Minneapolis native José James has tried to avoid being boxed into a musical category. Even though his most recent album, "No Beginning No End," reached the top of the U.S. R&B charts, he bristles at labels like "jazz singer" or "R&B artist."
Producer Alexandra DiPalma spoke with James about how easy it is to become "typecast" as an artist and why he's working so hard to fight for his musical freedom. Below are excerpts from their conversation.
José James: It's just me, as an artist, not as a jazz artist, just thinking or writing just music, without any genre. That's how I approached it, just doing the stuff I like. And trying to blend, even within each track, a lot of different styles into one style. Music is very different than many other art forms. Especially now. Visual art, conceptual art is so advanced, and music doesn't really have the same thing. It's either R&B, it's pop, it's electro/dance, all these categories. So for me, it's just sanity. I want to do a lot of different things but it's hard for the industry to embrace that.
Once you get locked into a thing, it's kind of like an actor, you're typecast. And it's hard to get roles. Once you're the romantic lead, nobody wants you to play the action character, you know what I mean? So, that's why I'm always fighting for my freedom.
James says that with this new album he took a route completely different from past projects. Much of his other work was abstract and rhythmically complex, but he felt compelled to keep it simple this time around.
James: I definitely wanted this to be more accessible. I don't want to say more commercial, but more accessible. That's why I reached out to Emily King. I wanted some things that were a little simpler, more direct, and way more powerful. Thinking about what I listen to, you know what I mean? I listen to a lot of Sade, João Gilberto, Marvin Gaye. It's not necessarily simple music, but there's something simple about it. It's a very direct message. And I felt like a lot of my other work was very abstract, which was purposeful.
I also have a lot more international fans, and that's a big thing. Go down to Brazil, and people can't understand everything you say. They understand the feeling. But when you sing a hook like, "Come to my door," everybody gets it.
James admits that his voice is often compared to old-time American singers, which has a lot to do with his love for classic artists like Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. He doesn't sound like many musicians out there today; he takes that observation as a compliment. He thinks it would be tough to find music on today's charts that will be considered classic 30 years from now. And that bothers him.
James: I mean I really love the classic American singers, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Joe Williams, Billie Holiday, Ella. I really love those singers, studied them all through high school and college, and I have a lot of respect for that tradition. It's classy. They're classy people. They presented America in a very classy way.
Especially the black singers, going through so much adversity. Someone like Nat King Cole, being able to be one of the most popular singers in the world. If you really think about it, it's really an amazing feat. He did it through charm and a lot of talent. So I have a lot of respect for that. I also feel like there's not a lot of music that's classic or lasting right now in any genre out of America, which bothers me. Whenever I'm listening to something, I'm like, am I going to listen to it next year? In five years? In 10 years? That's just the way I am. I mean I check everything out, but I really only keep stuff around me that is classic and gives me a kind of energy. It sustains me. Every time I listen to Marvin Gaye or Billie Holiday I get something. A positive feeling that takes me forward.
Everything pushes the next generation, everything pushes the next level. So if you're just coming from now, where there are songs that are meant to be disposable, where does that lead the next generation? It doesn't give them enough nourishment. So I wanted to make something that had that.
Listen to the full interview above.