Omi: Where is he now? In 2012, the Jamaican singer, assisted by his producer Specialist and reggae legend Sly Dunbar, recorded an easy-going love song that they thought might be a hit. The song was called “Cheerleader,” and over the next two years, it slowly made its way around the globe. Eventually, Patrick Moxey, the president of Ultra Records, heard it on a mixtape made by his radio promoter, so he signed Omi and commissioned a remix by German DJ Felix Jaehn. This remix became summer 2015’s biggest hit — an unprecedented turn of events but one that leaves the original artist vulnerable to becoming the year’s biggest one-hit wonder.
Or not. Today, Omi releases Me 4 U, a debut album that’s both inventive and down-the-middle, an unimposing collection of misfit hooks and roof-party beats. If the record doesn’t change the narrative, it will at least give you 45 breezy minutes free from such concerns.
“‘Cheerleader’ blowing up was phenomenal,” Omi tells Rolling Stone. “I get it — it was a big deal. It still is a big deal for me: It inspired me to write, but not necessarily to write 10 other ‘Cheerleader’s. It showed that we can appeal to a wider audience.”
“I feel like what we have — to many people’s surprise, even — is a really feel-good album,” says Salaam Remi, Me 4 U‘s executive producer. “It’s a little bit of pop; it’s a little bit of Caribbean; it’s a little bit of tropical house and all those vibes. It’s kind of like a 2015 Billy Ocean ‘Caribbean Queen’ — in a different way.”
“‘Cheerleader’ blowing up was phenomenal. I get it — it was a big deal.” —Omi
Omi had been recording new songs since 2012, but the success of “Cheerleader” led him and his collaborators to scrap most of their prior plans. Two album cuts — “Color of My Lips” and “Standing on All Threes” — go back almost as far as the original single, but the rest were created this year through a process that included heavy input from both Ultra and Remi’s Louder Than Life imprint. The three parties shared music and ideas; once a week, they would connect via conference call and discuss the beats that they had been exchanging via the Internet.
These beats were Ultra’s primary responsibility, and the label asked producers for anything that might fit a formula Moxey describes as “fantastic pop songs; touches of tropical, melodic and deep house; and the Caribbean flavor of Omi.” The A&R team then filled Me 4 U‘s liner notes with an idiosyncratic mix of European names: Luca Schreiner, for instance, the little-known German deep-house DJ who remixed the soaring “These Are the Days.” AronChupa, whose “I’m an Albatraoz” was one of 2014’s most walloping novelty hits, ended up delivering an elegant album highlight: the plinking, zen “Drop in the Ocean.”
For the most part, Omi didn’t interfere with Ultra’s approach. “Each person manages their department,” he explains. “I get in the studio and work. That’s it.”
This was more complicated than the singer makes it sound, because in order to make a truly global pop album, he wanted to work in studios around the world. “I didn’t know how important this was until I actually was doing it,” he says, noting that each city — London, Miami, Toronto, Los Feliz and, of course, Kingston — had a slightly different feel.
Salaam Remi, who learned of Omi through Specialist but heard “Cheerleader” from Moxey, oversaw most of the recording. For him, Omi isn’t just Billy Ocean; he’s also Ini Kamoze. Twenty years ago, Kamoze’s “Here Comes the Hotstepper” crossed over from Jamaican soundsystems to the top of the Hot 100 — but only after Remi gave it a Felix Jaehn–style rework that added the bass line from Taana Gardner’s disco classic “Heartbeat.”
“Hotstepper,” says Remi, was the original “Cheerleader,” and the parallel guided his approach to Me 4 U. He ultimately helped with mixing, production and making the younger artist feel comfortable in the studio.
“It was just a step from being in the office and saying, ‘I want to get this out of the song’ to me actually being able to go into the studio and get it done,” he says. “Omi actually has a much bigger musical range than even was represented, but I felt like we had to have something to follow up ‘Cheerleader,’ so we kind of stayed focused and stayed on script.”
The team ended up with about 40 songs, and the 14 that remain constitute one of the year’s most ambitious pop albums — a record that attempts to be global and current without being faddish or bland.
The way that Sly Dunbar sees it, this sound goes back much further than even Billy Ocean. “I tell people he reminds me of Harry Belafonte, you know?” says Dunbar, who also helped write “Standing on All Threes.” “Harry Belafonte, the way he’d sing, still had a Caribbean kind of rhythm in his voice, from the country, and that let him sound very original.”
The comparison is an optimistic one. And yet, what if after all this, no matter whom he sounds like, Omi still can’t score his second — not to mention third or fourth — hit? Will he be disappointed?
“Probably I will, because I’m human,” he says. “I probably will be disappointed but, at the end of the day, not broken. That will just mean I need to try harder, whether that means to be more creative or to promote some more or to be more interactive or connected to my craft. But it is not going to be in a negative setting.”