Last week was a whirlwind of activity for R&B singer-songwriter Ladarrion Darnell, also known as Imaj. The 23-year-old visited radio stations across DFW including 89.3 KNON, 97.9 the Beat, K104 and 105.7 Smooth RnB to promote his new single “Something Real,” earning him spins on those stations. Then, on Valentine’s Day, he watched the video for the song premiere on BET Jams during primetime.
“It was an emotional moment for me. That’s something I’ve always dreamed about since I was 14 years old,” Darnell says. “I always told people I’m gonna be on MTV, BET one day. Just to see it, see all the feedback, man, it was a wonderful feeling.”
Until recently, Darnell was promoting himself and releasing his music through social media exclusively. His only concern was pumping out music, which he’d record wherever he happened to be couch-surfing that night. Darnell’s relationship with his parents has been challenged because they’d rather he attend college than pursue music, which he tried.
“The only thing on my mind was music,” he says. “I took the college route for one year because of my parents but it was only so I had a place to work on my music since I couldn’t work on it in my Mom’s house,” he says. “I dropped out after one year, ran into people who were into my music and I pushed out 150 songs living couch to couch.”
The covers, remixes and original songs that Darnell put out over the course of that year eventually made their way to Rudy “Coach” Flores, who was searching for an undiscovered Dallas artist. Flores made a name for himself in the early 2000s as co-owner of the company Primetime Productions. His partners in the company were Irving production duo Play-N-Skillz, who went on to win several Grammys.
“I heard ‘Something Real’ and I was like, ‘Yo that’s a smash!’” Flores recalls. He was impressed that Darnell wrote, sang on and produced the track himself. After signing on as Darnell’s manager, Flores sent “Something Real” to producer Rickey “Slikk” Offord, who has worked with artists such as Chris Brown, Ariana Grande and Tank.
Flores had sent Offord tracks to check out before, but none before Darnell’s had caught his attention. “I listened to the demo joint and I really thought he might be the real deal. We found a niche,” Offord says. “The chemistry was so thick and it complemented everything that we put out.” After tinkering with the track, Offord sent it to record executives who work under L.A. Reid at Sony in Los Angeles.
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They saw potential in Darnell but wanted to hear more. “We got in the studio and Darnell was like LeBron James: a little rough around the edges but he came straight to the NBA,” Flores says. “He’s never really put it in studio time but we were in a zone and we pumped out some high caliber records.” In three weeks the team put together an EP and sent it back to Sony. They responded that they would be interested in taking him on once he’d gained a bigger local following.
Since then Darnell, Flores and Slikk have had their noses to the grindstone. They plan to release the Imaj EP this month and in the meantime, Darnell has been making appearances at local night clubs, strip clubs and anywhere else there’s a crowd.
“He’s a triple threat. He sings, he raps, he produces and he can write. You have to be a hybrid in the music business these days to cut through and make an impact,” Flores says. “I’ve never been around a well-rounded artist like him.”
Despite the confidence of the team he’s built around him, Darnell seems to be amazed by the progress he’s made in his career in the last year, and particularly the last couple of weeks. “It’s a wildfire,” he says. “It’s crazy.”