when he heard my singing and was like, ‘I really believe in you as an artist,’ and that meant a lot to me.”
Though missing out on a deal with Kanye clearly hurt, his relationship with Big Sean remains strong to this day. “We’ll be on stage and say something in the other guy’s ear like ‘from your mom’s basement to this,’” he said. “Cuz this is insane that we have this, like really, really crazy, so any night that I walk onstage and people know one of my songs, it’s so ridiculous, right? It’s insane, like how can that be real, like that really happened to me.” “Grateful” and “lucky” are words that pepper Posner’s speech when he discusses his life; it’s almost as if he’s in awe of his own accomplishments. “I’m just a normal kid from Michigan living my dreams,” he says. “But if I can be on the stage, writing hit songs and stuff, then your dream is probably not as far as it seems.”
It might seem that by his senior year, the Blue Devil was already living the dream. His debut mixtape A Matter of Time had hit #1 on iTunesU and earned him a record deal with RCA. While his fellow students were attending classes, Posner would fly to festivals and other schools to perform on the weekends, simultaneously working on his second mixtape, One Foot Out The Door, as well as the beginnings of his debut album. On top of it all, he graduated with a 3.6 GPA.
“I always thought that once I got signed and was successful and made money, I’d be happy, but I wasn’t,” he says, perhaps part of the reason he’s not iced out today and sings about Marauders, not Maybachs. “I had all this stuff coming to me and I still had all my problems. I was like really searching, I was kind of lost. I think a lot of people when they finish school are tryna figure it out still and I was no exception.”
Posner’s a captivating storyteller; although unhappiness in the face of success is hardly an easily relatable topic, his tone doesn’t convey ingratitude, just confusion.
“I had decided to quit,” he continues. “I was just going to write and produce for other people, so that’s when I did Boyfriend for Justin Bieber, that’s when I did Beneath Your Beautiful for Labrinth. Then like a year and a half ago I was on an airplane and this song popped in my head and it’s track one on my album. It’s called Pretty Damn Good, and the words are “I can’t sing like Frank Sinatra / I can’t dance, I’m not that cool / I can’t act, don’t got an Oscar / But I did pretty damn good when I found you.’”
Posner’s been performing the track live over the past couple of weeks; it has a reggae feel and is heavy on guitar, which he’s recently started learning to play. “When [“Pretty Damn Good”] came into my head I just knew what I had to do, I knew I had to make another album, and I knew who I was more. I always felt like I wasn’t perfect and I always felt insecure about that. A lot of people in this industry are like perfect people, but I realized that my imperfection is what makes me special.”
I ask him if he’s he’s happy now, and he smiles. “I’m really happy now, happiest I’ve ever been.”
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