By C. ISAIAH SMALLS II, The Miami Herald

MIAMI (AP) – SAINt JHN doesn’t like the camera setup. He had chosen the location – in the living room of his high-rise Sunny Isles condo where the view spans from the Miami skyline to the Guitar Hotel – but something had changed. It just didn’t work anymore.

With a Miami Herald photographer in tow, he spends the next 15 minutes exploring his apartment in search of the perfect angle. Finally, SAINt JHN settles in his garage, grabbing a chair from his kitchen and nestling it between the Ferrari he bought after his track “Roses’’ went platinum and the Porsche he took to the Grammys.

SAINt JHN is intentional, meticulous even. He has directed a number of his music videos under the pseudonym “Taylor Foor’’ (“I don’t want none of these n—-s asking me to direct their videos,’’ he quips when asked about the name). There’s a vision – for his image, his music, his career – that lives inside his head. And his effort to bring it to life has paid off.

“In my mind, my life would be here, no matter what happened, I’d be right here in this garage with this porch, this Ferrari, this view, this duplex,’’ he said.

By now you’ve definitely heard SAINt JHN. “Roses (Imanbek Remix)’’ was everywhere in 2020: on the Billboard Hot 100 (it peaked at No. 4), on TikTok and on Spotify, where it currently has more than 1 billion streams. Its success, nearly four years in the making, launched SAINt JHN into an elite stratosphere.

Now, with his 27-stop “In Case We Both Die Young’’ tour underway, the Grammy-award-winning artist has a new goal, one that extends beyond music.

“I’m racing towards ideological freedom,’’ SAINt JHN said, before rattling off a list of industries he plans to leave his mark in: skincare, fragrances and home goods.

SAINt JHN doesn’t want to be held to the confines and standards of artists before him. Even the way he presents himself _ he’s wearing a white tee with “Saint’’ inscribed on the front and black sweatshorts from his Christian Sex Club line flipped inside out _ doesn’t align with past artists from Brooklyn.

It was this individuality that landed him a friend and eventual manager in Kareem “Biggs’’ Burke, a co-founder of Roc-A-Fella Records who had retired from music more than 10 years prior. A friend had played him SAINt JHN’s “Collection One,’’ a 2018 project that features melodic manifestations of luxury and lust over ominous trap beats and airy, synth-heavy compositions, and Burke was hooked.

“I just fell in love with (the music) genuinely, organically,’’ Burke said in an interview over Zoom. A single song didn’t stand out, rather “the fact that it was a cohesive project. Everybody loves songs but for me, I love the body of work and I think that’s what he introduced. I hadn’t heard a body of work like that in quite a bit.’’

In SAINt JHN, Burke saw something he hadn’t seen since discovering a cocky, soul sample-loving producer by the name of Kanye West.

“They’re two people who stand out, who love to be individuals, who have their own sense of fashion. And also, what SAINt was telling me about his next three albums, where he had the names of the albums, the name of the singles _ this was the same conversation I had with Kanye when I first signed him,’’ Burke said.

Born Carlos St. John Phillips, SAINt JHN split time between Brooklyn and Georgetown, Guyana, growing up. He discovered hip-hop as a preteen through an older brother who had the newest Lloyd Banks CD on repeat.

“From the first time I fell in love with (hip-hop), I locked in and I didn’t give myself any other option,’’ SAINt JHN said. “I didn’t know what would come from it. It wasn’t money. I didn’t have any goals attached to it. I wasn’t aiming for an accolade. It just felt as good as anything could possibly feel at that time.’’

Reflecting on his younger days, SAINt JHN speaks with a learned wisdom of a man who was determined to leave behind the poverty he experienced both stateside and internationally. In another life, he could’ve been a motivational coach – nuggets of inspiration are a mainstay in interviews – yet his life has dramatically changed in the past year. Sure, there were a few accolades of note – two Grammys and a Video Music Award, specifically – but the birth of Billion, his public relations manager Simone King’s baby boy, appears to have given him perspective.

Even his mentions of freedom are rooted in wanting a better world for Billion, whom he refers to with the adoration of a proud uncle.

