José James Premieres Aloe Blacc Collab 'Turn Me Up,' Talks Running A Label

José James
Janette Beckman

José James

José James' next album -- whose "Turn Me Up" with Aloe Blacc is premiering exclusively below -- marks the first time the soul-jazz singer has "ever had to compare myself to myself."

As its title indicates, No Beginning No End 2, coming March 6, is a sequel -- in this case to James' third album in 2013. The circumstances are similar; Back then James was transitioning from Verve Records to Blue Note/EMI, and the new set finds him moving from there to his own Rainbow Blonde Records. "There's this beautiful cycle that's happening again," James tells Billboard. "This essence of it is what I wanted to get back -- the idea of courage, freedom, real quality music that's made without boundaries but still had a cohesive quality. That's what I did on the first (No Beginning No End), and this one feels the same way."

That said, James feels no acrimony towards Blue Note. "I think it just ran its course," he says. "I think for me, to be honest, the switch from EMI to Universal as the parent company was not the greatest thing. When Blue Note is in a building dominated by Sam Smith and Katy Perry, it's really difficult to get attention on an artist like myself or Robert Glasper. We'd done five albums, and I felt really good about the legacy I left there. If you're a real student of jazz, as I am, you know people had their moment at Blue Note -- Miles (Davis) had his, (John) Coltrane, and they moved on 'cause they wanted to do other things.

"So there's no bad blood or anything. It became clear it would make a lot more sense for me to be 100 percent free. And I had a label, so I'm ready to make that jump."

The expansive No Beginning No End 2 is, like its predecessor, filled with guest collaborators, including Ledisi, Lizz Wright, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Erik Truffaz, Alberto Lopez of Quetzal and James' partner and Rainbow Blonde co-owner Taali. Blacc not only appears on "Turn Me Up" but was part of the song's creation; The two met at the Blue Note in Tokyo while both were in town and discovered a shared Panamanian background. James subsequently had Blacc join him on stage at the Hollywood Bowl and then invited him to come by a studio jam session to create new song ideas.

"He came by the session and got caught up in the spirit of creativity," James recalls. "We put a bunch of brilliant minds in a room and played to see what happens. We literally put a microphone on the table that we would pass back and forth. It was like a three-hour session and I took those tapes and went through them with Pino (Palladino) and edited a little bit and made it into a song. I sent the demo back to Aloe to approve and we got together back in the original studio in L.A. to write the top line and recorded the vocals together, which was really cool. The whole thing was just super organic."

James -- who also covers Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are" on the set -- says that an attention to songcraft is what distinguishes No Beginning No End 2 from its forebear. "I knew it was impossible to capture that (original) vibe," he says. "That was 2013. So much has changed. What I didn't want was to put out a groove album; There's nothing wrong with that, but this is more about songs. That was the emphasis I really wanted for this (album)."

James has a number of live performances set for 2020, with more on the way as the album is released. Mostly, though, he's looking forward to formally kicking off the latest era of his career and seeing where it leads. "I feel reenergized," he says. "I feel like the training wheels have come off a bit. I'm the label now, so I don't have to clear ideas or wait for someone to say 'yes' to something. If I want to put out four singles, I can do it. That's pretty exciting. If you're a nerd about music and art like I am, it's incredible to have that kind of level of control."