In September 2018, one week before his birthday, the singer-songwriter Ant Clemons got a call from his manager. “He’s like, ‘Pack your bag for Chicago,'” Clemons recalls. “I’m like, ‘Jeremih has a show?’ My manager’s like, ‘He might — but Kanye [West] wants you to be out there.'”
Clemons flew to Chicago and walked into a room with West, Chance the Rapper, and the right-wing pundit Candace Owens. “All I listened to for a while was that Jeremih and Chance Christmas project — I’m in the room with that guy and Kanye West?” Clemons says. “The very first day, we go back and forth just freestyling. They pass me a mic and it’s like, I can’t drop the ball here.”
Over the last two years, Clemons has made the most of opportunities like this one. He’s quietly built a résumé as a writer, contributing to songs by Teyana Taylor, Luke James, Danileigh, Dreezy, and YBN Cordae. And he has exploded on featured appearances with West: “All Mine,” a frenzied, lusty highlight from last year’s Ye, and now “Water,” a reverential, reassuring track on the rapper’s new album Jesus Is King.
Much like his highest-profile collaborator, Clemons is quick to chalk up his recent success to a higher power. “God’s been directing all my steps,” he says.
Clemons started making trips from Philadelphia to Los Angeles in an attempt to break into the writing-producing community in 2016. “I was working in Red Lobster at the time,” he remembers, “and every two weeks I’m going out to Cali.” The routine: “Make as much money as you can, go out to L.A., when you don’t have no more money, come on back.” Clemons’ mother eventually agreed to help support a permanent West Coast move. He slept on two friends’ floor, writing a song a day in exchange for rent.
Once he was in Los Angeles full time, Clemons started to meet writers and producers who were connected to major-label artists. His first placement came via Ryan Toby — a former member of the group City High and a songwriter for the likes of Usher. Toby and Clemons are from the same part of New Jersey, and they quickly established a rapport. That led Clemons to a session with Luke James, and a credit on the single “Drip.”
To escape his friends’ floor, Clemons was wildly prolific. When he started working with the producer Uforo “Bongo” Ebong, a frequent Jeremih collaborator, Clemons says “the first day we met we did 11 records.” Ebong was shocked. “He’s like ‘Bro, I’ve never done this before.'” But Clemons had an ulterior motive: “There’s a couch in the studio, so if I outwork Bongo and he falls asleep, I can sleep on his couch.”
Bongo stayed awake for long enough to be impressed with Clemons’ output. He took Clemons to meet Jeremih; West called on Jeremih to come to Wyoming to participate in the sessions for Ye, Jeremih played West a demo with Clemons titled “All Mine,” and West pounced on it.
Then things got confusing: “All Mine” came out, defined by Clemons’ ping-ponging falsetto lines, and everybody thought his vocals were Jeremih’s. Or was it Valee, a young rapper on West’s label, G.O.OD. Music? The credits were eventually corrected, and any potential friction was smoothed over when Clemons was invited to help Teyana Taylor with K.T.S.E. He ended up contributing to the album opener “No Manners” and the sneakily effective “Hurry.”
After West released five short albums in five weeks last year — two as an artist, three on which he served as producer — Clemons didn’t see him again until the fall. Then he showed up in Chicago and found himself freestyling with two of his musical heroes. The skeleton of “Selah,” the second track on Jesus Is King, was built in that freestyle session. (Clemons is one of the backing vocalists.) “Everything You Need” also came out of the Chicago sessions.
“Water” was more recent. “I get a call on a Tuesday from my brother Ray from the Stereotypes: ‘Kanye has this amazing idea, I think you could do it and get it to where it needs to be.’ We talked about it, ‘Ye gave me his vision, what he wanted, and my homie Boogz [the producer BoogzDaBeast] had this phenomenal instrumental that sounds like the Seventies. I did that song on a Tuesday, we performed it at Coachella on Sunday.”
Traveling in the West’s orbit has also sparked Clemons’ solo career. A sudden call to meet West in the studio in Miami led to a session with Timbaland, who unexpectedly appeared as a co-producer on five different Jesus Is King tracks. “Timbaland’s like, ‘Kanye’s been talking about you nonstop, you’re one of his favorite artists, I had to meet you,'” Clemons recalls. The veteran producer later added drums to the singer’s first solo release, “4 Letter Word.”
The days of sleeping on floors are now long gone. To help maintain an even keel as he hops from one star-filled session to the next, Clemons remembers a lesson from that first freestyle with Kanye. “[They passed me the mic, and] I said the first thing on my mind,” the singer explains. “The first thing on my mind was, ‘I can’t believe I’m in the room with Kanye and Chance!’ ‘Ye stopped me like, ‘hold up, hold up. You can believe — you’re here.'”