Latin Grammys 2018

Leela, At Long Last

Excerpted from the magazine for

Tina Turner meets James Brown.

That's the indelible image one gets after watching Leela James perform. Belying her petite frame -- topped by a mountain of hair -- and a high-pitched speaking voice hovering somewhere between cartoon icon Betty Boop and singer Michel'le, James morphs into a soulful dynamo onstage.

"It's terrible ... people tell me all the time that I sound like a big, fat woman," James says with a laugh. "However, it's about the music. When I perform, I zone out. It's energy-driven, emotional, a spiritual ride. Sincere; not fake. I'm not trying to sit behind a piano and look overly dope like I'm Beethoven or something."

James' colorful demeanor is the driving force behind her long-awaited Warner Bros. debut, "A Change Is Gonna Come" (June 21). A line from the title track (the 1965 Sam Cooke classic) -- "It's been a long time comin'" -- fittingly describes her trek from new recruit to launching her first studio album.

Signed four years ago to RuffNation/Warner Bros., James initially wowed industry tastemakers during a series of critically acclaimed showcases on both coasts.

When RuffNation was dismantled, James was transferred to Warner Bros. directly, and encountered more setbacks in the wake of staff downsizing, the merger of sister label Elektra with Atlantic, and a new executive regime. Despite the setbacks, she continued to work. Her credits include opening shows for the Black Eyed Peas, Kem and John Legend.

The title also reflects James' challenge to what is defined now as "popular R&B." She calls her gritty and passionate approach "back-porch soul."

As James explains, "There's room for change, and there should be a balance anyway. This is homegrown music with raw singing that's true, not contrived. You have fried chicken and baked chicken. This is fried chicken."

Those seeds of change are sown on lead single "Music," which asks, "Where did the soul go?" as it salutes such influences as Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and Gladys Knight. James' gospel, blues and funk-honed style shifts from defiant to gutsy to inspirational on such tracks as "Rain," "My Joy" and "Didn't I." Among those who worked with James, who also doubled as co-writer, were Kanye West, Raphael Saadiq, Wyclef Jean, Chucky Thompson and executive producer Commissioner Gordon.

Following a live performance on "Soul Train" on May 28, James launched a promotional tour June 7 that includes stops in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

Funky album track "Soul Food" is featured in a national Sprint commercial that began airing April 25.

For her part, James concedes she is just ready for the album to finally see release. "I feel like I've been pregnant for four years and now I'm finally delivering. I just hope people understand it came from my heart and soul. It's real."