Four years after he broke through on the Indian reality show MTV Hustle, King is taking stock of his stratospheric career trajectory. “I want people to understand that if a Delhi boy coming from the streets can make it,” he says, referencing his own humble upbringing, “then I think anybody can make it”.
King, a singer, rapper and songwriter whose real name is Arpan Kumar Chandal, has made it both online – he has 3.2m Instagram followers and 13.1m monthly Spotify listeners – and IRL. Though visa issues forced him to cancel his planned UK live debut in September, he packs out arenas at home in India. He is, as he says with a smile during this interview, very much a “rock star” now.
When NME meets him at his record label’s London headquarters, King is also a dynamite combination of down-to-earth and driven. His awesome new album ‘New Life’, a rich and effusive fusion of Indian sounds with contemporary and retro-leaning Western pop and R&B, finds him reflecting on his journey so far.
“I created a few tracks on this album four years back when I came out of the reality show,” he says. “And at that time, I thought ‘this is the new life that I’m entering in’. And then COVID happened and I released two more albums and [my career] blew up. And now I realised, after releasing my last album, that this is the new life.’”
King definitely has a starry contacts list these days. Back in April, he teamed with Nick Jonas for ‘Maan Meri Jaan (Afterlife’), a bilingual remix of his emotive Hindi-language breakthrough hit ‘Maan Meri Jaan’. The original version has racked up more than 375m Spotify streams. And now, his ‘New Life’ album includes A-list features from Gucci Mane, who adds a rap to the skittering ‘We Are The Ones’, and Julia Michaels, who sings on ‘Runaway’, a breezy bop that King calls his “retirement song” because it finds him yearning for a quieter life.
In a revealing In Conversation interview, King talks about his musical roots and plan to continue building a unique sonic world – potentially with a little help from Jack Harlow.
How would you say ‘New Life’ is different from your previous albums?
“This album is different [in] every aspect: visually, creatively, lyrically. And definitely musically and sonically. We’ve blended so many sounds into this album. I’ve studied in this four-year [period] what Western music sounds like and, you know, what Indian [music] sounds like and tried to find a midway. You know, there’s one fact about India: we are so diverse and have many cultures and feelings. So I took care [to make sure] that whatever track I’m writing, it should be 100% [representative] of that field… I also wanted to make people understand that Indian sounds could blend with any sound in the world. That was the whole goal behind it.”
What did you learn during your time as a contestant on MTV Hustle?
“For me, [in terms of] my backstory, I faced a huge inferiority complex throughout my teenage [years]. So when that show happened, it helped me be an extrovert and express myself and stuff. And it also helped my artistry, because every week you had to create a new track and perform it. That was the first time I was facing a camera [and] the first stage I stepped on. And it was on a pan-India reality show! So there was the side of it that was all pressure, and the side of it that was all artistry. And somehow I handled it!”
You mentioned having an inferiority complex. Why did you feel that way?
“Maybe I was too young to realise that in your teenage [years], rejection is not a big thing – you’re just a kid. But I took it too seriously. I had no friends back then. I was this emo guy, you know, sitting at home and thinking about what life was going to look like. Also, there were a few things that I don’t want to talk about 1698488084 – you know, skin colour-related things. But yeah, as a teenager, I faced all of it and nobody gave me the right motivation to speak up for myself and stuff. Then I got into football – I was a sportsman – and changes happened in my life. When I started playing football, I got the confidence to express myself, my body and everything. And then music happened. Boom, I’m a rock star!”
When did music take over from football?
“I still wanted to be a footballer back then. I played for like four years – nationals and everything, professionally. And it’s still a question [I get from] my homies. Like, ‘How can you become a rock star [when] you used to be a football player?’ And I still tell them: ‘I have no clue.’ I don’t know, I’ve been a good music listener from the age of five. I used to listen to Backstreet Boys and Vengaboys, and then I grew up listening to other things: Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Timbaland, Lil Wayne, so many artists. So I always felt like music was inside me. And then I got a chance to go on a mike and spit some bars and, yes, I think magic happened. Then I realised that OK, this is something I can pull off. And then this thought came in my mind, like, ‘If not now, then when?’”
What made you want to team up with Nick Jonas for the ‘Maan Meri Jaan (Afterlife)’ remix? Because it’s not necessarily the most obvious choice.
“It’s a funny story. So I was doing my tour last year, and I was about to get on stage when I got a call from Jay Mehta, who’s the MD of Warner Music India. He’s like a big brother to me, but he rarely calls me – we always talk on text. So he called me and was like, ‘Yo, I have this idea. How about Nick Jonas on ‘Maan Meri Jaan’?’ I didn’t even give it a thought for a second. I was like, ‘Yes, hell yes!’ Because back in 2016, I used to roam and scooter in the streets of Delhi and I used to tell my friend, ‘Bro, I love his ‘Bacon’ track‘. I would think to myself, like, ‘How’s it gonna be if I ever get a chance to collaborate with Nick Jonas?’
“So when that call came, I was like, ‘Yes, Amen!’ And the best part is, I’m going to give some credit to Priyanka Chopra [Jonas], who did a great job [helping Nick with his Hindi lyrics]. I think the work [Nick] did on ‘Maan Meri Jaan’ is really amazing. And you won’t believe [this], but it took just two takes. First he sent me a draft – a demo – and there was a few lines which were not going well. And I told him that they were not going well. And the second take, that was the final take. So that’s why I’m giving credit to Priyanka.”
At this point, who’s on your collaboration ‘wish list’?
“For this year, I’m done – like, Julia and Gucci was my wish list. And for the coming years, I see Jack Harlow. Two years back, I wrote this track that I thought would go crazy if Jack Harlow jumps on it. It’s the same as the ‘Bacon’ story! So yeah, let’s see what happens: Jack Harlow and whatever [else] comes in my destiny.”
How about Timbaland? Because you obviously listened to him growing up.
“Yes, Timbaland and Justin Timberlake. They are genius. Even if [we didn’t do] a song, then a picture would be good enough for me. And there’s one more artist that I want to collaborate with, but it totally depends on destiny, and his name is Sting. I’m a huge fan.”
What do you like about Sting?
“Everything he creates – he creates souls. Every song of his is so different, but at the same time, so familiar. [His song] ‘Fragile’ for the past three years has been my sleep song daily. I cannot sleep without ‘Fragile’. And I have my own video in my mind when I listen to it. That’s the best thing about Sting: if you listen to him, you can create your own video [and] your own universe in your head. His music gives me relief.”
One last question: what do you want people to think when they hear the name King?
“A guy who broke the barriers and lived life on his terms. And a nice guy!”
King’s album ‘New Life’ is out now