By Ashley Zimmerman
By Dana Krangel
By John Hood
By Ashley Zimmerman
By David Von Bader
By Sayre Berman
By Steve Brennan
By Ashley Zimmerman
At the time, Rotem was launching his Beluga Heights label and seeking artists to sign. "We weren't looking for anything specific," he says. "It just needed to be something that was very, very different. In Sean's case, he was young, had amazing presence, there was a Jamaican influence... he was just the essence of raw talent."
Rotem's success depends in part on his being a tastemaker, someone who can anticipate or even create trends. Pop music with Caribbean flair is all over the charts right now, thanks to the success of Kingston, Rihanna, Kat De Luna, and others, but its appeal wasn't as obvious three years ago, when producers like Rotem bet on it.
At the time, Kingston thought he was on the verge of hip-hop stardom. "He was concentrating more on rapping when we first met him," Rotem says, "but he was also singing his own hooks. We didn't just want a rapper that could spit 16 bars but someone who could write his own hooks, had melodic sensibility, crossover appeal, and with the Jamaican vibe. We knew Sean was the one."
Kingston was 15. He got on a plane to L.A. Just a few months before, he'd been briefly homeless, sleeping in cars or any couch he could scrounge up among friends in Miami, unsure where his next meal was coming from. Federal agents had kept Turner under surveillance for some time, culminating in her arrest. Kingston's sister Kanema Morris was charged in connection with her mother's crimes, for conspiracy. Kingston was too young to have had full knowledge of his mother's criminal activities, she says, but it was still a pivotal time for him.
Turner spent two and a half years in a low-security federal prison in Tallahassee, having been sent away just before Kingston's 15th birthday. "We lost everything," Turner says. "We lost our home, my cars, businesses... the federal government took everything. Sean went to stay with family members, but he was so unruly that he left and went off on his own."
It was hard, Kingston says. "I was angry at the whole situation, and it was just a crazy time... On one hand, it made me more focused, but it also felt like everything was falling apart."
Meanwhile, Kingston's sister, Morris, who was originally sentenced to probation, was cited for failing to answer her phone while under court-ordered monitoring and was jailed for four months.
By the time Rotem's organization was emailing him beats to work with, Kingston knew this was his chance to save his family, maybe the only one he'd get. He already had an older brother, Kurt Morris, on the West Coast, taking classes in Los Angeles. Relocating there made sense to him. And there was Rotem, who became a mentor.
Rotem recalls that Kingston improved quickly once they started working together in a studio. "He was singing more on pitch, working on timber, and writing songs a lot faster... When you're that young, you learn a lot quicker. He's real quick in the studio. He knows what kind of sound to go for."
In early 2007, Epic Records took an interest in Rotem's protégé, signing Kingston to a joint contract with Rotem and advancing him enough money that he felt like a star for the first time. Kingston was 16.
Then "Beautiful Girls" began to get radio play, starting with Los Angeles station Power 106, and it didn't stop.
"I never knew it could happen so fast," Kingston says now. "It was amazing to me how big that song got."
Epic saw its opening and pushed to quickly get an album's worth of material from Kingston. Rotem had a month to help him do it.
"The single was taking off so quick, like way quicker than we expected, and we had to play catch-up," Rotem says. "Every day, we were making music together from afternoon until morning. We changed songs, verses, and hooks."
Listening to Kingston's self-titled debut album is like a walk through the mind of a 17-year-old with a lot to prove. What makes it stand out, however, is Kingston's fluidity, the way, with Rotem's help, he moves smoothly in and out of genres, creating an overall stew of reggae, pop, hip-hop, and doo-wop that remains crisp enough to appeal to 7-year-olds and 27-year-olds alike.
Kingston writes all the lyrics and keeps them clean. There's no profanity, no bragging about girls he's bedded, no attempt to portray grittier street life. "People don't want to hear a kid cursing," he says. "It's unnecessary. And that's not the kind of entertainer I want to be."
The second single off the album, "Me Love," has a patois chorus, poppy production, and an energetic, feel-good appeal that outstrips others' efforts at making reggae-crossover hits. This isn't Sean Paul or Shaggy. It's more like it's custom-made for the judges of the Teen Choice Awards ("Beautiful Girls" snagged two, for Best R&B Track and Best Summer Track). The flipside is that this kind of thing can get old fast. The "suicidal, suicidal" refrain from "Beautiful Girls" might sound different and even cool for a while, but it can also become annoyingly insipid with repeated play, just as Kingston can leave hipsters complaining he's too damned sweet.