Photo: Steve Meddle/REX USA.
When Mike Posner took the stage last night at Rockwood Music Hall in lower Manhattan, he held up a green notebook. The word "Hi" was drawn in thick Sharpie letters along with a smiley face, a message to his fans. New York City was the third stop on his Unplugged Tour, and the show is an intimate event where Posner performs with just a piano, his perfectly sweet voice, and a guitar player named Moses. There were fewer than 100 guests in attendance, and thanks to subtle candle lighting, it felt like watching a private performance in someone's living room.
If you had asked me a few days ago who was the most sentimental hip-hop artist, I'd probably have default-answered Drake. But, that was before I spoke with Posner. You know, the guy who stays after his shows to hang out and share hugs with fans; the guy who regularly handwrites responses to his fan mail; the guy who reads a letter from a fan before every show to remind himself of the real reason he's up there. The Unplugged Tour, then, feels a natural next step in connecting with his community. "I’m always playing songs on my piano or guitar at home. That’s really the idea behind the whole [tour]. I would be at home playing, and I realized my fans never get to see me play like this. So, I wanted it to be really small rooms for my most energized supporters." In fact, the Persian-style rug on the stage came from Posner's own living room. How much more personal can you get?
Posner is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated artists today. He's written songs for Justin Bieber and Snoop Dogg. He spends studio time with everyone from Pharrell to Jake Owen. Avicii and Diplo tap him regularly for collaborations. But, Posner doesn't need you to know he wrote "Boyfriend" for the Biebs, because he knows he's the best in the business. His clever combination of hip-hop and pop creates a unique melody that functions as his trademark. "That's what I started doing in my dorm room in 2009, and it's what I still do. I think I do it better than anyone else. I don't think anyone else really does it. I try to develop that and my songwriting. My lyrics are getting better. I'm inspired by different things now. I've been able to work with some of my heroes for the last couple of years, so I'm excited about that."
I told Posner he seemed very confident and asked if he thought he was the best in the industry. He didn't hold back in his response: "I think so. You know, if I didn't think I mattered, it'd be hard to work as hard as I do." Still, it's impossible to think he's cocky when the lines are delivered by such a smooth, gentle voice.
Photo: Kevin R. Johnson/Corbis.
Fame didn't come to Posner on a silver platter. He often talks (and sings) about being a "normal kid from Michigan." What does that mean, exactly? And, why does it matter? "The reason I say I'm a normal kid from Michigan is because I want the people who listen to my music to know that if I can be up there living my dreams, then maybe theirs aren't as far as they seem. I think that what I do now is totally ridiculous and farfetched and impossible." If you don't believe him, just ask him about the time he literally drank Champagne out of the Stanley Cup during the Sochi Winter Olympics.
And, there's no better motivation for success than a bit of healthy competition — and that's just what growing up with fellow rapper Big Sean provides. "He got a record deal, and these magical things started happening to him. And, so I started to believe that if he got it — I always thought I was just as good as him if not better. He'd probably tell you a different story. But, my ego said that I was the best, and I thought if he did it, I can too." And, he did. He chalks up his success to believing in yourself. "I want [my fans] to know if they have that belief, they can really be anything. Just let me be your Big Sean." It's not so surprising, then, that he's also not in the market for a celebrity girlfriend. He's looking for an equally "normal" girl. "I haven't found her yet, but I'm looking."
One of his most popular songs, "Save Your Goodbye" speaks to another aspect of Posner's sentimentality: His struggle with depression. "I wrote [that song] so it sounded like I was talking to a girl I couldn't get out of my head. But, for me it was about my struggle with depression when I was younger. I put it out in 2010, and then this woman wrote me a letter saying she was going through the same thing and probably a little worse than me. She listened to this song, and it made her change her mind. It gave her a better life. It's almost too much for me to understand even that a song could do that. It just means a lot."
When I asked Posner if he had a preference between songwriting or performing, he waxed poetic about both, unable to choose. "There’s something magical to the writing process that feels like it comes from somewhere else, it comes through me. And, being on stage is just incredible. It’s one thing to put a song out on the Internet, but seeing people singing the words you wrote back to you and seeing how it affects them — to see that is inexplicable to me. I realize that the majority of people come to my show are trying to have a good time, and hopefully they leave a little happier than they were when they walked in the door. Those letters and those interactions after the show — they mean everything to me." And, I believe him, because I saw him take recordings with audience members' iPhones, saw him snap photos with front-row fans. He really does love them.
What's remarkable about both the Unplugged Tour and Posner is his (unofficial) campaign to redefine intimacy. Last night he told us — in a poem he wrote called "Gratitude" — his father taught him men shouldn't be ashamed to have feelings, and that one day he would teach his son it's okay to cry. The way he opened up to a room full of fans last night speaks to the way Posner's carving his own spot in the future of hip-hop. "Five years from now, we all end up somewhere. The place we end up is determined by what we do now."