The second (and third) life of J.R. Rotem
Four years ago, J.R. Rotem made a pivot from straightforward, trunk-rattling gangsta rap productions to helming saucy mainstream pop tracks. The switch worked. His hit tracks for Britney Spears and Rihanna vaulted him from rap’s A-list into the clouds of frothy club-pop, with the attendant tabloid attention – including a quick-burning relationship with Britney that he vividly (he says jokingly) detailed in a notorious 2007 Blender Magazine article.
His extracurricular exploits threatened to derail Rotem the musician. So, in 2007, he re-calibrated his production goals and established Beluga Heights, a label imprint where he could cultivate new vocal talent. Sean Kingston, the teenage Jamaica-via-Miami singer, hit first with “Beautiful Girls,” one of the defining songs of that summer.
That tune set a template of Caribbean-inflected, beat-driven synth-pop for Rotem that, three years later, has sneakily become one of the dominant sounds of pop radio. His latest project, the debut from young singer-songwriter Jason Derulo out today, sports two sleek and absolutely inescapable singles in “Whatcha Say” and “In My Head,” while he simultaneously led Iyaz’s breakout track “Replay” to No. 2 on the Billboard's pop chart.
It seems like Rotem’s finally made a second major move in his music career, having become one of a select group of producers who spin singular chart gold out of completely unknown artists.
“That’s what’s becoming our forte, identifying raw talent,” Rotem said from the minimalist, workmanlike lounge inside his Mid-City recording studio. “My brother Tommy does our A&R and he spends an awful lot of time on MySpace.”
The idea of the Rotem brothers leaving the pop troposphere to troll through epilepsy-inducing MySpace pages for new talent seems unlikely. But the formula is paying off -- he has a perfect score on breaking his first three Beluga Heights debuts, and it’s given him a wide berth to refine his productions. He’s steered his sound away from such sample-heavy rewrites as Rihanna's “SOS” into an idiosyncratic mix of Euro-besotted trance synths, rap’s drum machine clatter and insatiably melodic, reggae-tinged songwriting.
“There is a weird connection to the islands here,” Rotem said. “There’s a lot of melody and soul in that music, and when you add synths, it’s just pure ear candy, but the vocals are still really organic. What I’m interested in now is how you can take an artist who is being true to themselves, but make everyone relate to it."
Along the way, Rotem himself became vastly more relatable. Gone are the the designer sunglasses and did-he-or-didn’t-he allusions to bedding half the starlets between Vine Street and the 405. It was all a projection of his aspirations, he said. He imagined that to produce for the best (or bestselling), you have to shop and party with them.
But today, in a rumpled hoodie fit for a Whole Foods run, Rotem’s finally put his hands back on something more creatively renumerative -- his keyboard.
“I wasn’t being evil then, it just wasn’t who I was supposed to be,” he said. “I needed to get that out of my system. It was insecurity, ultimately. Nothing productive ever came out of me being on a tabloid site. But it was a lesson that music has to take precedence.”
-- August Brown
Photo: Sean Kingston, left, and J.R Rotem. Courtesy of FYI PR