Title: Lean On Me
Artist: José James
Label: Blue Note
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: September 28, 2018
Minnesota-born jazz singer José James is known for combining aspects of jazz, soul, and hip hop to create his own unique style, which has often been described as a modern Gil Scott-Heron. Over the course of his career, James has released six full-length albums that range in style from typical jazz standards to all original works. Now, with his latest album Lean On Me, James pays homage to one of the most respected artists ever, Bill Withers.Continue reading →
José James has always been known for blending jazz together with hip-hop, but on his latest album Love In A Time of Madness, he takes it to a whole new level. Always one to try something new and daring, the album is a modern spin on the classic R&B themes of love, lust, and longing.
Skilled vocal sampling, a slow hip-hop rhythm, and heavy bass lead into James’ smooth voice on the first single for the album, “Always There.” Sensually singing about his devotion to his woman, James’ style is reminiscent of modern R&B stars such as Miguel or Usher, and could easily be heard on the radio:
Originally meant to be an album dealing with both love and “societal madness—a response to the systemic and often physical violence perpetrated on U.S. citizens of color,” James felt that the madness side of the album was spiraling out of control. Overwhelmed by the daily acts of violence, he decided to focus on the love part, creating an album of healing which provides a temporary respite from the madness.
This idea that love can be felt even in a time of despair can be heard on songs such as “Let It Fall,” which features Mali Music. Slow and melancholy, James and Mali Music sing,
“No one really likes when the rain comes because that’s the same time that the pain comes crashing down And that’s the same way that your love comes pouring down.”
This juxtaposition of rain as bringing both the realization of pain and a sign of new growth expertly shifts from soft jazz-infused vocals to a deep hip-hop beat with a drop around the three-minute mark.
Though many songs (“You Know I Know,” “Last Night”) are heavily electronic, the album also features a live band that adds flair to James’ brand of contemporary R&B and showcases his jazz influences. With Takeshi Ohbayashi on keys, Solomon Dorsey on bass and vocals, and Nate Smith on drums, “To Be With You,” a rhythmic jazz ballad, and “I’m Yours,” an intimate, gospel-infused declaration of commitment and love featuring Oleta Adams, particularly benefit from this live instrumentation.
The upbeat “Live Your Fantasy” brings the funk to the album, and certainly fulfills James’ hope to make the listener want to dance through the night. “Ladies Man” continues this vibe, as James tests out his falsetto in a George Clinton-esque psychedelic track. Despite these many styles, the music is all grounded in James’ velvet voice, making In A Time of Madness feel cohesive. It is clear that genre is fluid for José James, and there’s no telling what he will take on next.