Nija Charles: The Next Gen’s Top Pen
Just a few years ago, Nija Charles was a student at Union High School, posting songs on Instagram.
Well before she turned 21 this fall, she was being flown out to recording sessions with high-profile producers and artists. Now, Charles is an in-demand songwriter making her mark on the music industry in Los Angeles.
Earlier this month, two albums Charles worked on — Beyonce and Jay-Z’s “Everything is Love” and Cardi B’s “Invasion of Privacy” — were nominated for Grammy Awards. But that’s not all. Charles’ name has been attached to major albums from a string of marquee artists.
It’s safe to say that 2018 was the year that Charles, a New Jersey songwriter on the rise, took the music industry by storm. She never left the studio for long, working up to three sessions per day, co-writing hooks and songs for some of the hottest singers and rappers. Her hard work is paying off — Charles can now find songs she contributed to playing back-to-back on the radio.
“It’s kind of mind-blowing, because the artists that inspire me, I’m helping them now,” Charles says.
In November of 2017, Charles signed a deal with Universal Music Publishing Group. She has three songs on the album “Championships” from Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill, which came out in November and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. On Friday, more of her work will be featured on the sophomore album from rapper 21 Savage, “I Am > I Was.”
“She’s got a really great trajectory and to do this much this quickly is pretty much unheard of,” says Charles’ mentor, J Grand, a senior vice president at RCA Records who works in A&R and marketing, representing Usher, Chris Brown and rapper Kid Ink.
The young songwriter, who moved to the West Coast at the start of the year, is only now taking a break to relax with family and friends back home in New Jersey. One of the first things Charles likes to do at home, after visiting her grandmother and aunts, is stop by Joe’s Pizza in the Vauxhall section of Union Township.
“I’ve got a bunch of stuff lined up for the first quarter‚” she says casually, enjoying a slice at the neighborhood spot. “2019′s going to be even crazier.”
Hooking an audience
As a songwriter, Charles is known for her irresistible hooks. Her work on rapper Cardi B’s debut album, “Invasion of Privacy,” which is nominated for album of the year and best rap album at the Grammys, includes hooks for two songs, “Ring” and “I Do.” Both tracks made the Top 40, and the album, released in April, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, going double platinum in October. The same month, “Ring” became Charles’ first platinum single.
“Ring” is a moody ode to the pain of waiting for that special someone to call, featuring the singer Kehlani. Cardi shifts back and forth between being too proud to admit she wants a call and swallowing that pride. With the track’s success, Charles was able to cross one item off her wishlist: get a No. 1 song on the radio. In November, “Ring” reached No. 1 on the Mediabase urban radio chart. It’s still in heavy rotation.
Charles came up with the winning hook for the song in a matter of minutes, after waking up from a nap in the studio: “You don’t hit my line no more, oh, oh / You don’t make it ring, ring, ring ring / I can’t keep this on the low / I want you to make it ring, ring, ring, ring.”
“It was just the vibe and the vocal sample they used — from Desmond Dennis — they used his voice and it just gave this feeling that struck me, especially with the progression, the ‘doo-doo-doo-doo,’ Charles says, her voice rising and falling with the familiar harmony. “It just brought it out of me.”
Most of the time, Charles doesn’t write for a specific artist. Her music finds them. But she insisted on Cardi B and Kehlani for “Ring.”
Today, the music video for the song (see clip above), featuring Cardi dancing in a web of telephone wires, claims more than 100 million views on YouTube.
Charles says the track has done so well because it nails the ultimate songwriting equation: simple and catchy.
“A song has to be a conversation,” she says. “You don’t have to get all like a poet because sometimes that goes over people’s heads. You have to get through to people. People want to listen to things that are going to hit them because they feel like you wrote it about their lives. The simpler the better, but it also has to mean something.”
Looking at the response to “Ring” on social media, she’s found people who say the track helped them get through a breakup.
“I feel like the ‘miss you’ songs, just those really get people,” Charles says.
On Charles’ hook, the singer boasts about leaving texts “on read” (’cause she “felt like it”) but not replying. “Dapper, dapper, I look fine and my checks divine,” she continues, “No wonder, wonder why I do whatever I like / I do what I like, I do, I do.”
Charles sings the demo of each song, then artists record their version.
“A lot of artists, they take the song and they won’t carry out the songwriter’s vision,” she says. “But with SZA and Kehlani, they both carried out my vision and made it their own very tastefully.”
Charles teamed up again with Cardi for “On Me,” a song on Meek Mill’s album. She also contributed to the Meek Mill tracks “Uptown Vibes,” featuring Fabolous and Anuel AA, and “24/7,” featuring “Boo’d Up” singer Ella Mai.
From tinkering in the basement to making hits in LA
Just how did Charles go about becoming a music industry upstart?
She says her mother made it mandatory for her to play at least one instrument — she chose the flute and saxophone — but she began by tinkering with music production in her grandmother’s basement, where her aunt and uncle used the production software FruityLoops. By eighth grade, Charles coveted a Casio keyboard. Her mother said she’d buy it if she got straight A’s for the marking period. Charles delivered the goods and started making beats.
Tracy Charles, a retired engineer for Verizon, says she remembers her daughter emerging from the basement with a whole CD of music. She also recalls Nija singing the Bruno Mars song “Count on Me” for a talent showcase at Kawameeh Middle School.
“It kind of made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up,” says Charles, 49.
