At 23, Nija Charles has already established herself as one of the most sought-after songwriters in hip-hop and R&B, penning tracks for Beyoncé, Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, and Summer Walker. Even as the walls between genres are becoming more porous in the streaming era, professional songwriting can often be siloed, with writers from different genres rarely mixing in the same sessions. But in 2020, Charles leapt into Top 40 pop, co-writing both Lady Gaga’s club hit “Rain on Me” and Maroon 5’s mournful ballad “Nobody’s Love.”
“I listen to everything, I can write any genre,” Charles says, speaking from Florida, where she’s holed up with the R&B singer Kiana Lede. “Just because I’m a little black girl doesn’t mean I only do R&B, but that’s how they stereotype it. You’ve gotta prove them wrong. It’s taken two-and-a-half years for that to happen.”
Charles grew up in New Jersey, soaking up the pop, rap, and R&B on the radio, the riffs that permeated the music in games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, and the house music common at barbecues and graduation parties. House is “really a lifestyle in North Jersey,” Charles says. “The black community there has a real tightknit house community, with them and Chicago it really goes deep.”
After watching her aunt and uncle play around with MIDI keyboards in her grandmother’s basement, Charles decided she wanted to try to make her own beats. Her mother agreed to buy her musical equipment on the condition that she maintain straight A’s for an entire semester. Charles hit those marks and threw herself into production.
The internet is flush with beats; it’s never been easier to hop online, find an instrumental, and buy it on the cheap. In an attempt to find a competitive edge in a crowded marketplace, Charles began to sing over her beats as well. As she started college at NYU, A&Rs and producers also started to encounter her demos. “Lucked Up” by the Christian rapper Lecrae was “the first song that got attention,” Charles says. “His A&R hit me about it after seeing the demo on Instagram.”
Not long after that, a session with the producers Scribz and Needles led to the demo for “Ring,” which eventually became a Cardi B and Kehlani cut. Charles had never met the two producers, but they played her some chords, and within five minutes, a reproachful chorus tumbled out: “You don’t hit my line no more.”
This is still Charles’ favorite way to work: ad-libbing on the fly over an instrumental. “I liked producers to play chords, play a beat, give me something to go off,” she says. “And I need to be in the booth. I don’t sit down and write on my phone. I need to sit on the mic and see what comes out, get the melodies out.”
This approach has proven wildly effective and impressively versatile. Charles can pivot easily from martial triumph (Meek Mill’s “Uptown Vibes”) to uncertain and vulnerable (Kehlani’s “Open (Passionate)”), from gloomy (Drake and Chris Brown’s “No Guidance”) to gleaming (Summer Walker and Usher’s “Come Thru”), from throwback Nineties house-pop (“Rain on Me”) to plangent balladry (“Nobody’s Love,” co-written over Zoom during the pandemic).
Now that Charles’ writing bona fides are firmly established, she plans to to release music under her own name as well — nabbing hits for herself as well as for others. She also aims to start a production company to work with up-and-coming writers and producers. “I want to make sure I’m not just seen as a songwriter,” Charles says.