MNEK on 16 Again, Beyoncé, Sugababes & FLO: “I try not to have an ego because the song is king”

If you can be sure about anything about MNEK, it’s that he’s gonna write and produce the hell out of a girl group song. While the rest of us were over-tweezing our eyebrows and working Saturday jobs to top up our phones, MNEK was already collaborating with Sugababes and The Saturdays when he was a teenager.

It’s significant then, that his new single, 16 Again – a collaboration with dance titans Paul Woolford and Lewis Thompson – sees the British singer, songwriter and record producer reflect on his own teenage years, which were so very different from those of his peers.

Used to seeing MNEK dressed mostly fabulously on Instagram (a flammable-looking blonde wig sometimes making a guest appearance), today he’s dressed down in a grey long-sleeved top and is sporting his natural short (although soon-to-be-swishable, braided) hair – no fluorescent dye in sight. If there are any flashes of him being extra today, it’s all in his words.

The 28 year old is in full promo mode – “Allegedly,” he teases – his phone pinging away intermittently throughout. “Honestly…the WhatsApp is going off, the fucking Zoom interview marathon, talking about 16 Again…”

Ever the pro, he brings back into focus what he’s here to promote today, despite the inevitability of being asked about his work with certain global icons as well (more on that later). 

He’s immediately game though – naturally shifting into an easy, conversational style with someone he’s just met. Despite the constant pings, for 20 minutes he’s all yours, and Headliner senses he wouldn’t shy away from answering more controversial or weighty topics than today’s allotted time slot allows.

I was a bit of a late bloomer because my 16 was being in the studio with Charli XCX & The Saturdays.

Real name Uzoechi Osisioma ‘Uzo’ Emenike, his Instagram bio includes the pronouns 'he/him/she/they,’ but MNEK isn’t here for making people stress over saying the wrong thing, telling an enquiring fan, “Issa he/him boo,” when asked what’s correct.

And despite his impressive  – and undisputedly flex-worthy – credentials (writing and producing for artists including Beyoncé, Madonna, Christina Aguilera and Kylie Minogue), he’s not one for taking himself too seriously – gleefully sharing Lovehoney’s Tweet about his all-pink BRITS outfit this year. 

And he’s relatable – tweeting about “cringing so hard” at Love Is Blind and The BRITs’ ‘Sam Capaldi’ intro blunder. 

Although it’s not all LOLs – he will speak up about the serious stuff, whether that be about how being a gay, black pop star can be challenging – “a minority within a minority,” – calling people people out for transphobia and fatphobia, being uncomfortable with the potential of AI vocals, to his thoughts on The BRITs’ questionable merging of the Best Pop and RnB categories.

At age seven MNEK was writing poems and songs, and it wouldn’t be much longer before he started experimenting with production software. By his early teens, he was learning how to make beats and was uploading them to MySpace. Before long, numerous publishers were vying for the teen’s attention.

“I was a bit of a late bloomer in a lot of ways because my life was my career at that point,” he reflects. 

“I was just finishing school and I was gasping to be a part of the industry and write songs and for that to be my life. My 16 was writing and being in the studio with Charli XCX on half term, working with Xenomania and getting my first cut with The Saturdays – a different time,” he grins. “But 16 was a cool year.

“I've always been very clear about what I wanted to do,” he adds, acknowledging the difference between his and his school friends’ lives at the time. 

“My school life was interesting because I was very focused about what I wanted to do. I'm thankful I get to do it now as an adult. Thankfully everyone around me knew that as well and were very much like, ‘Okay, cool. Let him do his thing.’ 

"I don't recall any backlash or negative vibes,” he thinks back. “I had friends who were very supportive, but then of course, things change. I mean, life just changes. I'm not really friends with a lot of people I went to school with at this point, I think as a result of me being quite clear about what I wanted to do…there was a disparity or a disconnect. But you know, another one bites the dust,” he shrugs.

I try not to have too much of an ego about interpolation because the song is king at the end of the day.

Another group who started out when they were teenagers crossed MNEK’s path when he was 17. Sugababes formed when they were just 13, and also experienced a very different adolescence to that of their peers. 

With the original lineup back together in 2012, Mutya, Keisha and Siobhan set about creating new music, bringing in MNEK to work on tracks for what would go on to become The Lost Tapes album, including co-writing and producing standout album track, Today.

“I've always loved Today in particular,” he nods. “I always thought it should have been the first single from the project…” he pauses, changes tact – “We did it literally 10 years ago. I was 17 when we wrote Today and Drum, and I worked on Boys as well. I was a kid, so it's funny to hear the music back now and hear where my brain was at back then. It's a time capsule. It's nice that that's just there – there's no changing that and there's no tweaking it.

“We just mastered the demos, because we were like, ‘Why not?’ Of course, I would have loved to have had the stems, but I can't worry about that now because it is what it is and that magic was captured. I'm pretty proud of it. And I looooved working with them,” he purrs. “I think they're so great.”

