Music

Backstreet Boys’ AJ McLean on Linking With Drake in Toronto, ‘Smoke’

It’s been an action-packed few weeks for the Backstreet Boys — from the group’s DNA World Tour relaunch, which included a special engagement in Las Vegas and a duet with Drake on “I Want It That Way” in Toronto, to their Hollywood Bowl bow, where the five guys — Nick Carter, Howie Dorough, Brian Littrell, A.J. McLean and Kevin Richardson — were joined by their kids onstage, to officially announcing BSB’s first Christmas album.

Always one to turn it up, McLean is adding to the slate a new solo song, “Smoke,” coupled with a provocative video, premiering below. (Note: may not be suitable for work.) The funky track is the lead single from McLean’s first solo album in 12 years, “Sex and Bodies,” due out in late October.

“I was doing the country thing and it was fun, but COVID hit, I had time to self-reflect and I don’t want to try and be something I’m not,” McLean tells Variety. “Can I do country? Absolutely. But it’s not a genuine representation of who I am. This album is 100% what people have been waiting for me to do. It’s soulful, R&B and funk. I played it for the boys and they went, ‘Dude, we’re so proud. This is good shit!”

For McLean, projecting authenticity also means expressing himself freely visually. He boldly danced in drag to celebrate the LGBTQ community with his 2021 single, “Love Song Love,” and “Smoke” sees him rocking vintage designer womenswear while shimmying with booty-shaking, topless dancers.

Inspired by Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” and George Michael’s “Freedom” videos, McLean and director René Elizondo Jr. also looked at Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” but decided to “leave it up to the imagination” with nudity — meaning one scene involved 11 takes of meticulous choreography to conceal dancers’ breasts. While such risqué content may shock some, McLean says the female body is beautiful and the shots were filmed tastefully.

Ivan Koumaev, who has danced for Justin Timberlake, choreographed the slick moves, while McLean raided the wardrobe of a crew member’s grandmother, who worked with fashion designers in the ’70s and ’80s, for treasures like a floral Dolce & Gabbana jacket.

“Smoke,” officially out on July 15, came about after McLean’s manager, Johnny Wright, took him out for a birthday dinner and enquired about “Fire,” a memorable song McLean wrote for the Backstreet Boys in 2018. Intending to revisit the unreleased track with co-writer Killa B, the two headed into Los Angeles recording studio Westlake, then found themselves on a roll creating new music, including the “Prince meets George Michael” sound of “Smoke.”

Says McLean: “We got to the chorus and I went, ‘It’s as easy as blowing smoke. Let’s not overthink this. We cut it and went, ‘Shit, this is good!’ That kicked off the rest of the album.”

McLean cowrote every track on “Sex and Bodies,” working with Brandon Arreaga and Edwin Honoret of boy band PrettyMuch and Canadian songwriter Emma Rosen. The album features up-tempo records like “Hot Damn,” ballads like “You,” and “For the Night” and a song influenced by the Weeknd that Kevin Richardson has his eye — and ear — on, in hopes of having Backstreet Boys record it.

The Weeknd isn’t the only Canadian influencing the band. The quintet recently made headlines when Drake showed up to their Toronto concert and joined in on vocals for the 1999 smash, “I Want It That Way.” The song had a major impact on the artist in his youth, he acknowledged from the stage.

How did it come about? The guys were in Toronto for two DNA dates when Richardson asked his hotel for the best local Italian restaurant. McLean says the recommendation happened to be Drake’s “one major hang.”

McLean recounts: “Kevin texts at midnight in our group text and I’m trying to sleep and thinking, ‘Oh my God, what is it?’ I finally opened it and he told us he went to dinner with his family and Drake walked up to his table, said he was a massive fan, told this story about his Bar Mitzvah and asked if he could perform with us.”

“Then that turned into him just announcing the song, but we told him to stay on stage,” McLean continued. “It puts a big smile on my face that he sang half of everyone’s verse, except mine. I asked him why and he went, ‘I can’t touch gold, man!’

While the 35-year-old Toronto native left immediately afterwards (“I don’t blame him — he beat the traffic,” cracks McLean), it may not be the last fans see of the chart-topping acts together.

“We didn’t have a proper conversation on the night, but there are now conversations being had,” McLean teases. “Who knows, if for our 30th anniversary maybe we do something with Drake. It would be pretty iconic.”

And since there’s no cooler kid than Drake, the singer would also fit in perfectly with McLean’s side project ATCK (All the Cool Kids), which he fronts alongside DJ Lux (Brandon Mashburn). The EDM act features rotating musicians including 98 Degrees’ Jeff Timmons, *NSYNC’s Chris Kirkpatrick and Canadian drummer and “Can We Go Back” singer Ryan Stevenson.

At Friday’s ATCK show at Patchogue, New York’s Stereo Garden, DJ Lux will perform his catchy summer single “Little Heartbreaker,” featuring Aaron Space, while McLean will debut “Smoke” and other tracks from “Sex and Bodies.” A second single, “Electric,” featuring Bruno Mars collaborator Mr. TalkBox, will tentatively drop in September.

Meanwhile, the Backstreet Boys will release their first Christmas album on October 14. “A Very Backstreet Christmas,” features covers of classics like “Last Christmas” and “Silent Night,” plus original tracks the band co-wrote.

The group worked with musicians including Tommy Brown, Darius Coleman, Tommy Parker, Travis Sayles, Taylor Hill and Yng Josh and David Campbell (Beck’s father).

“Beck’s father’s a world-renown conductor who did all the string arrangements and they’re beautiful,” said McLean, who will celebrate the record by adding Christmas-themed releases to his nail polish brand, Ava Dean Beauty. “Kevin and I were in the room with 30 live strings and it was the most surreal thing. I got chills and almost cried during ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.’ It was an out-of-body experience.”

Noting the vocals are equally awe-inspiring, McLean hopes “A Very Backstreet Christmas” earns the recognition that fans have wanted for the group for 29 years: a Grammy win, following eight nominations.

“I didn’t know a Christmas album could be nominated under a specialty category,” he said. “Brian [Littrell] and I were just joking about it on the golf course, like, ‘Watch. We’re finally gonna get a Grammy and it’ll be for a Christmas album — a bunch of covers.’ But we’ll take it!”

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