Luke James Takes It Slow in a Fast R&B World

“This album is going to go platinum… over time.”

The first time I saw Luke James, he took off his shirt. It was at a spring 2013 industry showcase centered around The-Dream, then a central figure at Def Jam, and assembled around him were a cast of the label's up-and-coming male R&B singers including James, fellow New Orleans singer August Alsina and BJ the Chicago Kid. While the others emphasized a more street-weary posture, clean-cut James and his powerful voice took it right back to Tyrese and Tank. An anomaly among early-career R&B singers, he doesn't shy away from grown and sexy.

That can be a hard sell these days, and in the year-plus since that show, James' debut album bobbed and weaved, changing titles and release dates; his once-shaved head has given way to stacked curls. But the voice hasn't gone anywhere, and despite an obligatory nod to the present via a Rick Ross guest verse, the Luke James of his new, self-titled, major-label debut seems as confident as he did then to play the turtle in the race to stay ahead of illusive R&B trends. "I'm not doing this for kicks for two minutes," he told me on the eve of his album's release. We spoke about playing the long game, finding confidence and defining your own goals.

What was your life like growing up? I'm an only child—single parent household in New Orleans. Being an only child you just have a lot of time on your hands, figuring things out. Just doing music, man—music just came to me. I originally started playing saxophone. I started singing a little bit when I got into middle school, when I realized girls didn't really date the dude with the saxophone.

I had that same problem, without the solution of singing. Yeah, I started picking up on singing and started singing more. It was just for fun to entertain people and mimic people. And then I started taking it seriously. Got to high school, met these two dudes and we just clicked tight like brothers and then we started doing a group together doing a poppy kind of thing, like B2K.. We started doing talent shows, and for years we networked. One day there was a concert for Tyrese. We went to the side of the building near the backstage entrances and started singing, hoping somebody would notice us. Tyrese's manager at the time, Frank Gatson, was sitting in a car right outside the door, and that's how we got to Los Angeles.

Where did you get the confidence to do that? Was it just being with a group of other people, trying to be cool? I think it was more—definitely singing with other people is a lot easier than singing by yourself. That was a bit of a fear that used to really get me down, so I didn't really project in front of people. Being in a group made it easy. We sung, got popular, girls liked us—it became a thing.

How did you get into a more soulful approach? It's always been in me, as a sponge. I was always attracted to music that moved people. Whether it be gospel, R&B, folk, hip-hop, pop, alternative rock—whatever moved people, whatever made a crowd just get lost in the moment. But in my music it came over time. YouTube is such a beautiful thing because you can see everything from the past and that's usually where I go off of—from the past, when it was just about the voice and the feeling and there was artistry, and it was just about a performer that dudes respected. And women and men and everybody was just going crazy and losing their minds. It was just the believability that they had in their music and those artists wrote their songs and they made you feel like they did when they performed it. When I first got turned on to Purple Rain, I was just moved by Prince's charisma and his just being free. Everything meant something, from the scream to falling on the ground to taking his shirt off, it just all meant something. It just got in me.

In LA, you bounced from being in a group to singing backup for Tyrese and writing songs for people like Justin Bieber and Chris Brown… I had to stop that because it was killing me, making me mad depressed. Because when you feel you have a calling that you're designed to do and you're not doing it and you're watching someone else night after night doing it, it's like torture. So I just really had to put a halt to things like that. And writing songs—in LA that's part of the networking. Ty Dolla $ign, Bruno Mars, Frank Ocean, James Fauntleroy, everybody—we all run in the same circle, just in LA writing songs for different artists in the studio late night, Hit Boy. Waking up in the morning still at a record player, go to the drug store buy a toothbrush and get back at it again. It's part of the hustle and bustle, just trying to get on and get publishing.

At some point you started putting out free albums, but this project is your first commercial release, and I know it was pushed back. How was dealing with that wait for you? It was definitely torture. But it's more so torture when you think of the business part of it. You've got to remember it's show business, and you let all these chefs in the kitchen. Everybody has all these opinions—what you should be doing—when in actuality you should just go back to the basics to the original thing that got you signed originally.

What do you think that thing was that got you signed originally? Feeling. Not the standard radio song, but music that just makes you feel and tells your story. It's not commercial, it's just a feeling and if you just let people hear it, they'll tell you. That's what it is, but you know, it's the business, and you've got to be—it took some time, plus I'm developing as an artist. Just really finding myself, working with different producers and living, having more to say, more to talk about and what I want to sing and how I want to be perceived. I guess everything happens for a reason. It wasn't supposed to come out any sooner than now. The free albums, that's just to get people acclimated to who Luke James is, rather than seeing this black dude who can sing so you automatically think, “Oh, he's just a typical R&B singer." There's more to it. If you were to hear my complimentary albums, like Whispers in the Dark. then you'd have a better idea of who I am, not just this commercial ideal of an R&B singer. I want everything. I don't want to be left, to the point where only the left crowd gets it, I wanna be right in the middle to where the left crowd gets it and the crowd that doesn't really fuck with that type of music somehow get it. Someone once told me that that's genius. Genius is doing music that a lot of people get.

I think a little bit of what you're talking about is trying to get a timeless quality to the music. Like I said, I base everything I do off of a feeling, and I feel like a feeling has no age. I want to be like the greats. I can be even better than them. That's my goal. I want to be remembered. I'm not doing this for kicks for two minutes. It's not about the producer, it's not about nothing else but what I'm saying and how I'm saying it and hopefully it becomes a soundtrack to someone's life. I'm not in the sport of how many records did he sell in the first week. That's not my sport—that's like a hip-hop sport. My music is a feeling, my music gets on you. You may buy the album and only listen to one song, your favorite song, and then something happens, and the next song comes on and—oh, shit—it speaks to just what you're in right now and that moment. That's just how I look at it.

The long game. I'm here for the long run. I'm not just a quick fix. This album is going to go platinum… over time. And that's fine with me. I base my whole thing on making great music and performing. As I develop my squad and my team and the label gets a better understanding of who I am, then things will get better, especially next album. But this one is just put it out. This just needed to be birthed. This baby has been in the womb forever and it just needs to come out. After that, whatever happens happens. I'll be on the road. I may feel like I'm mainstream, only because I've been blessed to have mainstream looks and have one of the biggest artists in entertainment show me so much love, but I still feel underground. Not everyone knows me and that's fine. I like being found. I think that's just awesome when you can always be new to someone. I think it's a gradual thing. I think I'm going to be in this business for a very long time and that's pretty okay with me, because I can't see myself doing anything else.

Luke James Takes It Slow in a Fast R&B World