Despite capturing an album’s worth of tracks showcasing the group’s close knit harmonies and songs that harken back to their 2000 debut, One Touch, the record wouldn’t see the light of day – officially – until the tail end of 2022 – “Labels, labelled – as they do!” 

After a revolving door of interchangeable group members, the OG Sugababes’ highly anticipated comeback project was leaked a while back – “Not the leaks! No more leaks!” MNEK exclaims, holding up his hands. The girls have been professionally (and likely, legally) tight-lipped about what happened, although understandably, are not impressed with how it all went down.

“You would be though, right? Because we loved the songs when we wrote them, and we really wanted them to come out. 

"Unfortunately, because of certain powers – that are still, as we speak…” he trails off suggestively, then decides against it. “They just weren't able to.”

All’s well that ends well though. Once officially released, The Lost Tapes debuted at number two on the UK Album Downloads Chart and at number 13 on the UK Independent Albums Chart. “I am happy the songs belong to the people now,” MNEK smiles.

I was a kid, so it's funny to hear where my brain was at back then. It's a time capsule.

A new UK girl group making waves for their tight harmonies are BRIT Award Rising Star recipients, FLO – who MNEK has been working closely with from day one. A self confessed Destiny’s Child stan, his musical preferences are unmistakably baked into each track – FLO sound like they’re lifted right out of the ‘90s R&B charts – while their look is straight up Y2K – artwork font, lowriders and all.

Rather than shy away from any comparisons, FLO make a point of tipping their (probably bucket) hats to the ‘90s and early 2000s girl groups that came before them, whether that be referencing Sugababes’ debut in their Cardboard Box music video, to the ‘no scrubs’ and independent women message that forms the cornerstone of their music. 

MNEK’s role has been crucial to their ascent, including co-writing and producing their breakthrough track, Cardboard Box, taken from their debut EP, The Lead.

“I think that one may have started with the verse and the pre, ironically [MNEK usually starts with the chorus], because I remember Renée [Downer] had come up with the melody for the pre,” he recalls. “Then Stella [Quaresma] came up with the verse. It was a piece by piece thing. When it came to the chorus I was like, ‘I'ma put your shit in a cardboard box,’” he sings. 

“It just kind of came out, and I was like, ‘Okay, that makes sense.’ It's kind of a weird title! When we finished it we all knew that there was something really special about that song.”

The track was shelved for three years and then unanimously selected to be the group’s debut single in 2022. People were into it: the infectious song’s music video surpassed 900,000 views within days, getting nods of approval from Missy Elliott, SZA, JoJo and Victoria Monét.

“We parked it – we knew that it was something – then when it came down to thinking about the first one they were coming out with, they always were quite firm on Cardboard Box,” he nods. 

“I'm really proud of what it's been able to do for them as a group and the pathway it opened up for them after that went on to do what it did. I was brought on to exec produce the EP and help tie everything together and I'm really proud of what that's done. 

"We're now on the album and are getting those things together. There’s so much music, I'm buzzing. I can't wait for people to hear what they're coming out with because it really is just the beginning.”

When we finished Cardboard Box we all knew there was something really special about that song.

The day after this interview, FLO release their new single Fly Girl, which interpolates Missy Elliott's 2002 single, Work It. Leading up to its release, FLO hinted that the legendary rapper herself might be featured on the track by posting teasers where Elliott’s voice could be heard. 

Fly Girl doesn’t just interpolate Work It (it even begins with iconic backwards lyrics, ‘Ti esrever dna ti pilf nwod gnaht ym tup i’), it features a new verse by Elliot – who confirms that 21 years later, she still looks like a Halle Berry poster.

Given the legal complexities surrounding song interpolation today, Headliner is curious if MNEK is cautious about this particular songwriting process, given that artists are not often consulted prior. He smiles knowingly: Missy featuring on the track rules that out, as will become clear tomorrow…

“I made a funny joke on Instagram yesterday. I say it was a joke, but it was pretty real,” he says. “I said that I'd come up with the chorus of Fly Girl kind of knowing that we were going to be robbed of publishing from it because it is from Work It. But at the same time, sometimes it's really fun to be able to reference stuff that you love and to be able to get the approval from the people who've made it. 

"I've sampled music in my career and I've had some really generous people who've been able to let go of their ego and say, ‘Okay, you've done this, but we love what you're doing. We're gonna let you do your thing with it. We'll take what we take, but we won’t try to cheat you.’ And then there's people who just are about their business and they say, ‘We're gonna be taking this chunk from it, and then you'll be left with that chunk.’ 

"It is what it is. I don't think I'm wary of it. I'm definitely acutely aware of what comes with it. I try not to have too much of an ego about it because the song is king at the end of the day.”

I'd come up with the chorus of Fly Girl knowing that we were going to be robbed of publishing.

