Singer José James ‘s career epitomizes that old saying about round pegs and square holes. Stylistically well rounded, the Minnesota/Seattle-bred Brooklyn-resident’s warm, mellow vocals are as at home crooning jazz standards with McCoy Tyner or inhabiting the progressive productions of Flying Lotus and Moodymann. Out today, James’ fourth LP, No Beginning No End , is his first for iconic jazz label Blue Note Records, and finds this 34-year-old child of hip-hop and R&B continuing to chart a creative path somewhere between neo soul intimacy and jazz expansiveness. Here, José shares some thoughts on a handful of recordings that changed his life.
(As told to DJ Kwak of Strictly Niceness/Brussels.)
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1. Ice Cube - The Predator (Priority, 1992)
José James: Man, I was in high school and just like everybody young, I think, you saw Rodney King on TV gettin’ beat down by these cops. And you’re like, man, I know those dudes are going to jail. You know, the world is watching. Then when the verdict hit: not guilty?!? That was the end of my innocence forever. As a kid. As a young black man in America that was the end of my innocence. Ice Cube put out the only album that for me that addressed it – the rage that dudes felt. ‘Cause, you know, it was a blatant injustice, man, that the world saw. And to be a kid and go through that was really crazy, man. And Ice Cube – he expressed the anger that I felt. But with intelligence and some history and with style. So that was a big album for me, man. That really helped me not do something crazy.
2. Nirvana – MTV Unplugged In New York (Geffen, 1994)
José James: Like everybody else I was a huge fan of their work. But to hear it stripped down and to really hear [Kurt Cobain’s] songwriting and the way that the band played together was just like really deep. And somehow that’s my favorite Nirvana album. The covers that they do as well [e.g. traditional folk song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” ] it’s like, dag! It really shows you the depth of Kurt Cobain. And it kind of captured him at his peak before it all just went away.
3. Michael Jackson - Off the Wall (Epic, 1979)
José James: I gotta say I’ve been spending a lot of time with Off the Wall , man. Like everybody Michael was my hero. I got to see him when I was 8-years-old. I got to see the Bad tour and it was the best thing I’ll ever see in my life ever. Off the Wall though was huge. I had it on vinyl. And everything about him – the way he dressed and the way, the way he moved, the way he sang – was an inspiration. And even as a kid I knew that it was some bad music, man. I didn’t know Stevie [Wonder] wrote [ “I Can’t Help It” ], I didn’t know about Quincy Jones, but I just knew that this was dope.
4. Miles Davis - Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959)
José James: There’s so many jazz albums but Kind of Blue was really the first one that [I heard that] was like an album to me. It wasn’t just songs that I liked. I was the full experience. Even now when I put it on it brings me into a space. It showed me the power of creating a space as an artist making music – making somebody feel something instantly and sustaining it for the duration.
5. Marvin Gaye - I Want You (Tamla, 1976)
José James: My favorite of all time – and I got to meet the man that produced it [Leon Ware] this year. That’s my all-time classic favorite album. I’ve listened to it hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times. And if I can ever make something that approaches that album I’ll be a happy man.