The R&B songwriter on her long-awaited album, family life, and more…Queen Naija exploded out of the traps with her debut EP in 2018, melding together aspects of R&B’s imperial 90s height with a forward-facing aesthetic.
The songwriter’s new-found fame, though, had to be balanced against her commitments as a mother – to her, family comes first.
Perhaps that explains the wait for her full length debut ‘missunderstood’. Out now, it’s been some time in the making, with the Detroit born artist moving through different distinct phases within its construction.
Opening with a cavalcade of voices – all discussing the wait for new material in a negative tone – what follows feels like one length riposte to the doubters, an exquisite demonstration of her skills as a songwriter.
Beautifully constructed R&B that cuts deeper than most, Queen Naija finds the sweet spot between the genre’s roots, and where it could progress to next.
Clash caught up with Queen Naija over Zoom – right before she has to do a store run for her kids, in fact.
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The album has taken more than a year to piece together, did you plan for the outset to spend that length of time on the project?
Actually, I made enough songs for almost three albums. I started creating for my first album right after I had my second son – I think he was three months – and I was trying to rush it, and get it out. Mainly because people kept asking me: where’s the album? I was rushing at first, but then I thought, I’m just going to take my time with it. It’s my debut album! It should be relaxing, it should be nice. It should be amazing! I finally got to a point where I could release it this year.
Family is incredibly important to you, isn’t it?
Singing is my dream, and making music is what I was born to do, but at the same time I still put my family first. If our household ain’t good, and if I’m not good, then I can’t create properly, so of course it’s important to me… especially my kids.
Do the experiences and responsibilities of motherhood help to keep you grounded?
Yeah. Wherever I’m from keeps my grounded. I know how it is! I was raised with my family, and it was just the three of us with my mom and we were really close. So I want the same thing with my family now.
It sounds like you were incredibly creative, has this been a fertile time for you musically?
As far as the process of it… when it came down to the melodies, the beat, the cadence, everything about the production, I was fully involved. I don’t even know how to play an instrument – but I can hum it! Like, ‘hey, play this on the guitar!’ And I was really vocal about that. When it came to writing about my music I definitely wrote the majority of it. I did have some co-writers in there, too, just to be around and shoot off different ideas.
I always had the idea of what concept I wanted to write about, it was just that sometimes as a writer you only know from your own vocabulary. So it helps when someone can add a different word, or maybe a different sentence, to make it more swag or something like that. I was very involved in the writing process.
A lot of times going into the studio was kind of like a journal entry. Some days I feel this way, some days I feel that way… and I read about it. Or I tried to put myself into a situation that I’m not, but that someone else can relate to… and I’ll write about that, even if it’s not relevant to me.
Do you keep an actual journal as well, or is music literally the place where you channel your emotions and experiences?
I have a lot of journals! But I don’t use ‘em to write music in. I don’t write down my music. If I write something – like here and there I’ll work on a song – I’ll type it into my phone, but other than that I don’t write it down. I just sing on the go when I’m in the studio. And then I have to write the lyrics after so everyone can have it.
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It’s been a crazy year, and each of us at Clash has found ourselves reaching towards R&B. Which do you suppose that is? Is it a yearning for that sense of communication you get through R&B?
I mean, I do appreciate what the new R&B generation are doing… with all the girls that’s coming up now. They’re reaching back a little bit. I try to add an extra feel of nostalgia, because there’s nothing like that music. I feel like everyone is doing good. It’s slowly going back to real R&B where we’re actually not afraid to talk about certain things, we’re being more transparent, and I’m just happy to be a part of it.
Also, just for me alone, they’ve been waiting on this album for two years since I dropped my EP… people wanted more! My EP is actually still doing very good. I had so many people saying ‘where is the album?’ and some people – not even my supporters – were being negative… so a lot of anticipation built up for the album.
The hype must get a lot sometimes – was your way of controlling and owning that to construct the intro at the start of the record?
I wanted to put the intro like that because that’s not even half of what I’ve been hearing for two years. So imagine hearing that, and trying to create, and having all this pressure. People are talking about you and you’re trying to prove to them but you can’t because you’re showing all of the snippets of your music.
So I wanted to put that for people who were saying that about me, and then I wanted to give them this body of work that I created. I didn’t want to just create 10, 12 songs, slap it on and say: here you go! I wanted to make it memorable. I want to go down for the books. So that was a great way to start the album.
How did you transform all of those ideas into a record that feels so cohesive?