“I’m an adult finally getting to look at a child, whispering hope to them,’’ SAINt JHN said. “If I told Billion something then it has to be true because (otherwise), as he grows up and he lives by these rules that anything’s possible, then it was a lie, because it was impossible for me.’’

SAINt JHN could be considered the personification of positive thinking. Long before he helped craft 2019’s pro-Black anthem “Brown Skin Girl’’ with Beyonce and afrobeats star Wizkid, he penned tracks for Usher and Jidenna. At one point, he was flown out to Los Angeles to work on a few songs with Rihanna, though none would make her album. The experience didn’t deter him; it only reinforced that he was on the right path.

“You have to allow yourself a runway for your dreams to come through,’’ SAINt JHN said. “I told myself to keep going no matter what.’’

In 2014, SAINt JHN met Lee Stashenko, a producer who would later adopt the name f a l l e n, while doing some songwriting in New York. Together, the two would begin to craft the melodic trap sound that has come to define SAINt JHN’s music. Songs like “Reflex’’ and “Roses,’’ both of which appeared on 2018’s “Collection One,’’ were made inside the Bushwick apartment Stashenko shared with two roommates.

“I was in a three-bedroom apartment and I had my studio set up in a little corner, like bed right here and mic right here _ like really tight,’’ Stashenko said in an interview over Zoom, motioning with his hands.

Even in those early days Stashenko could see SAINt JHN was different. “It was intense. He’s a perfectionist. He’s really specific about where he wants to go and the music he wants to make.’’ Google f a l l e n and one of the first links is to a Reddit page that poses a simple question:

“Would SAINt JHN be as successful without his producer f a l l e n?’’ It’s a fair question. Stashenko has produced the vast majority of SAINt JHN’s music. However, Stashenko dismisses that one would be lost without the other. Instead, he compares the two to another successful artist-producer duo: Drake and Noah “40’’ Shebib.

“We were sort of destined to connect and make incredible music,’’ Stashenko said. With SAINt JHN’s subsequent projects, 2019’s “Ghetto Lenny Love Songs’’ and 2020’s “While the World was Burning,’’ the production has grown lighter, leaning into the airiness that made earlier releases like “Reflex’’ stand out. The “Roses (Imanbek Remix),’’ one of the album’s few outliers in terms of production, finds a home on “While the World was Burning,’’ a project influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic that finds SAINt JHN attempting to capture “where we were at the time,’’ he says.

SAINt JHN isn’t bothered by the belated success of “Roses,’’ either. Only when discussing the circumstances that birthed “When the World was Burning’’ does his confidence briefly falter. Although his own faith in his art never wavered, he didn’t know how the project would be received because “people tend to consume music based on how they feel,’’ something that wasn’t necessarily clear during recording.

“I was emotionally uncertain about music, about art, about what was next, but I wanted to encapsulate where I was at the time,’’ he added. “When you don’t know how people feel, you’re making art as blindly as possible.’’
As it stands now, there’s no telling when SAINt JHN will release new music. He previewed a new track at Lollapolooza to the delight of thousands of fans, and he and Stashenko have a treasure trove of unreleased tracks. But music is something that SAINt JHN approaches only when he’s mentally ready.

“I don’t put out music frequently or infrequently: I am precise,’’ SAINt JHN explained. “When I’m ready to roll out art, I’m rolling out art. When I’m driving cars, I’m driving cars. When I’m dealing with skincare and clothes, I’m doing that.’’

For now, SAINt JHN seems focused on pushing the boundaries outside of music.

“I genuinely care about candles and I’m going to be in the candle space, in the fragrance space and skincare and home goods,’’ said SAINt JHN, who has a wall littered with candles inside his condo. Black men aren’t typically associated with entrepreneurship in these areas, but that’s something he embraces.

“Even if there’s not an abundance of people like me, not an abundance of Black people in skincare, home goods, fragrances, candles, anything that you’ve seen that have been dominated by other creeds and colors, after me, that won’t be the case because the freedom I’m searching for allows me to go everywhere and I’m going to do everything I’ve dreamt of.’’