"I'm nervous playing this music, man," Tyrese Gibson confessed Tuesday night, while fidgeting with a stereo system in a conference room at Virgin Records' New York offices. Tyrese, a native of Los Angeles' Watts neighborhood and an accomplished model, singer and actor best known for his appearances in all three installments of the "Transformers" live-action movie franchise, was in New York to play selections from his upcoming fifth solo album, "Open Invitation," arriving Nov. 1 through his own Voltron Recordz, in partnership with EMI, for a crowd that included members of his new management team, MBK Entertainment (the firm that also manages Alicia Keys), and 50-plus members of the media that included Essence Managing Editor Emil Wilbekin. "I've never played my album for this many people," Tyrese said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.
"Don't worry, we've got you," someone said, encouragingly. And last night, they did, gamely hanging out as Tyrese, wearing a loose fitting blue and white candy striped button down, dark, baggy jeans, and crispy white Adidas Stan Smiths, played host, DJ, and MC, cuing up tracks from the album, telling stories about the inspiration behind the project, and, at one point, even asking Brent English from Iced Media, the firm handling digital PR for the project, to hold up his laptop so the crowd could watch the video for his new single, "Stay" (video below).
"Gather 'round, like we're in elementary," Tyrese said, before playing the video, directed by Matt Alonzo and starring Academy Award nominee Taraji P. Henson (who starred alongside Tyrese in the 2001 John Singleton film, "Baby Boy"). "This some ghetto shit, it's cool."
Guests enjoyed complimentary sushi and sake cocktails provided by Ty Ku, and the atmosphere was casual, if a bit makeshift, throughout the night. Tyrese said the inspiration for the album came to him, literally, in a dream and that he woke up certain that he wanted to do music again, after taking nearly five years off to pursue acting full time. "God sent me [MBK founder] Jeff Robinson's name when I woke up," said Tyrese, who then proceeded to tell the story of how he recorded "Open Invitation" with a team of 14 singers, rappers and producers, who camped out for three weeks at his home in Temecula, Calif. Tyrese said he was looking to recreate a Motown, assembly line feel, and called the project, his first independent release - his four previous albums arrived through J Records - "a real labor of love" and his "proudest work to date."
Tyrese wrote on every song on the album and coproduced as well. Brandon Alexander produced nearly every song on the album, including the recently released "Too Easy," which features Ludacris, and "I Gotta Chick," which features R. Kelly and Rick Ross. (According to Tyrese, an earlier version of the song leaked to the Internet and featuring Young Money rapper Tyga instead of Ross, will not appear on the official release). The iTunes release of "Open Invitation" will include two bonus tracks, though Tyrese has yet to deliver them. On this night he played a rough cut of a song that might make the iTunes edition - the track, produced by David Banner and, as of last night, still missing Tyrese's vocals, was a celebratory club anthem tentatively titled "Do It," and featuring the hook "bring the fireworks to my table!" referencing the practice of attaching sparklers to bottles of champagne at bottle service nightclubs.
"I've got a Benjamin Button thing going on," Tyrese confessed halfway through the evening. "My music is a little more aggressive, edgy than you're used to hearing from me. I still do the bedroom records, but [on this album] I'm in the clubs, having fun, popping off."
He attributed the shift to maturity, he's now 32, and to no longer being beholden to following a major label's lead in terms of picking songs, his positioning, and his overall look and feel. "No regrets," he said. "But when you're young and sign to a major, [you're just] happy to get a deal, happy to get out of Watts, happy to be traveling doing some shit. Now that I've gotten older, I know what I want to look like, know what songs I want to make."
Tyrese's most recent album, "Alter Ego," arrived on J Records in 2006 and debuted at No. 23 on the Billboard 200. It has sold 384,000 to date according to Nielsen SoundScan.