Nija’s father, 50, is a house music DJ who goes by the name Pookie. He remembers Nija singing along to Nickelback when she was 6 years old and enjoying when her grandmother would play Marvin Gaye, Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin.
“For somebody that young, she liked a lot of older music,” he says.
When she was in high school, Charles enrolled in the 14-week Future Music Moguls program at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. Charles bought a microphone with money from her 16th birthday and posted her first song, titled “I’m a Mess,” on SoundCloud. She sang over her beats to draw interest, sharing song snippets on Instagram. Soon, producers were asking her to sing on their beats, too. Charles continued her music studies at NYU for college. Something got in the way, though: opportunity.
Charles linked up with her manager, Christian McCurdy, through Instagram in February of 2017. One day, he called her to say that J Grand, the A&R executive from RCA, needed writers for a recording session at Jungle City Studios in New York. Charles would have to get there in 10 minutes. She dropped her homework and made a beeline for the place.
“She was just magic from the start,” Grand says. “She checked a lot of boxes,” he says — vocal range, tone and an exceptional sense of melody, plus she had a direct link to youth culture. He flew Charles out to Los Angeles the next week to work with talent on his roster. Soon, she was taking meetings and dividing her time between coasts, returning to New York for class on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
“We just got one placement that led to another that led to another,” says McCurdy, 26.
Charles was wowing her mother with a sneak peek at a Chris Brown track and a featured spot for her own voice on “Lucked Up,” a 2017 song from the Christian hip-hop artist Lecrae.
“Diplo’s flying her off somewhere, and Afrojack — and I was like, wait a minute, I wasn’t ready for all of this,” Tracy Charles says. By her sophomore year, Nija says NYU gave her an ultimatum: meet a requirement to study in Berlin or take a leave of absence. Grand made the case for Nija to leave school over dinner with her mother.
“I was like, ‘Mom, your daughter’s ready,’” he says. “‘I would never tell anyone else on the planet this. She’s special.’” Charles left college and moved to Glendale, California at the start of his year, after she signed the deal with Universal.
Tracy Charles says the Grammy nominations are the cherry on top of a fulfilling year for her daughter.
“It’s not surprising,” she says. “When I first heard ‘Ring’ (the version with Nija’s voice on it), I was taking her back to school, to NYU. When she played it, I was like, ‘wait a minute.’ We couldn’t even get through the intro. I was like, ‘I’m telling you right now, that right there is a hit.’”
Charles’ sister Zoe, 16, calls herself Nija’s biggest fan. She’s also a committed member of the Beyhive, Beyonce’s famously fervent network of fans. When Nija got the call that Queen B liked her sample songs and wanted her to work on the album, Zoe had one refrain: told you. Still, no one realized the opportunity would come so soon.
“One day I came home and my mother was staring at the wall, and she’s like, ‘Nija is going to Paris,’” she says — one of the locations for Beyonce and Jay-Z’s recording sessions (another was in Wales) as the power couple rehearsed for their On the Run II tour. When “Everything Is Love,” their first joint album as The Carters, was released without warning in June, Zoe was in a store’s dressing room. She grabbed her phone and scanned the album credits for her sister’s name.
Charles co-wrote two tracks: “Heard About Us,” with Beyonce and Jay-Z, and “LoveHappy,” with Beyonce, Jay-Z and songwriting duo Nova Wav (Denisia “Blu June” Andrews and Brittany “Chi” Coney). She didn’t even know “LoveHappy” made the album — nominated for a Grammy in the urban contemporary category — until it came out.
Like other Beyonce collaborators, Charles only offers general details of her meeting with the “Lemonade” singer — namely, that they met (fans may know that Beyonce included a mention of non-disclosure agreements in her lyrics on the DJ Khaled song “Top Off”).
“She’s literally the inspiration for everything,” Charles says. “How you move as a woman, the music she puts out, the performance, everything. And it’s like, what do you create for the woman who’s done everything, literally?”
On the authoritative, celebratory “Heard About Us,” Charles’s contribution includes Beyonce lithely singing the onomatopoeic “skrt skrt.” For some heavier material on “LoveHappy,” Charles drew from Beyonce and Jay-Z’s most recent solo albums, “Lemonade” and “4:44,” where the singer reveals her husband cheated on her and the rapper delivers a confessional response.
In October, Charles celebrated her 21st birthday in Las Vegas. Her goal: blot out the memory of being turned away from DJ Mustard’s residency there because she was too young. Next year she’ll welcome the release of songs in the pop realm. Charles would love to write for Drake, Rihanna and The Weeknd. For now, she’s counting her blessings.
“I think being from Jersey, being from Union, period, my family, they’ve always been a grounded type of family and they’ve always just instilled those values in me: always remember where you came from, be humble, don’t take anything for granted,” she says.
Charles recently marked the release of the song “Secrets,” which she wrote for rising R&B star Tone Stith, who hails from South Jersey. She also put out a call on Twitter for Jersey artists, and intends to meet up with some before she heads back to the West Coast.
“People don’t realize a lot of the talent is actually here (and not just New York and Philadelphia, she says), so I wanna make sure the world sees that and discovers that.”
Moving into 2019, It’s going to be hard for Charles to top this year, but her Beyonce encounter alone greatly expanded her notion of what is possible.
“It’s one of those things where it’s like, you might put it in your dreams or something, like your wishlist, but you never think it’s gonna happen, so it was just unbelievable to me,” she says. “It still is to this day, where it’s like, all of this happened within my first year in the industry. That that happened at all is crazy.”