After experimental jazz singer José James released his 2015 tribute to commemorate Billie Holiday’s centennial birthday, Yesterday I Had the Blues, the Blue Note Records artist wanted to make an album of songs that made people happy.
The thought occurred to the Minneapolis-born performer that he maxed out his potential in his chosen style of music. “I had really taken jazz language as far as I could,” James says during a recent afternoon conversation. “For now, I’m content to leave it at that peak. I don’t think I could sing jazz any better on that album, so let’s turn the page.”
Emerging out of James’ musical evolution is his seventh full-length LP, Love in a Time of Madness. The 12-track sequence is comprised of electro-soul/R&B (“Always There,” “What Good is Love” and “Last Night”), hip-hop beats (“Remember Our Love”), funk grooves (“Live Your Fantasy”), gospel (“I’m Yours” featuring Oleta Adams), African rhythms (“To Be With You”) and of course, jazz. Layered over the album’s minimal instrumentation, replete with sputtering drum programming and austere melodies, is James’ seductive baritone.
The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music alumnus known for his low fade with a touch of grey at the temple recently grew the top of his hair out into dreadlocks. James, 39, also shows more of his tattooed pectorals across the album artwork and accompanying press images. “I wanted to do something that incorporated a little bit more skin and leather,” James reveals. “This is a new step for me: my presentation of my facet of contemporary R&B. It’s a step forward sonically and the most powerful thing I’ve been able to present.”
Nine of the tracks on Love in a Time of Madness are produced by Antario “Tario” Holmes (Chris Brown, Big Time Rush, Melanie Fiona, Flo Rida). James’ concept is rooted in binge listening to the Blue Note catalog that precedes him: pinpointing the Mizell Brothers, Donald Byrd and Ronnie and Hubert Laws.
Love in a Time of Madness was once brainstormed as a double album, with one side focusing on love songs while its sibling record would address contemporary social issues like police brutality against people of color, misogyny and the Trump administration. As James began to record both projects, the Irish-American and Afro-Panamanian descendent became more and more disillusioned by the pervasive (and devastating) news headlines. “On one hand,” James recalls, “I wanted to absorb and reflect the negativity that’s happening in society and speak on it.”
An easygoing James continues, “The news just got too over overwhelming as we went on, and statistics piled up. I didn’t know if this was my role. My fans didn’t need another reminder of what they’re seeing daily in the community.”
Further testing James’ faith were the influx of musical deaths like Prince, David Bowie and Phife Dawg throughout 2016. As grateful as James is to have the opportunity to tour three continents in a two-month span in support of Love in a Time of Madness, he says he began to pay closer attention to his own physical and mental health.
James signed up for vocal lessons for the first time in over two decades. He stopped smoking and drinking. The buttery-voiced, velvet-toned entertainer even developed a workout regimen with his trainer. “I want to ensure that I could do 150 shows a year,” James declares, “and make sure every single night is 100.”
The singer behind memorable albums like No Beginning, No End (2013) and While You Were Sleeping (2014) adds, “If I look healthy, that’s a lot sexier than singing a sexy song. When you look good, people can feel that. I wanted to really give my all once I got to the stage.”
Adopting a sexy image has worked in James’ favor so far. The musical nonconformist made his acting debut in Fifty Shades Darker as a jazz vocalist. His rendition of the standard “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” was also featured on the blockbuster film’s soundtrack. “The whole experience has been an enormous blessing,” James says.
An unbothered James says some of his social media followers believe that his new image isn’t authentic. Despite the criticism, he seeks to expose his fans to his ever-evolving musical integrity. Priding himself on interacting frequently with his audience after shows or online, it’s important to James to get a broad sense of what resonates with his listeners. Intimacy, he adds, is a lost art.
“This is the most honest I’ve ever been on an album,” James proclaims, “some of the realest I’ve ever been. This is a mature man talking. Everybody has a different conception of music and a different beat that literally moves them in a different way. It’s fascinating to see what connects where on each album.”
It excites James to kick off the Love in a Time of Madness tour in Atlanta this week, the first of 13 North American cities. Identifying the southern city as one of the best cities to play, he equally appreciates being able to venture off to Europe and South America to promote the LP and observe fan reactions.
James is proud to have his look and aesthetic resemble the sound of the music. It’s even more important to him to continue to grow as a performer and try different musical sounds and themes. He reiterates before our conversation concludes how vital expansion is to his musical career.
“I want to just keep pushing,” James concludes. “I’m not satisfied with staying still. Anybody that knows me can see that. I’m not content to just stay in one place. Once I’ve explored an avenue, I’ve said all that I need to say. I want to keep creating, writing and exploring.”
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