Jeremih on Returning to Music After MIS Hospitalization and Relearning to Walk: 'I Know Why I'm Here'
It's been two years since Jeremih's weeks-long hospitalization at Northwestern Memorial in Chicago — an experience that forced the musician to relearn to walk, familiarize himself with singing again and ultimately mourn the loss of two relatives while trying to prioritize his own recovery.
At the time, the "Don't Tell 'Em" singer was diagnosed with multisystem inflammatory syndrome, or MIS, a rare condition resulting from COVID where his organs became inflamed. While today he says he's about "85% back to reality" after the health scare, Jeremih seems even closer to his best self when his mother walks into his room at the end of his Zoom call with PEOPLE.
Pointing to the words "good vibes" on her T-shirt, she knows exactly what energy her son is bringing after his season of recovery. Jeremih, at 35, is rejuvenated.
"When I come, I ain't gonna miss," he tells PEOPLE of his return to music. "I'm not overthinking anything. I'm too much of — I'm not gonna say too much of a perfectionist — but it's just hard when it come to when you know why you're here. At first, I was just going for what I know, I didn't know better. But now I know why I'm here. Just to really give my all. I feel like if it were anytime, it's this time. More than ever."
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Fresh off the release of his October comeback single, appropriately titled "Changes," Jeremih is about to do what fans have been waiting on for seven years since the release of his third studio album, Late Nights: The Album. He's about to put the finishing touches on a solo body of work. As the Chi-town R&B great tells PEOPLE, he's about 95% there.
But it took Jeremih (whose real name is Jeremy Phillip Felton) some time to get to this point in his career again. While he's now focused on the positive, he reflects on his November 2020 hospitalization with strength. At the time, the singer came down sick, unsure of what it was. His heart was beating irregularly, his organs weren't working properly, and the first thing he remembered was waking up in the hospital.
"They had me going through not only physical therapy — I was on dialysis, they kept telling me things were gonna get worse. All my vitals. The things they were telling me about, it seemed like problems that senior citizens have," he says. "When I went to dialysis, it was a whole bunch of beeping, I didn't know what was really going on. Everybody in there was coughing, everybody was masked up, and I just felt like, 'I'm not supposed to be here.' But apparently what was going on was a little more sincere and deeper than I knew about."
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Jeremih recalls his experience in the hospital being lonely. His two sons — Canyon, now 10, and Pharaoh, now 2 — and his mother weren't allowed visit him because of COVID protocols at the time. And even walking around was out of the question given his mobility, so he spent much of his time in bed watching TV, learning how to cook and trying to take in all he could.
"Not only did I lose a lot of weight, but I really couldn't walk. I had to do physical therapy to even go to the bathroom. And it was a hassle to do that. I just held my bladder because I didn't have the strength to do it," Jeremih says. "So, there were certain things that I just kind of took for granted, that I had to relearn how to do. Even when I got released from the hospital, just simply walking up the stairs, it was a task. It was an obstacle really to do so."
But what got him through was family. Even though he couldn't see his kids — or his father or grandfather, who both tragically passed shortly before his hospitalization — he kept their photos by his bedside. "I had all my pictures to the left of my bed. I had two days I almost felt like — I've never felt like giving up — but next to my bed, my father had just passed, my grandfather had just passed, and I had my two sons right there. Next to my bed, pictures."
Eventually, things were on the up for Jeremih. When he was soon released from the ICU (where he had a trach in his throat) after his recovery, he slowly regained strength in his vocals. His first feature back was DJ Khaled's 2021 track "Thankful," a song that pairs him with a choir as he touches on his lengthy journey to recovery: "And I know that somebody been praying for me / Head above ground and I could've been six feet deep / Out on these streets, when I get down on my knees."
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"I didn't know I could vocally do anything," he says of his first song back last year. "When he sent me the beat, he was telling me the message he wanted to bring across. That was the first time I got back on the mic, and it was kind of just like prime time, perfect time for me."
That same passion is being put into Jeremih's upcoming solo work, and he calls the Khaled collaboration the "perfect bridge" to his latest single "Changes." Admittedly, the new single is slower tempo than much of what he's been hearing on airwaves in recent years, he says, and a "nice appetizer to get to the main meal" of his album.
"TikTok has just taken over. You ain't gonna be able to do this hip dance to this," he laughs. "I'm glad that I'm not providing that soundtrack for this hip dance that everybody just keep on doing until something else come back around. Luckily for R&B, I feel like that's what I'm here for, swerve it a little bit, change the lane. Let me change the tempo."
And luckily for fans of J's classics (from "Birthday Sex" to "Oui" to really anything off his Late Nights album), the musician's got a lot to work with to change the tempo after finding two of his old phones filled with unearthed demos lying around. "Gold don't get old to me," he says.
"This the fun part for me, where I feel like it's the hard part for a lot of people to put a body of work together," Jeremih says. "Out of all the records, I know it'll mesh well. It's like a gumbo. Stir it together. I just feel like, I'm on that right now. I can't wait 'til everybody get a taste of what I'm on. If we're gonna be pioneers for this game, put me in the captain seat."
It's been seven years since the last full-length Jeremih record — and four since his collaborative project with Ty Dolla $ign, MihTy — but he's not rushing anything, with a date yet to be announced for the 2023 project. Even with enough music for him to put out an album every "five-to-six months," Jeremih says his goal these days is to patiently reach his "fullest potential" — a realization he had when he was sitting in the hospital.
"Hopefully [fans] haven't gotten too tired of me, and give me a little leeway to know that I ain't gonna let them down," he says. "When I come, Imma come. Imma deliver, man."