Shenseea: Jamaica’s dancehall hero plots out a path to superstardom
Each week in Next Noise, we go deep on the rising talent ready to become your new favourite artist. After stealing the show on Kanye West’s ‘DONDA’, and going toe-to-toe with rap heavyweight Megan Thee Stallion on ‘Lick’, Shenseea is in the midst of making a historical leap. Words: Kyann-Sian Williams
Shenseea exudes confidence with everything she does. When NME enters the video chat with the Jamaica star, she introduces herself with her synonymous ad-lib: “Ah Shenseea!” Just hours before our chat, she’s vexed on her Instagram about a mysterious lump in the middle of her forehead, but no bother – her smile gleams through the screen, and she’s calm, collected like any true star.
She has good reason to be: the 25-year-old – real name Chinsea Lee – has been frontrunner in dancehall music for nearly half a decade. Whether you know her for her dancehall hits like ‘Loodi’, which features the influential producer Vybz Kartel, or perhaps her new song ‘Lick’ with rap heavyweight Megan Thee Stallion, her name continues to expand into new places. Her recently released debut album, ‘Alpha’, will only bolster that: “Most people take the word ‘alpha’ as meaning number one and I think it goes with my personality. I’m a very strong, dominant person… I’m a leader,” she tells NME.
When she featured on Kanye West’s tenth album, 2021’s ‘DONDA’, her ethereal contributions to ‘Pure Souls’ and ‘Ok Ok Part 2’ made her the first female Jamaican dancehall to appear in the Billboard Hot 100 in 17 years. Working on the record was a blessing in disguise, she says. “I did like five or six songs on ‘DONDA’ and two made the cut. I was expecting none or one, to be honest. I really blew my expectations away and Kanye has really been a gem to me. He’s treated us with respect and is a very good mentor and inspiration.”
Bringing what she learnt from all the various mentors throughout her career, ‘Alpha’ is a debut of pure musical exploration. Lee honed in on her unique mix of imaginative salacious lyrics with pop-rap sounds, like on ‘Target’ where she and frequent collaborator Tyga cruise over a subdued, rum-infused version of afroswing sounds. “Tyga is one of those people I just have such good chemistry with,” she says. “Even a mixtape or another album together, that’s the vibe I’m getting from me and Tyga”. When she’s not producing her floaty bashment tunes, you can find her trying out some R&B on ‘Deserve It’ and ‘R U That’.
Shenseea boasts that she “never had to pay for a feature on her album” because of the mutual respect between everyone on it, including 21 Savage, Tyga, and reggae legend Beenie Man and more). But ‘Alpha’ is more so about showcasing herself than making a certified hit: “It’s my first album so I don’t know what to expect, and I’m not going to be perfect at formulating the best album since it’s my first. I really just experimented on all the songs and chose the best of the ones that brought out a different side of me. All of them are my favourites, you can’t pit one against the other.”
Lee recalls wanting to be an “international pop star” from the age of five, with her aunt introducing her to the music that would later influence her to this day. “On a bad day I had no other choice but to listen,” says Shenseea, “and that’s when she’d play all the Xscape music, Usher, Whitney, Michael Jackson.” In particular, Whitney Houston inspired her to embrace her own “vocal range” and to “sing loud” and proud on the album – most noticeably on ‘Sun Comes Up’, the uplighting song of resilience closing ‘Alpha’.
From Rihanna, she takes the thick skin the Barbadian superstar has had to develop after media bashing in a decade-plus career: “She helped with my flavour, with my attitude. Watching her when I grew up, she doesn’t really respond to negativity. She doesn’t waste her time throwing stones at everybody who’s throwing stones at her. I learned that from her and now negativity never affects me because it really doesn’t.”
This attitude is currently being put to the test, due to discourse from fans that the new musical direction doesn’t quite hit the same as it did for some original Shenyengs (the name of her fanbase). One critic claimed that Shenseea had lost her musical spark in her new musical ventures. But for Shenseea, her new music is “showcasing it all. It’s a bit more of an experiment” on how far she can blend her Jamaican-ness with hip-hop, afrobeats, reggae, R&B.
For her to be losing herself to gain mass appeal? That’s bogus, she responds. “That’s impossible. Even if I tried, that would never happen. Once I open my mouth, you know I’m Jamaican. But I feel like people aren’t open to change until they see something works. So, as an alpha, I am open to putting myself out there and exercising my passion and seeing what else I’ve got inside me.”
Lee has plenty of time and energy left to reach those dreamy heights of stardom she always wanted. She feels like she’s “starting all over again” from her dancehall queen status to international newcomer, but that doesn’t annoy her. “I’m just 25 and got so much more to accomplish,” Lee says. “I feel like mixing it up and doing something different is what life is all about. I don’t want to be stuck doing the same thing over and over again. At the end of the day, what I’m doing now is putting me on a path to achieve my dreams of being an international pop star. Now is just the beginning.”
Seemingly living by the phrase “God will fix it”, Lee isn’t strictly relying on holy intervention to get her to the top, but would welcome it: “I want to be running the charts and I’m hoping to win a Grammy for ‘DONDA’, then to be in movies, and selling merch. I’m excited to see what’s next – I can’t see the future but I’m just putting in the work, just going with the flow, just going with God.”
Radar Roundup: sign up and get our weekly new music newsletter