On February 28th, 2020, Ant Clemons released his debut album, Happy 2 Be Here. The title is quite literal in the appreciation Clemons has for his career. In 2016, he’s working at Red Lobster. In 2018, he’s on a Kanye West album. His name has become synonymous with some of the biggest acts in music, but it didn’t start that way.
The Fader: “It’s called YE, and it was introduced by Chris Rock. The LP includes appearances from Ty Dolla $ig Kid Cudi, Jeremih, Young Thug, 070 Shake, Charlie Wilson and a voicemail from Nicki Minaj.”
The New York Times: “The debut of ‘Ye,’ which was made available on streaming services like Spotify or Apple Music by Friday morning, included seven songs, with guest features from Ty Dolla Sign, Jeremih, Kid Cudi, Charlie Wilson and 070 Shake.”
Genius: “No, that’s not Jeremih on the hook…it’s actually Jeremih’s friend and collaborator Ant Clemons.”
In the two years since Ant Clemons is no longer so easily mistaken. As a performer, his falsetto is unique and recognizable. And behind the scenes, Clemons has accumulated a number of high-profile writing credits, ranging from Camilla Cabello to Kali Uchis to Beyoncé. A song with Skrillex, “Midnight Hour,” received a Grammy nomination for Best Dance Recording.
Clemons: I say I’m happy to be here because God won’t bless what you don’t appreciate. So you have to be super appreciative over the things that you have. But when you get to where you want to be, you’ve gotta see the bigger picture, because it’s really about the journey. To keep myself having the proper perspective, I would always say, “Oh, this is for the biopic.” Or “I have to remember this moment for the biopic.” I’ve got to write a book about my life. I have stuff to tell all about.
Spend any time with Clemons, and it’s clear his relationship with his faith is a vital part of what’s allowed him to persist on a journey into the music industry, a journey that often chews people up and spits them out.
Clemons: My parents were big in the church, but towards the end of their marriage, we stopped going as frequently. Instead of going every Sunday and Thursday, and Wednesday for Bible study, it dwindled down, bit by bit. I kind of found myself forming my own personal relationship with the Lord. When I actually moved out to L.A., when it was literally just me and God—in those times where I felt like I was alone, I never really felt alone. I had somebody looking over me.
It’s like training in combat is essentially church. The training grounds prepare you for the real world. When you’re actually in the real world, you have the tools that you can use, that you learned in church, that help you maneuver through this thing that we call life.
Midway through “Mama I Made It,” the opening track of Happy 2 Be Here, there’s an interlude that features a clip of a phone call. Clemons, delirious with joy, out of breath, near tears, is heard saying, “He just played the album on, on, on his livestream in Wyoming. And the record has my voice on it. I’m singing it, he—it’s me. It’s…it’s me. It’s my voice. Mama. I’m on Kanye West’s album.”
The record with his voice was “All Mine.” Clemons sang the hook.
Clemons: The funny thing is, I’ve been referencing songs now for about 10 years, and originally it went from trial and error, or trying to sing as hard as I possibly could, just experimenting with my voice. When it came to “All Mine,” it was really just me having fun with Jeremih in the studio. Not even figuring out anything that has anything to do with Kanye specifically. And it just so happened that the record landed in Kanye’s lap. And life has been amazing ever since.
I’ve been a Kanye fan. Graduation was one of the first CDs I actually purchased with my own money. I was dressing like Kanye in middle school. I had the “Stronger” glasses and everything! Like all I ever wanted was some Yeezys. Now my closet is full of them and I just don’t know how to act.
I spend at least about 15 minutes a day just staring and appreciating and thanking God, like, “Yo, it was not like this.” It’s so orchestrated by Him that I can’t even sit here and say, “Hey, I did this. And I did this. And…” Please. I did absolutely nothing. I allow God to be the captain of this entire ship.
While West has worked with many up-and-coming talents over the years, not every relationship lasts. In 2016, it was Post Malone, Sampha, Desiigner, Vic Mensa, and Chance the Rapper. None of which have appeared on a second Kanye album. In 2013, King Louie and Assassin had their moments then went on their way.
But Ant Clemons has done what only a few have: appeared as a feature on multiple Kanye albums.