I wanted to show versatility. That’s one of the things that happened with the first batch of songs that I had… that I thought was the album. I was trying so hard to show how versatile I was that the music wasn’t cohesive. It was kind of all over the place. So I was like: OK, let me create an R&B record, that is a cohesive project.
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‘Love Language’ made a deep impression, what sparked that song?
I think I got a beat pack one day from an A&R. He sent me some more beats, and that one stood out. I liked it, and then I was in the car, thinking about what concept could match the beat. I thought about ‘Love Language’ so I was just driving and singing it. I was thinking about getting into an attitude of wanting some re-assurance, wanting to feel loved by your significant other. Just wanting some attention. That’s the song that the beat gave me… I just created like that.
Was it a grocery run?
You know, it probably was! It was a store run!
Driving can be really relaxing, do you often find yourself having musical ideas behind the wheel?
Yeah. Or it can be even when I’m sleeping… I’ll be sleeping, and then I’ll wake up and hear this melody and I don’t even know how it got into my head. I hear such a pretty melody, or some words… and I’ll start singing it. It just turns into a song – I don’t even know how, it’s crazy how it works! It’s really inspiring to just know that I was one day just driving and boom! Now all these people know this song.
You started working with a beat – is that your preferred way of writing?
So in the beginning of my creative process I wanted to make every single beat from scratch. Just because… beats are really important to me. Chords are important to me. The song comes on, and you’re still waiting… doesn’t work for me! I want to be sold in the first five seconds. Like, ooh lemme play this some more! That’s what I wanted to create from scratch because I knew what I liked, and what I wanted, and what my fanbase would like to hear.
At the end, though, I had to wrap it up, so they just started sending beats. I would normally just skip through them – like, nah, don’t like ‘em! – but particularly with ‘Love Language’ it just stood out, and I knew I could turn it into something more.
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‘Lie To Me’ features Lil Durk – did he come in last, or was do you like collaborators to be involved throughout?
It was actually during the process. Crazy thing is, the sample I used – in the melody – I’ve been wanting to use that since 2018. I actually made another song with that melody but I just didn’t want to use it because I wasn’t mentally there any more, and I had gotten better. So I was like, well, I don’t want to use this song but I still want to use the melody. So I had the producer re-vamp the beat for me, and then I wrote some whole new lyrics. But I knew I wanted a featured verse, and one of the writers in there with me knew Lil Durk. And he did it right away!
The use of the sample is really effective. Do you often use audio reference points when concentrating on your own work?
Sometimes, yeah. Definitely to get inspiration. If it’s an old school beat, a beat that I could make something new with… I’d definitely show them that. As far as using modern sounds, well, I don’t really do that because I have my own path.
What do you think places you in your own lane?
Truthfully, I think my music sounds completely different from everyone else’s. I feel like my album sounds different. I just set myself apart. Just like everyone has their own uniqueness, I have like a new-stalgia. A lot of time with R&B people are just doing the new school R&B and that’s cool – it’s great! – but I really try to give you guys the same feeling as you’d get from an older record.
Did it feel strange to release this record without being able to tour it? At first I was really mad. I was like, man, this is messin’ up my rollout! I had a tour organised, and I didn’t get to do that. I was mad at first.
We had to push the album back further, and I thought people would forget about me! But it turned out for the good. I feel like during that time when everybody had to stay in the house, I was going back and forth to the studio, just me and my engineer, and I was really able to perfect my album. I believe that honestly, if I had released it sooner then it wouldn’t have gotten the feedback that it got.
It is gratifying to work on a project in such depth to see the feedback it’s getting? Or is your own verdict the one that ultimately counts?
If I don’t like it no one is going to like it. If I don’t like something of my own, I won’t even promote it. I won’t speak positive about it… and I am very vocal in how I feel, and very transparent. I’ve actually put out a couple of songs previously that I don’t like at all… and I feel that if people see I don’t like the song, then they won’t like it either. I have to love it. Not just like it. It can’t just be alright! If I love it, then I will put it on the album.
It seems like you made a lot of material, will those songs ever see the light of day?
Maybe a couple on the deluxe. We might revamp it. I didn’t want to make the album too long because I wanted people to be able to digest it. I guess with the other ones I could recycle ‘em and re-use the beat… but if not, then I guess they’ll just go down as trash.
Without touring I suppose the big events are Thanksgiving and Christmas…
Oh yes! I went to the store today and bought some peppermint candles and some apple cinnamon candles… just stuff to smell like Christmas. I was going to get one but we’re going to save that for a video on the YouTube channel. I can’t wait for it all! I love food, I’m gonna cook a couple dishes! I’m super-excited, I love this time of year.
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‘missunderstood’ is out now.
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