On a warm night in September at S.O.B.’s in New York City, actor Omari Hardwick introduced singer/songwriter Luke James as the best R&B vocalist to emerge in the past twenty years. While that’s debatable, it doesn’t feel hyperbolic, which says as much as needs saying about James’ uncanny technical talents: he is a precision singer nonpareil, bold and subtle, with a tender falsetto that sustains muscular force even at the top of its register. It was this earnest, vigorous power and proficiency that defined “I Want You,” the breakout from the 2011 mixtape #Luke, which also appears on his latest, self-titled album. The song would receive a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Performance, propelling a behind-the-scenes talent without an album into competition with long-established stars. (It lost to Usher‘s “Climax,” which is, granted, one of the decade’s best records point blank.)
30-year-old James is no industry novice; he attended high school with Frank Ocean in New Orleans where he formed an R&B group called Upskale in the late ’90s. He soon moved to Los Angeles to pursue music, formed a duo called Luke & Q, and after a few false starts (and an appearance in the video for Destiny’s Child‘s “Soldier”) linked with Timbaland protégé Danja. After penning records for Chris Brown (“Crawl,” his biggest hit, was co-written with Magic!”s Nasri Atweh), Justin Bieber, and Britney Spears, he embarked on a solo career in 2011. After releasing two mixtapes (#Luke and the 2012 tape Whispers in the Dark), several singles (the pristine “I.O.U.”, from 2013), and touring the world as an opener for Beyoncé, Luke, who now lives in Harlem, has released his official debut.
Luke James exists in its own universe, paying little heed to the sound of contemporary hip-hop or R&B. Although Rick Ross nabs a guest verse on “Options”, a tempestuous anthem of desperation, Luke James is otherwise a traditional vocal-driven R&B record, a style unexpectedly off-trend in 2014. In this sense, it stands with the work of artists like Jazmine Sullivan, whose old soul backings are primarily used in the service of tight-as-a-drum songwriting and singing that takes center stage. Although traditional, James’ sound isn’t as retro as Sullivan’s tends to be: at his best, with ballads and mid-tempo explorations of passion and heartbreak, his art is the nexus of nuanced interpretation, personality, a tireless wellspring of emotion, and the virtuosic control which channels that emotion to breathtaking effect.
Not that every song stands outside of time, though—James just has little interest in the late-’90s pop-R&B fixation of current R&B, nor in the dusty textures and breakbeats of whatever remains of neo-soul. Occasionally, his songs do look to the 1980s; the layered, percussive rhythms of “Dancing in the Dark” suggest the worldbeat-inflected pop sound of Michael Jackson‘s “Liberian Girl” or Toto, and “Expose” is a fun retro-funk closer that would feel at home on a wedding dancefloor. But the album’s sonic canvas is mostly unobtrusive: heavy drums are present throughout, and instrumentation will ramp up intensity to match a song’s natural climax. But by and large, the backdrop complements James’ own cultivation of emotion.
The stakes are set through his singing and songwriting, in part through the transitive properties of James’ formidable voice, which proves a thrilling listen: his intense vocals swoop in to lock on one note, only to glide gracefully to the next, a feather caught in the breeze. The album is bold in some ways and hedged in others: It relies wholly on James’ singing and songwriting to attract its audience, gleefully shedding the trend-hopping fans eager to conscript outsider narratives of authenticity. The rough vocal styles of the been-through-it-all soul singer, the lurid details of the afterparty’s afterparty, the angles that would present him more accessibly to a male audience, are irrelevant here. While James’ singing is uncompromised, Luke James feels safer: a collection of powerhouse emotions, it’s stylistically noncommittal, beyond its recognition of James’ otherworldly talents. An overarching vision, or some kind of formal framework, would be welcome.
Nonetheless, there isn’t a weak song on the record. And although long considered out of fashion by the music press (just search the critical history for references to Mariah Carey‘s “melisma”), James’ technical prowess is a feature, not a bug, particularly in his moving ballads. As atmosphere overtook performance as a central value in popular R&B, a charismatic star like Luke James is a refreshing anomaly. Luke James may not be a crossover smash for the singer, but it sets the table for a career with unlimited potential.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1ui6FW4