Part of that probably has to do with an artistic perspective that’s allowed Clemons to work successfully with a broad demographic of artists. There’s clearly a value in what he brings to the studio. Then there’s Kanye’s rebirth as a Christian, and the ways in which Clemons, who is so clearly awash in faith, has been able to ride that wave with West. Both artists have an eye and ear for the secular while remaining true to their spirituality, transcending confinement to purely gospel or purely pop.
Happy 2 Be Here is a display of that range. You have songs like “Mama I Made It” and “4 Letter Word” that are full of emotion and redemption and a kind of innocent victory.
Example 1: Mama, you can go and quit that job/‘Cause you bet, bet on your child/You won’t have to wait for no dollars.
Example 2: Took my ugly, made it lovely/left these demons out in public/Show me love is more than a four-letter word.
When you start the third track, “Excited,” the trend of this beauty and poetry continues. I still get excited when I see you hit me up/Butterflies in my stomach, feel ‘em coming right up/I don’t know what you’re doing to me, enough to enough/I don’t know how you got me coming right back to your love.
At that moment, you could think, “I can’t believe this is the guy from ‘All Mine’ who sang ‘Yeah, you supermodel thick/Damn, that ass bustin’ out the bottom…Get to rubbin’ on my lamp/Get the genie out the bottle.’”
But when Clemons launches into the opening chorus of “Excited” and into the first verse, the tone changes. “Hypnotize me, ain’t no Biggie, how you ride me like a 6-speed?” That’s the “All Mine” Ant showing up. The next track, “Aladdin,” picks up right where “Excited” left off, with the lines like “Bend and bust it open for me/Don’t you catch them feeling on me” and “Come and ride me, I’m Aladdin” and “Fucked around and got a habit/Bad bitch, that’s a habit.”
This tone extends into “Beep” and “Good 4 U.” Cools down on “Best Friend.” And is gone by “Pinky Promise.” On that final track, we’re back to broadly innocent lines. “When you tired of lies/Let me show you love/When you need some time/Let me show you some…Swear it’s all right, here for the long ride/Come make a wrong right with me/Pinky promise.”
Once you’ve finished Happy 2 Be Here, you can look back and appreciate the journey you just went on. How Ant guides you on a tour of the multitude of emotions of a 20-something living through newly earned fame.
As a first project, it’s a successful calling card to others in the music industry. Whatever flavor of song an artist needs, Clemons can capture it. Whether that’s pure praise or self-aggrandizement, bright love or straight lust.
With a solo project on the books, Clemons has turned his attention back to a thriving collaborative space. He’s worked on EPs from Meek Mill, 6lack, and Farrah Mechael. He featured prominently in a new video with Noah Cyrus for their collaboration “Wonder Years,” sampling the theme song from the hit show of the late 80s/early 90s.
Clemons had also teamed up with Ty Dolla $ign, Skrillex, and Virtual Riot for a protest song in response to the George Floyd murder. Released on June 1st, “You See It” addresses the on-going issue of police brutality and use of lethal force when engaging with minorities. The song even samples speech from activist Nia Miranda.
Clemons: I was always looking for just my outlet. What am I great at? And I always enjoyed telling stories. I appreciated great storytellers and great songwriting. Like James Fauntleroy’s songwriting, Eric Bellinger’s songwriting, and Ed Sheeran’s. When I got into how much I liked the craft of songwriting, I started getting to what Julia Michaels and Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson were writing for other artists. When I found out who Ester Dean was…dog…I was like, “That’s Rihanna! This is so crazy!”
We’ll see what vistas and horizons are ahead for Clemons in the second half of 2020 and beyond. He kicked off August with his latest solo track. Called “Freak,” the song features production from heavy-hitters Timbaland, Charlie Heat, and BoogzDaBeast. Clemons is infectious overtop the beat’s dance rhythms.
A talent to keep aware of, Ant is affecting popular music as both performer and songwriter, able to help others grab their time in the spotlight while carrying on the torch of his influences as a performer—Michael Jackson, Chris Brown, Kanye West. It’s a blueprint that’s led to the rise of Charlie Pluth, Lady Gaga, Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, and Sia. It’s a good thing Clemons is happy to be here, because demand is high.