For Makonnen, music is do or die. In 2012, the now 25-year-old was working at a hotel in his current hometown of Atlanta, supplementing the tedium of a day job by writing and producing music on the side. Eventually, he came to an impasse: he could either unhappily continue on as is, or take a year off from having a regular gig and fully devote himself to his career as an aspiring musician.
He went with the latter, and his leap of faith paid off. The Los Angeles native has become the music industry's hottest new voice, thanks to the success of his explosive club smash "Tuesday" that got a boost after Drake released a remix of the singsong anthem. It's just the latest in a long line of releases from the prolific Makonnen, introducing his refreshing sound to a whole new audience.
"I'm a not so regular person in a not so regular world, and I'm just making the most of it and embracing myself," explains Makonnen (born Makonnen Sheran), who signed to Drake's OVO imprint in Sept. 2014. The success of the gold-certified "Tuesday" has been explosive: it topped the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, peaked at No. 1 three weeks in a row at urban radio and was nominated for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration at the 2015 Grammy Awards. The single is included on his I Love Makonnen EP, releasing Dec. 15 and including additional songs like "I Don't Sell Molly," "Maneuvering" and "Swerve," produced by Mike WiLL Made It (Miley Cyrus, Rihanna).
What began as a pastime would eventually dictate his life's path. Growing up in Los Angeles, Makonnen moved to Atlanta when he was 13, writing songs in his spare time and producing three albums for his mother. While dealing with legal issues following high school, he recorded numerous albums—"I was killing them with the content," he recalls—that created a buzz online. But it was through his connection with Mike WiLL in 2013 that he inked a publishing deal with Warner Chappell and linked with red-hot producers including Metro Boomin' and Sonny Digital.
For Makonnen, his music gained traction not because of his co-signs, but rather how he funnels his life into his songs. "I make music for myself, like a song that I want to hear, things that I'm going through," he says, "and then I'll be like, oh wow, there are so many other people who can go through this as well, so let me make it broader."
With "Tuesday" already cemented as one of 2014's standout singles, Makonnen shows no signs of slowing down, plotting to release his major label debut and tour the festival circuit in 2015. As for his growing legion of fans? "I just want people to take away an enjoyment of self in their lives and enjoy their lives and go for their f—kin' dreams, whatever the f—k they want to do. Don't let people tell you that you can't do it," he says. "Go take action, because that's what I'm about and that's what I did. That's what I still want to do, and that's what I want to go and prove."