If a screenwriter wrote a spec script telling the story of how SAINt JHN’s “Roses” became a global smash, few would believe it. The seductive yet dark R&B tune by the New York-born artist (real name Carlos St. John) was originally released in 2016, then a sped-up, remixed version by a then-unknown bedroom producer from Kazakhstan named Imanbek started to sweep the world in 2019 into early this year — first conquering radio in Russia, then Eastern Europe, and Western Europe, before eventually winning over American fans this spring and summer, becoming a Top 10 hit.
Now, the song’s original writer is re-focusing attention on the hit for Latin American and North American audiences by releasing two new versions: a “Latino Gang” version featuring J Balvin, and a hip-hop take featuring rapper Future, both of which dropped last month.
To a casual observer, it may appear as if “Roses” caught fire by happenstance after Imanbek reworked the original. But according to St. John, Variety‘s Hitmaker of the Month, the fact the offering became a global phenomenon was no accident.
“I’ve been watching ‘Roses’ grow consistently year to year since 2016, so in 2019 when the remix came about, there was no surprise… we were already on this trajectory,” says St. John from his home in Los Angeles, where he is riding out the pandemic. Indeed, the songwriter and artist positioned himself to gain an international following after playing live shows in Russia several times over the past few years. It’s no wonder Russia was among first major markets to embrace “Roses.”
“Last year was the second time I was there [in Russia] doing sold out shows, and we kept hearing ‘Roses’ remixed, so it wasn’t even a surprise to me because we heard so many different remixes over the years because in Russia, it has been a hit,” he says. “I walked into a radio station there [while doing promo] and was, like, ‘Yo do you have my record on rotation?’ and they were, like, ‘We got seven of them [remixes on rotation] …It’s been a hit there for so long that the song has a plot.”.
Russia was the jumping off point for “Roses,” but France became the first Western country to obsess over the Imanbek remix, according to German Sony Music executive Wolfgang Boss, who signed Imanbek’s remixed version to his B1 Recordings/Sony Music imprint.
“The Shazam reactions were just amazing and that was why we were able to convince [radio station] NRJ to add the record in France,” the Sony EVP of A&R tells Variety from London. (In the U.S., SAInT JHN is signed to HitCo.)
From there, “Roses” was seemingly everywhere for most of the world… on TikTok, on radio, in gaming clips, and playing from club speakers everywhere from Batumi to Buenos Aires.
Imankek, the 19-year-old Kazakhstani producer, says he was inspired by the original of “Roses” as soon as he heard it. “I found it randomly while digging for new songs through playlists,” he tells Variety from his home in Aksu, Kazakhstan, a former Soviet Republic still heavily influenced culturally by Russia. “I loved it as soon as I heard it and felt there was something special behind it.”
“I think there is just some magic behind the vibe of the track… almost like a unique formula that happened with the tempo and pitch of the vocals” he adds of what drew him to St John’s song — tweaked into its current version, it’s still racking up millions of streams per week worldwide (“Roses” is currently nearing a billion plays on Spotify between all versions).
For St. John, perseverance and luck are two sides of the same coin, and the artist’s work ethic and self confidence in his songwriting ability is a big part of why his star is on the rise.
“A song has so many different vibes,” he says. “It’s a testament to how good of a song it is, and I come from a song space… I come from where songs matter… That’s why, five years later, ‘Roses’ hasn’t even hit its peak yet.”
So now that St. John has a solo smash in his arsenal, does that mean his days of songwriting camps are behind him? After all, his co-writes for such artists as Usher and UK-based dance act Gorgon City have served to expand his base as a creator. “You may never see me in a writing camp again, that’s quite possible,” St. John reveals, before adding that he’s still game to have artists record his songs. “I’ll always get the best person to deliver the message of a song… I’ll always, forever, until the end of eternity, share my music with the best people to deliver the message… I’m a creative, sometimes I’m just a vehicle, and I’m ok with that.”