Denver’s N3ptune performing on national stages this summer

Denver singer, model and dancer N3ptune stalked a Mercury Cafe stage last week, planting one chunky platform shoe on a wooden chair, squatting with intense, unwavering gazes, and otherwise bending the space to his will.

“I used to do karaoke here back in 2016 — Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé — but was too nervous to do my own songs,” the 24-year-old said as he posed for photos, sunlight sparkling off of his jewelry and eyes. “Now, when people bring me onto a show, it’s obvious they want to shake things up.”

N3ptune is new to the larger Denver music scene, having played only a handful of big stages over the last few years, including Denver PrideFest’s CenterStage. But an aggressive work ethic in 2021 vaulted him forward, injecting a giddy, fizzing sense of possibility into a town saturated with folky guitar acts.

His explosive sets, centered on a soulful, muscular voice that’s often backed by live guitar and dancers, gained notice at the 2021 Underground Music Showcase, but also his intimate Black & White Ball at the Hi-Dive on Dec. 10. At the latter, he released the masterful, completely unexpected “Renaissance” — a seven-song hurricane of fierce dance-pop, thorny hip hop and tender, club-ready R&B — co-produced with similarly fashion-forward musical partner and clothing designer Rusty Steve.

That capped a year that included an Out Front Magazine cover, exclusive hosting/performing duties at fall’s Denver Fashion Week, and a spot on Channel 93.3’s Hometown for the Holidays contest, among other connections and lightning strikes.

In smaller rooms he frequently brings people to tears, friends and peers said. Audiences can see themselves in N3ptune, whether they look and sound like him or not. N3ptune is androgynous, uses he/him pronouns, and only goes by N3ptune. His confidence is intoxicating.

“We’ve had similar paths in the (music) industry, especially as queer Black men,” said manager Kori Hazel, 28, a former 303 Magazine writer who’s now creative director of Future Garden artist agency. “I was blown away when I first saw him and thought that even if I wasn’t able to become his manager, I would do anything to help him on his mission. He commits to the entire scope of what he can be.”

N3ptune, who grew up in Montbello’s Baptist-church culture and still lives in the Northeast Denver neighborhood, grew up swimming in gospel music, thanks to his grandmother’s faith. He seems to have internalized the notion that a choir’s-worth of oxygen is needed to sing. He claims to have dialed back his performances.

“You should have seen me a year or two ago,” he said. “Oooooooh!”

In recent months, N3ptune has opened for Wyclef Jean, Sleigh Bells, Kennyhoopla and Rina Sawayama. He’s booking more Colorado festivals and club shows this year — the latest is Friday, May 20, at Globe Hall — and will start his first proper national tour in August as Sleigh Bells’ opening act.

The audition was an accident. Sleigh Bells singer Alexis Krauss caught N3ptune sound-checking before her electro-pop band’s Gothic Theatre show in October. Like Hazel, she was mesmerized.

“She said it was like seeing Prince for the first time,” Hazel recalled Krauss saying. “She was shook.”

Krauss invited N3ptune to open for Sleigh Bells again the next night in Salt Lake City, just to test the magic. She felt the same way and, at the end of the concert, brought him on stage to sing on one of Sleigh Bells’ biggest hits, “Crown on the Ground.”

“For the first couple of years, people would hear the music and not get it,” N3ptune said. “But when people see me live, they get it — how I dress, how I move, the backup dancers. And I know every move, every note, every word counts at these (shows).”

The subjects in N3ptune’s music are not entirely behind him. In “Wedlock,” he grapples with estrangement from his parents (he only met his father once, in passing, and no longer speaks to his mother). “White Pony” is too wise for a twentysomething, a haunting and hazy lament of club drugs and back rooms. “Absent (Body)” meditates on a tendency to dissociate alarmingly, sampling UMS crowd noise from N3ptune’s 2021 set. “Thank Heavens” is a warm, aching R&B song about coming back from a suicide attempt. It’s as gorgeous as album closer “Militia” is static-laden and harsh. All backed by a virtual chorus of multi-tracked N3ptunes.

Even for someone who’s been writing and recording since high-school arts camps, endlessly practicing moves in the mirror, “Renaissance” possesses a startling clarity and polish. Flashy style changes and gritty subject matter aren’t even the main draw.

“People respond to his authenticity,” Hazel said. “I still get nervous and emotional before every show because it feels like the first time. There’s something at stake because it’s really him up there.”

After photos, N3ptune grabs Hazel’s laptop and hits play on a couple of unfinished music videos that he wrote and directed. They look slicker than most things destined for YouTube, one of them contrasting the feminine and masculine extremes of N3ptune’s evolving, confrontational persona.

In masculine-rapper persona, his naked torso twitches like a stop-motion doll, his head a Howitzer cannon of growling, sharp-edged lyrics. Behind him, a lithe, feminine version of himself dances through the frame in a sheer red outfit, all air and beauty. N3ptune talks about the unfinished videos as a Ph.D. film studies professor or art historian might, using philosophical and technical terms to describe the shots, gear and lighting. He would probably be good at anything he tried.

“Neptune was the first of the planets she named after the title,” he said of Lady Gaga’s 2013 single “Venus,” which inspired his artistic name. “I was walking in the middle of the street when I first heard that and just stopped. It got hot everywhere around me. It was like hearing my name for the first time, like I’d been called by the wrong name always.”

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