"The reason I called the album Identity is because this is the first piece of me I'm puttin' out," says Loick Essien forthrightly. "People get my name wrong - you say it 'low-eek'; it's a French name, though that's not actually how you'd spell it in France - then, because I'd done a lot of tracks that sounded different from each other, they'd wonder what my style really was. So you'll get to know my name through the album, and you'll get to see and hear where I'm at musically. And it's definitely a true reflection of me."
It's little wonder people get confused: still only 20 years old, Loick has done enough to fill two or three careers.
A former model, he came to music almost by accident: he dances, sings, acts and has sparred on live TV with a stand-up comic, his debut album includes collaborations with British R&B royalty, and includes a raft of future hits he wrote in the bath. And in the two years since he put pen to paper on his major label deal, he's been honing and refining not just his sound and his sophisticated, smooth, accessible British urban soul style, but finally nailing exactly who it is he wants to be as an artist.
Raised in Fulham, in west London, by his Ghanaian-born single mum, Loick quickly discovered that he loved to entertain. Being the centre of attention came naturally: and while he didn't have a stage, he made like a jazz man and improvised.
"My mum had a hairdressers shop in Fulham," he recalls. "Just like any other kid, I loved Michael Jackson, and I used to sing dance, do the video routines for the clients she had. I love to have a laugh, and I never really take myself too seriously. And that kinda helped me - just to get to understand people, knowing what they liked, and just meeting people. I think I'm a people person, I like to talk to people - always have."
Keen from almost as soon as he could walk to make entertaining his life, Loick attended Ravenscourt Theatre School. Among the friends he made there were Ben Brooks and his sister, Charlie - who went on to find fame playing Janine Butcher in EastEnders. One day while hanging out with the Brookses, a friend of theirs who was a director asked him to act in a short film. As a model, with a prestigious London agent to represent him, he was already the veteran of a number of adverts and catalogue shoots. He was seven years old.
Three years, appearances in TV staples Doctors and Holby City, and countless auditions later, the young actor began to feel the pull of pop music. He was cast in a video for the debut single by the comedian and TV star Richard Blackwood. He played a school-age Blackwood in the video's flashback sequences, and the pair struck up such a quick and easy working relationship - "I really like a laugh and a joke, and he's a comedian," Loick points out: "what better person to have a fun time with?" - that Blackwood invited his mini-me to co-host his MTV show. The day in question? April 29th, 2001 - Loick's 11th birthday.
His next job proved even more unexpectedly propitious. On the set of a TV ad - "for Celebrities, the chocolates," he grins; "It was a dance routine type of thing, based on S Club Juniors" - he impressed the director, Jake Nava, and got invited to take part in a pop video Nava was shooting a few days later. At that shoot - for OK, the second hit by London R&B/rap outfit Big Brovaz - the band's producer, Skillz, heard Loick singing between takes. Within weeks, Nava was shooting Beyonce's Crazy In Love video and was on his way to becoming the hottest name in pop promos; and Loick was in the studio with Skillz, completing the transformation from child model and actor to British soul sensation.
"That was where it really started," Loick recalls. "I recorded my first songs with Skillz, started building my own catalogue of tracks, and started performing in community shows. I remember that Big Brovaz shoot though: I think we were movin', or lookin' for a house, so my mum and me stayed on the floor that night, at my nan's, so we could get there in time for the call time which was 6am." He looks at his hands, which bear new tattoos on his fingers: "RAGZ2" on his right hand, "RICHES" on his left. "I wanna remember where I come from, and where I want to be," he says. "Those were the rags days."
A year at the Sylvia Young Theatre School helped get rid of the acting bug ("It just wasn’t right for me," he says, with more than a hint of embarrassment; "I was the class clown, and very disruptive") and the time with Skillz taught him how to write songs. He uses the same methods today, though the technology has updated - he has a notepad for lyrics and a voice recorder for melodies as apps in his BlackBerry, though if he leaves it downstairs and an idea comes to him in the bath, he'll just keeping singing it until he's reunited with his handset.
He's someone who won't let a chance encounter go to waste - so when a mutual friend introduced him to British rap star Bashy, the result was Loick appearing on the iconic track Black Boys. On the set for the Bashy video, he met Chipmunk, and the two made a track called Beast; and at the video shoot for that song, Loick met Dappy from N-Dubz, who appears on the second single from Identity, the Stargate-produced Stuttering.
The young man who would sit, glued to the TV set, studying a VHS copy of Usher's 8701 concert video his auntie had got him for Christmas and learning how to work a crowd, is no labelmates with the American soul great.
Those tattooed fingers are just the beginning - Loick plans to get "sleeves", tattoos that will eventually cover both his arms, depicting "a poor man's world and a rich man's world." His body may still be a work in progress; but Identity proves that as an artist, Loick Essien is the finished article.
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