To mark the release of nostalgic dance bop, 16 Again, MNEK shared a throwback pic of a 16 year old him on Instagram “letting the gworls know” that the single is out. The lyrics hark back to a simpler, more carefree time: ‘You make me feel sixteen again / Not a care, summer air, you take me there.’

“My experience as a 16 year old isn't necessarily what's being narrated in this song,” he acknowledges.

“We'd written a song at Lewis' writing camp for his project and we all loved it. The chorus of this came first – I really like the chorus. It's catchy. Paul heard it and wanted to be a part of it. They both brought their production identities towards it to make it what we hear right now. I’m grateful for them for helping take it to the next level and hopefully also bring some more ears on it.

“I like working with other producers because I'm able to do a lot of things at the same time,” he adds. 

“I like being able to release one of the roles and let someone else handle it. If I'm singing it, writing it and vocal producing it, which I did on this one, I've already got that on my plate. I want to know that I'm working with someone who I trust, and that I'm able to voice any feelings I have about the production still.”

MNEK says that the track was recorded a year ago. “I'm excited for it to belong to the people and for them to enjoy it and interpret it how they will. It came from a place of wanting to write a song about nostalgia, being reflective, and what's the word I'm thinking of…” he searches for the word... “pensive!” he lands on. “I went into the thesaurus in my mind. We were feeling pensive about the past and that resulted in 16 Again.”

As for the delay in the song coming out, was this a case of labels, labelling again?

“I mean, it's a process. The thing about the industry is obviously it’s more than just the music. It's all about a plan, strategy and release schedule, and what everyone is doing in their respective careers and making sure that aligns and that we all have enough time to give the song its best shot. The year does buzz by; you only realise it's been a year after the fact. 

"I've had super quick turnarounds, like Head & Heart, which me and Lewis Thompson worked on, that turnaround was pretty much three months between me writing, recording the song, shooting the video and it going out. It was really quick and instinctive like, let's just go. But then there's others that take a second. Either way I'm here for it to be fresh to people's ears.”’

I look up to people like Pharrell, Diddy and Timbaland who are more than just a monolith. They are seen as just music, period.

There’s an elephant – or rather, a silver holographic-shaped horse – in the room. MNEK has worked with Beyoncé. Headliner knows it. He knows he’s going to be asked. We make it quick.

The song in question is 2016’s Hold Up, taken from the singer’s critically acclaimed sixth studio album, Lemonade. MNEK was flown to Beyoncé’s house, ushered past a wall of security guards and a sleeping Jay-Z to wait in a room. 

Not entirely convinced she was actually going to materialise, Mrs Knowles-Carter entered the room in jeans and a T-shirt and introduced herself – “like I don’t know who you are!” – and explained her idea for the song.

Scattered around the room were A4 pieces of paper with key words on them with themes she was trying to touch upon for each Lemonade track. MNEK was played the chorus, and then went back to London to see what he could come up with. 

He wrote a full song over the demo, from which Beyoncé cherry picked three lines: (‘Hey, this such a shame / You let this good love go to waste…), which was used in the bridge.

“Yeah,” he begins, suddenly high pitched. “It happened. It was cool. Hold Up is a song that's now in her discography and the fact I was able to meet her and she thinks anything that's come out of my brain is cool, is amazing. Forgive me, I've answered this question about a million times,” he laughs. 

“Not a very enthusiastic moment from that! I grew up listening to Beyoncé as a kid and I love every project she's ever put out. Seeing my name on the credits for anything that she's a part of is an honour. To be able to call her a colleague in any fashion is amazing.”

The fact I was able to meet Beyoncé and she thinks anything that's come out of my brain is cool, is amazing.

MNEK reveals that he secured Renaissance tour tickets, although Headliner assumes he wasn’t fighting for his life in the Ticketmaster queue with the rest of us. Sensibly, he declines to disclose which date he’ll be attending.

“I can’t tell you!” he laughs. “I mean, for real I'm just about hearing America Has A Problem live because I will lose – my – shit. That's my fucking tune. I love Energy – I love the album! I'm such a fan.”

MNEK released his debut solo album, Language in 2018, and shares that he’s not just focussing on writing and producing for others at the moment:

“There is another album in the works,” he confirms, not giving anything away. “I just want to talk about it when I've got a sense of the visual side of it, you know? I have a lot of confidence in the music and getting that to a place I'm happy about. 

"I want to make sure that I'm presenting myself in a way that I'm excited to show my face and champion this project, and champion all the projects I'm a part of, because it isn't just about the album. It's about artists and developing them, like FLO and other artists that I'm working with in the pipeline. 

'It's about being able to embody everything. I look up to people like Pharrell, Diddy and Timbaland who are more than just a monolith. They are seen as just music, period. I want to do that and be able to present myself in the best fashion.”

With that, our 20 minutes are up. Headliner will see MNEK at the Renaissance tour; or will we?

“Take care of yourself,” he says, not taking the bait. “Take care. Mwah!”

FLO image via the BRITS.