After living in the dark, foam-walled chambers of Hollywood’s Chalice Studios for most of June finishing up Kingston’s debut—the first album on his newly formed Beluga Heights label—Rotem says he was a wreck. Pulling 16-hour days, he didn’t sleep much, didn’t shave at all, and completely abandoned his strict Atkins-and-anxiety diet.

When a smiling waitress descends on our lunch table, he fills her notebook with the following order: “Hamburger. Medium-well. No bun. Cheese. Cheddar. Unmelted. And on the side. No fries. Salad.

“Oh, and can I get a straw for my water glass?”

Rotem doesn’t like creamy textures. Anything that oozes or bubbles or pools grosses him out. So too, apparently, does his age, which has been incorrectly reported as 31. “I’d rather you not print that,” he says. “Maybe I’m 22, maybe I’m not. I think there’s a certain ageism in hip-hop. Like, you have to be a certain age to be relevant. But mainly the ageism is in my head. I hate getting older. After 18, it’s all downhill.”

Whatever Rotem’s age, his story goes something like this: After ditching jazz piano—and San Francisco—in 2000, Rotem began shopping his homemade beats around Los Angeles. Word of mouth landed him a deep cut on Destiny’s Child’s four-times-platinum Survivor album. Since then he’s laid hands on tracks for everyone from 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg to Paris Hilton and, yes, even Kevin Federline. Now he’s backlogged with sonic makeover requests from the Backstreet Boys, Blake from American Idol, and even Heroes pom-pom pixie Hayden Panettiere. And all it took for mainstream America to learn Rotem’s name was a two-week affair with Britney Spears. It helped that it was her first public relationship after separating from Federline. The first photos of the couple showed Rotem dragging Spears through a group of photographers, trying his best to block their flashbulbs with his left hand. “I remember her saying not to worry, to put my hand down, because there’s nothing you can do,” he says.

Rotem’s inability to relinquish control to paparazzi and tabloids, plus the fact that he was and is working on Spears’ long-festering comeback album, forced the couple to stop before they really started.

“Not to compare her to Miles Davis, but in the jazz world there were people like Dizzy Gillespie who were known for their incredible virtuosity,” Rotem says. “Miles Davis didn’t have that, but he put his soul into his music and that’s what people connected with—it’s the same thing with Britney.”

And we’d all have bought the idea that they could have a working relationship, if not for that infamous wheelbarrow proclamation. Rotem says it was a joke, irresponsibly used to satiate the expanding masses of Britney baiters. In fact, he now says they never had sex. Ever.