José James is reborn as a powerful voice in contemporary R&B on Love in a Time of Madness. Even for an artist as creatively restless as James, Love in a Time of Madness is something new: an R&B focused foray into moody soul, electronic pop, and trap-addled beats, with the occasional influence of African folk, American gospel and 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.
"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? "
Love in a Time of Madness follows James’ 2015 Billie Holiday tribute album Yesterday I Had the Blues and his rock infused 2014 album While You Were Sleeping. The New York Times wrote that James’ 2013 breakthrough No Beginning No End “sounds like the result of the black-pop continuum, jazz and soul and hip-hop and R&B, slow-cooked for more than 50 years.” NPR Music noted that “James makes utterly contemporary music,” adding that he “skirts categories with ease, fitting in with current R&B innovators like Frank Ocean or Miguel” and “he holistically heals the rift between radio-friendly songcraft and virtuoso flair.”
James initially planned on Love in a Time of Madness 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. That's not to say James' take on love is all so rosy. This is an album where romance isn't always romantic. James wanted to tell love's whole story.
Sonically, 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.”
"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."