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José James

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José James had a very specific vision for his seventh album : "It’s the end of my jazz career. Completely." Perhaps some clarification is in order. The New York singer and songwriter, who in 2015 dropped a full-album tribute to Billie Holiday (Yesterday I Had the Blues), is here reborn as a powerful voice in contemporary R&B. While this is a man who’s never been defined or confined by a genre, Love in a Time of Madness is something new : a focused foray into moody soul, electronic pop, and trap-addled beats, with the occasional influence of African folk, American gospel and—as befits our host’s upbringing—Minneapolitan funk. And though James’ voice is no less agile and his ear no less adventurous, this is also his most relatable, daresay sexiest work yet, detailing love’s ups and downs without holding back an ounce of emotion.

"When I set out to make this, I had a big realization," says James. "I’ve tried to do too much on each album. This is the first one where I thought, ’I don’t want to make this for me. I want to make it for other people.’ I had that mindset from the beginning."

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a more cathartic concept for an LP made in 2016 than Love in a Time of Madness. James initially planned on this being a double album. One side would be about love, and the other about societal madness—a response to the systemic and often physical violence perpetrated on U.S. citizens of color. But as he worked on the music, he recalls, "The madness part was getting way more out of control. The murders kept happening and it became overwhelming and depressing." So instead of rehashing the pain, James doubled down on the part of the album that could provide healing : love. As he sings to a paramour in that silky baritone on the dream-like "To Be With You," "I’ve been down and defeated, thought I’d lost the last good part of me /.../ Didn’t know that love like this could bring me back to life."

That’s not to say James’ take on love is all so rosy. That song, with its stately piano and minimal hip-hop beat, marks a turning point on an album where romance isn’t always romantic. While opener "Always There" introduces a rock solid relationship, by song two, "What Good Is Love," the couple is clinging to emotional wreckage "in a sea of lies." The production morphs too, from digital bounce and cut-up choral synth to the sort of ominous tones and frosty percussion you’d expect to hear on tracks by The-Dream or Drake (even if there’s a little Sade in the vocal). By the third song, "Let It Fall" with Mali Music, our narrator is coping with his newfound singlehood over a curative mix of rootsy guitar and hand-hit drum. And yet, on the very next one, "Last Night," he’s wilding out with drugs, sex, and smokes. In time, yes, reconciliation and redemption enter the album’s tale, but James wanted to tell love’s whole story.

"Nothing off limits as long as it’s real," he says of the autobiographical nature of these songs. "When I was touring [2014’s rock-influenced] While You Were Sleeping, it was a pretty rock ’n’ roll time for me. I went through a lot of changes since. Part of it was being so close to Billie Holiday’s work and thinking about how she ended up."

Sonically, though, James was inspired by modern approaches to pop identity and songwriting—the holistic vision of Grimes, the creative engine of Kanye West, the curated image of FKA Twigs, the genre-mashing of The Internet, the sonic space of Bryson Tiller, and even the savvy studio choices of Ellie Goulding. He left behind the bands of his previous albums to instead work with topline writers and producers— Miguel collaborator Tario holds down most of Love in a Time of Madness alongside Likeminds (Pharoahe Monch, Anthony Hamilton)—plus began vocal lessons, hit the gym, and started working on himself in new ways. He considered how today’s solo star confirms Andy Warhol’s assertion that art and artist are one and the same, and thought about how Quincy Jones approached Off the Wall by being current "without dumbing anything down." He also fell in love with the complexities of trap, and the way some of those aforementioned artists remind him of music he came up with.

"There’s a resurgence of something I haven’t seen since the ’90s or ’00s, when hip-hop, R&B, and pop were converging in really thrilling ways through folks like Tribe, Erykah Badu, or D’Angelo," says James. "There’s a whole new generation now that’s unafraid to blend it all together. The world is ready for this kind of thing again."

It’s a moment James has been preparing for all along. Never an up-the-middle jazz guy, he often chose to work with lithe minds like Robert Glasper and Pino Palladino, as on his 2013 breakthrough, No Beginning No End. Plus, he grew up in Minnesota at a time when music was in flux, with the powerful funk-pop of Prince and Morris Day giving way to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ radio-reshaping New Jack Swing, as rap was sampling the very same jazz that James’ dad—a percussionist and saxophonist himself—played in the living room at home. Is it any surprise, then, that upbeat Love in a Time of Madness cuts like "Live Your Fantasy" and "Ladies Man," with their wild synths, chant-along vocals, claps, and snaps, manage to channel that old Minneapolis sound while fitting seamlessly in with the dance-oriented R&B of the moment ? Nah.

"Movement has been on my mind," says James. "Not just hearts and minds—I want people to hit the dance floor. I could make jazz albums the rest of my life, but I want to reach people, man. I like Jamie xx as much as I like Miles Davis, you know ? "

Even the electronic elements of this record have precedent—James’ first two LPs were released by BBC DJ Gilles Peterson, and inspired by London club culture—but typically in a supporting role. Here, slinkily seductive, atmosphere-heavy tracks like "You Know I Know" and "Closer" are the rule not the exception, and testament to his desire to move more listeners than ever before. Because that’s what transcendence feels like : a whole bunch of people taking the journey, singing the songs, swaying to the melodies, dancing to the beats, and feeling all the feelings in unison. Also, it feels like Love in a Time of Madness’ final song, "I’m Yours." That’s where our narrator’s struggle, confusion, loss, and lust peel away to reveal something far deeper—a hard-won love that seems much bigger than James alone. There’s a little gospel in the mix, thanks in no small part to legendary guest Oleta Adams. There’s also a promise, one that we all need to hear in times both good and bad : "I’ll be right by your side."