In the penultimate days of an exceptional summer, sounds of the Caribbean play from street performers and record stores as I pace the streets of Brixton. A fitting soundtrack for what was to come beyond the corners of Electric Nightclub as the pulsing bassline of Can’t Believe fills the arena. Dancehall and reggae remain a strong force to reckon with in music. Many artists have given birth to a new sound through fusion with Afrobeats, Hip Hop & R&B, attracting mainstream appeal. Jamaican-born dancehall phenomenon Kranium is known far and wide as an instrumental figure behind the melodic sound. I watch in awe as he rehearses for the final date in his sold-out Toxic UK tour. The track ceases and he continues to sing acapella effortlessly with an undenying level of soul. The band stops for a break as the house lights reflect off a diamond encrusted “MELODY GAD!” chain around his neck. I caught up with him backstage to discuss his creative process, journey in the industry and his long awaited EP, Toxic.
Kemar Donaldson, also known as “Kranium” received the stage name from a friend due to his amazing ability to create lyrics and arrangements in his head since he was a young teen. The New York based superstar can always be trusted to set the tone for any and every event. A melodic blend of Dancehall, R&B, Soul and Hip Hop beats with outstanding vocal talents vibe that fans know and love. Aside from numerous features with leading artists such as Alana Maria, Tiwa Savage and Spinall; he took a semi-hiatus after last album Midnight Sparks, released in 2019 to meticulously put the final touches on his latest project. I wanted to discuss what he had been up to “I’ve been working a lot! I always try to find that sound that’s coming next. I think that’s the most important thing to stay ahead of the game. Whoever the new guy is, they change the sound; so I been listening to a lot of upcoming artists and experimenting. I love to fling my metaphors in a dope melody like with Gal Policy. Fuck a gyal inna the kitchen, wash mi dick inna the sink”. What the fuck am I talking about? *laughs* but that’s what they wanna hear. Music moves at such a fast pace so I gotta take my quality sound and make it pleasant to the new ears.“
On the Toxic EP, we see a more vulnerable side of Kranium in comparison to other projects. Five tracks that details his navigation of sex and relationships. Each track invites listeners to a smooth and seamless execution of layered production and relatable storytelling. Intro track ‘Gal Policy, the leading sultry dancehall anthem which samples the classic Soul Survivor Riddim; was an immediate fan favourite upon its release in March last year. It serves as a subtle warning to guys the levels of maintaining a relationship from the perspective of a player and the importance of respecting a woman, or else. Another popular track ‘Won’t Judge’ boasts a laidback reggae vibe blended with an upbeat R&B melody describing the taboo nature of a late night rendezvous. “I think people always say I’m toxic based on the records I create. The records are always about my story, sex and my relationships. What makes my music special is that I speak on things that everybody thinks, but may be afraid to say. I could be in an open relationship, I say it all the time people think I’m crazy. If you have a boyfriend don’t worry about it. I’m just on a vibe so Toxic was a perfect fit.”
He goes on to describe in detail how he defines his sound and what the craft means to him. “I’d define my sound as melodic. I do dancehall music with 100% more melody, and a fusion of that slow R&B sound. People don’t realise how seriously I take music. It’s my bread and butter, my life, my legacy. It means everything. If I play a song to ten people that I trust and four don’t like the sound, it would never come out. I’d rather take another two years before I release a song if I don’t feel like I have a hit. I don’t follow the rules, I just do what I wanna do.”
It’s clear that the 28-year-old is passionate about his art, having made waves in the music industry since his platinum 2013 track, Nobody Has To Know ft. Ty Dolla Sign. Not much is known about the origins of his love story with music. “I’ve been writing since I was like nine. I started from a very young age in church, and then my uncle, Screwdriver, he’s a veteran in the music business taught me a lot of stuff. He used to say I’m like a wasp, in comparison to bees cause I can do everything but play an instrument. I stick to what I know I’m good at and collaborate on other things. Music is chemistry. Producer, security, cameraman, stage engineer; everybody plays a part in making the music move forward.”
A self-diagnosed perfectionist, this can be seen across all aspects of his creative expression. Kranium’s consistent ability to deliver an infusion of dancehall, R&B, Hip-Hop, Afrobeat, and soul sets him apart from his peers. Last month, he delivered an intimate performance of an acoustic blend of his most popular tracks for YouTube. Fans were shocked to see his vocal ability as he smokes a joint in between riffs with one commenting “How all his dutty tunes, sound like ah ballad”. “I can actually sing, It always shocks people! They always say how can you sound just like the track? It is not one of the easiest thing to do. I’m happy that people can actually get a chance to hear me. People say oh, you sing f**k songs and I don’t. I use sex phrases but it is not necessarily a fuck song. I set the scene first and tell the story.”
I wanted to know who he cites as musical influences to his unique sound. A dancehall and soul infusion is a rare sound to come across in music but is the base of his creations and seems to be effortless. “I grew up in a very strong Christian home so there wasn’t any raw raw music. Sam Cooke was the only artist I was allowed to listen to so he inspired me. You can take so much from gospel, the humming, the arrangements, and the sing along factor. I infuse that into my hooks. Then I would say Richie Spice & Dennis Brown as a tie. To me, nobody has had better intros than Richie Spice performing live; and Dennis Brown gives so much character in his vocals, you can hear the passion and that connection to the melodies, his style really influences my music.”
Through his love of music and different genres, Kranium has been able to collaborate with many artists to create hit records. I ask about the process behind selecting the correct artist to feature. “I’ll work with anyone. After I make the track I really think who is the best fit and take it from there. That’s one of the best parts about the industry, I get to see a lot of people that I look up to. I was in the studio with Usher and I learnt so much from him about the industry, what to worry about and what to ignore. It blew my mind that he was a fan of my first EP, Rumours.”
The music industry can be a difficult world to navigate while achieving mainstream appeal. I wanted to know his parting words of advice for upcoming artists who aspire to follow in his footsteps and breakthrough in the music industry. “Remember that nobody gives a f**k about the artist, but everybody cares about a hit song. It’s not about you it’s bigger than you. So if you try to be bigger than the music, you’re not going to make it. Nobody stays at the top forever, personality and humility goes a long way in this industry.”
As we bring the interview to a close, I stick around as he goes through final checks for the upcoming show. The arena is packed as the DJ kicks off with a vibrant dancehall set to warmup the crowd. Red house lights are queued as KRANIUM in red bursts across the backdrop. The crowd begin chanting his name as a klaxon sounds. He enters to his classic ‘Nobody Has To Know’ as fans sing along to every word. His authenticity, consistency and unique sound will keep him on our radar for years to come as it is clear that Kranium is at his best when blending the division between genres.