Foxx Returns To Musical Roots

The Oscar-winning actor returns to music after a 12-year layoff, bolstered by guest turns from Ludacris, Mary J. Blige, Twista and Kanye West.

A funny thing happened to Jamie Foxx on the way to starting a music career.

Acting on a girlfriend's dare to take the stage during a comedy club's open-mic night, Foxx parlayed his humorous derring-do into a successful TV run ("In Living Color," "The Jamie Foxx Show"). Trading the small screen for the big screen-plus a string of forgettable films-Foxx locked into his acting stride with several key movies ("Any Given Sunday," "Ali," "Collateral"). These opened the door to his Academy Award-winning turn in "Ray."

But come Dec. 20, he is back to square one -- at least musically speaking. That is when J Records will release Foxx's first album for the label, "Unpredictable."

Songwriter/producer Sean Garrett promises a surprising album. "People will recognize that they should take him seriously as an artist," says Garrett, who contributed two songs to the set. "His heart is in it. He really wants this."

For his part, Foxx insists "Unpredictable" is not an exercise in vanity or about achieving an elusive entertainment trifecta.

"Nobody's looking at it that way," he says. "I never brought 'Jamie Foxx with an Oscar' into the room. I just brought the humble, starving artist not trying to force anything. If it's successful, that's great. If not, you go back to the drawing board. Or you leave it alone."

He did just that after the 1994 release of "Peep This." Released by the Fox Music label, the album reflected such Foxx influences as Lionel Richie and Marvin Gaye. Though not a commercial standout, "Peep This" did yield a modest hit, "Infatuation," which reached No. 36 on the Billboard R&B singles chart.

Foxx's musical alter ego did not command attention again until his guest turn in 2003 on "Slow Jamz," the Kanye West-helmed No. 1 R&B/pop crossover hit by Twista. Following his 2004 performance of the song at the fabled pre-Grammy Award party staged annually by BMG North America chairman/CEO Clive Davis-in addition to onstage pairings with Alicia Keys and Angie Stone-Foxx signed with J Records.

"I was impressed by his natural passion for music," Davis says. "He's a true music lover. When he's not making a movie, he's in a studio making music."

During his childhood in Terrell, Texas, Foxx took piano lessons, was music director of the church choir and started his own R&B band. Before his career took its comedic detour, Foxx attended United States International University in San Diego (now Alliant International University) on a classical piano scholarship-quite a distance from today's hip-hop-dominated scene.

But since "Slow Jamz," Foxx has been steadily adding to his musical credentials. There was his second R&B/pop hit with West, the infectious "Gold Digger," as well as an appearance on 50 Cent's album "The Massacre" ("Build You Up").

Foxx began recording "Unpredictable" nearly three years ago between juggling roles in "Stealth," the recently released "Jarhead" and the just-wrapped "Miami Vice." During the recording process, he worked to strike a happy medium between his old-school R&B influences (including Prince and Zapp) and contemporary hip-hop faves (such as Young Jeezy and 50 Cent), without letting the "Ray" afterglow overwhelm the proceedings.

"It's something I've been toying with for a long time," Foxx says. "How do you capture the club crowd with R&B while still keeping it hip-hop, young and with a bounce to it? That's the way we wrote a lot of the songs."

Working with J Records executive VP of A&R Peter Edge, Foxx hooked up with such contemporary R&B/hip-hop songwriter/producers as the aforementioned Garrett, Mike City, Harold Lily, Tank, Polow Da Don, Warryn Campbell, Timbaland, 112's Daron Jones and Mr. ColliPark. These collaborations, Foxx notes, mark the major difference between his two albums.

"I've got some real writers and producers this time and a real record label that has the money. I didn't have anything back then. I waited 11 years because I didn't want to be out there looking goofy. Like, 'Man, what is he doing?' "

Edge describes the 15 songs on "Unpredictable" as reminiscent of an old-fashioned vinyl album. "Side one would be the club suite; side two the bedroom suite," he says. "This album manages to translate Jamie's different personalities."

Among the songs suited for the club suite are "DJ Play a Love Song" with "Slow Jamz" colleague Twista and "Extravaganza." The latter, another pairing with West, was an August setup single later issued as a 12-inch, $5.98 vinyl single in October. Its No. 77 debut on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart marked Foxx's first chart entry as a lead artist since 1994.

In the mood for the bedroom suite are such selections as "Warm Bed," "Three Letter Word" and a duet with Mary J. Blige, "Love Changes." A nod to Foxx's old-school roots, "Changes" was originally recorded by '70s R&B group Mother's Finest.

Foxx co-wrote six songs on the album, including the introspective "Heaven" and "Wish U Were Here." Produced by Babyface, "Heaven" is dedicated to Foxx's teenage daughter. "Wish U Were Here" pays tribute to his beloved grandmother who adopted and raised Foxx (born Eric Bishop).

"It's one of those songs where you sit with some Kleenex. It really detoxes you," Foxx says of "Here."

Right now, the label's full-court press is on the title track/lead single, which features Ludacris. Currently No. 20 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, the cut has also been garnering airplay at adult R&B radio stations-"even with the Ludacris rap version," VP of promotion Randy Franklin notes. As a result, Franklin says the label is making available a version for adult radio without the rap.

In addition to Ludacris, Blige, Twista and West, the "Unpredictable" guest list includes the Game, Snoop Dogg and Common. Such star power may appear to some as an attempt to overshadow any shortcomings Foxx brings to the table as a solo artist. Others may think the intention is to increase the 38-year-old Foxx's appeal to younger audiences. Edge and Foxx dismiss those notions.

Foxx says, "The record business has changed considerably since the days of just R&B singing, wearing linen and walking in slow motion. You want to make things an event now. So when you look at Jamie Foxx and Ludacris, it's like the Batman and Robin effect."

Lamonda Williams, director of urban programming for Music Choice, predicts Foxx's album will do well. Williams says Foxx's silver-screen exposure and West connection are important, but his existing base of music fans should not be overlooked.

"There's history with Foxx before he channeled Ray Charles," Williams observes. "True Foxx fans respect and remember his first single 'Infatuation.' Embarrassingly, we liked his writing on Adina Howard's 'T-Shirt and My Panties On.' Sonically, his voice is on point, and the piano skills are tight. This is no fluke or an actor-trying-to-sing gimmick."

The "Unpredictable" media blitz kicked into gear Nov. 29 when Foxx showcased his singing skills on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." Additionally, Foxx will make high-profile TV appearances on "Today" (Dec. 19), "Live With Regis and Kelly" (Dec. 21), "Late Show With David Letterman" (Dec. 22) and "The View" (Dec. 23).

Describing himself as "fearless," Foxx says he is up for the "Unpredictable" challenges. "Hats off to the people who do this every single day. The record business is tough. But as long as I got my mojo, I can get out there and do whatever.