Leela James‘ flinty, dazzling new single “Don’t Want You Back” earned the coveted “most added” designation at Urban AC stations when it was released last fall. That kind of explosive reaction has listeners approaching James, more than a decade into her career, as if she was a rookie. “You meet people and they’re like, ‘I’ve just discovered you,’ and it’s like, ‘I’ve been around since 1922,'” she jokes to Billboard. On a more serious note: “I’ve been working, been making music — and been overlooked, some might say.”
This is hopefully about to change. James’ last album, Fall For You, spawned three hit singles, and “Don’t Want You Back” promises to extend this streak: it reached No. 6 on the latest Adult R&B chart, and if it climbs two more spots, which seems highly likely, it will become her highest charting single ever. She’ll follow that with Did It For Love, a new full-length, on March 31.
But James’ overlooked-ness is undeniably baffling: she has a sterling voice, as comfortable with the sly, soft edges of Betty Wright as the pebbly decay of Betty Davis. And she’s expert at picking collaborators, whether it’s beat making legends — Kanye West and Pete Rock have produced for her — or highly respected neo-soul studio aces like James Poyser and Raphael Saadiq.
With the occasional exception, R&B singers routinely get less recognition than they deserve in the mainstream, and James also suggests her refusal to concede to crossover pressures made this neglect almost inevitable. “I was fighting to get out there just to get the exposure, because I didn’t fit into the box of what people thought I should sound like,” James remembers. “‘If she’s an R&B artist, she should be dancing or doing this’ — I didn’t sound like that at the time. There wasn’t room and space for artists like myself.”
Swimming upstream in the early years of her career took a toll. “During that era, it was really difficult to try to stay focused and stick to it,” she continues. “You’re sitting on the shelf like, ‘OK, are they gonna put the album out this year?’ Nope. A new A&R came in. Oh, a new president. The regimes kept changing, and I’m still sitting there. My project’s two, three, four, five years old now. Finally, it gets released and it’s like new to everybody else but it’s old to me.”
But she gave her debut a hopeful title — A Change Is Gonna Come — and resolved to persevere. She parted ways with Warner Brothers, releasing albums on labels that nurture R&B singers forced to exist outside of the mainstream (Shanachie, Stax), and recording an Etta James tribute record. Golden-era house music producers prize vocalists with presence, so she contributed vocals to Moby‘s “Walk With Me,” while Todd Terry used her song “My Joy” as the source of his own thumping tune on Strictly Todd Terry. “I had to tell myself a change is gonna come one day to this industry, to my situation,” James says, “and eventually it did. All things [happen] for a reason.”
When she put out her fifth album, Fall For You, in 2014, she also procured a spot on the reality show R&B Divas: Los Angeles, and the combination helped her enjoy a modest breakout. Fall For You‘s lead single, “Say That,” featured Anthony Hamilton — a kindred sonic spirit — and it climbed to No. 15 on the Adult R&B chart. The record’s title track, a pristine, untouchable ballad, soldiered a few spots higher, and “Set Me Free,” a thunderous piano track in the vein of CeeLo’s Grammy-winning “Fool For You,” cracked the top 10.
The clip for “Don’t Want You Back” makes a bid for continuity, opening with snippets of “Set Me Free.” But while James’ last single found her imploring an ex to give up on a relationship that had already lasted long past its expiration date, the singer is in the driver’s seat this time around — speeding into a happier situation and leaving her former partner to eat dust. A stately melody on piano and guitar moors the verses, lulling you into a false sense of security before the hook arrives with the whoosh of a slammed door: “Now you wanna try to come back, no/I will never take you back, no.”
“Don’t Want You Back” is a dishy coupling: unimpeachable classic soul frosted with the type of swinging-ax percussion that grabs young ears. It sounds easy, but only a few songs achieve this level of synthesis each year. James brushes that off. “It’s just marrying the sounds, putting an Otis Redding voice, so to speak, over a Kanye beat,” she says. “I’m always big on drums — I’m a hip-hop head. I like my beats to hit really hard.”
She’s pleased with the reception of the track. “To get a certain amount of recognition finally? It’s great,” James declares. “You gotta get back to where there’s a variety. We had that in the ’60s and ’70s. For a minute, it seemed like that disappeared.”
“I think you do see a little more variety now,” she continues. “Everybody doesn’t have to be the same type of artist to be successful.” James’ new album will benefit from an audience primed for difference. Importantly, its success will also help create more opportunities for the singers that hope to follow in her footsteps.
Leela James heads out on a nationwide tour in April. Tickets are available through James’ website.
Saturday, April 8, 2017 – Atlanta, GA @ Atlanta Symphony Hall
Sunday, April 9, 2017 – Orlando, FL @ House of Blues
Monday, April 10, 2017 – Charleston, SC @ Music Farm
Wednesday, April 12, 2017 – Annapolis, MD @ Rams Head On Stage
Thursday, April 13, 2017 – Philadelphia, PA @ Keswick
Friday, April 14, 2017 – Washington, DC @ Warner Live
Saturday, April 15, 2017 – New York, NY @ Apollo Theater
Monday, April 17, 2017 – Chicago, IL @ House of Blues
Tuesday, April 18, 2017 – Toronto, ON @ Great Hall
Wednesday, April 19, 2017 – Detroit, MI @ Motor City Casino
Thursday, April 20, 2017 – St. Louis, MO @ Ready Room
Saturday, April 22, 2017 – Houston, TX @ Arena Theatre
Sunday, April 23, 2017 – Baton Rouge, LA @ Varsity Theatre
Tuesday, April 25, 2017 – Kansas City, KS @ Madrid Theatre
Friday, April 28, 2017 – Mobile, AL @ Soul Kitchen
Saturday, April 29, 2017 – Tuscaloosa, AL @ Tuscaloosa Amphitheater
Sunday, April 30, 2017 – Dallas, TX @ House of Blues
Wednesday, May 3, 2017 – San Diego, CA @ House of Blues
Thursday, May 4, 2017 – Los Angeles, CA @ Novo
Friday, May 5, 2017 – Sacramento, CA @ Crest Theatre
Saturday, May 6, 2017 – San Francisco, CA @ Palace of Fine Arts
Sunday, May 7, 2017 – Las Vegas, NV @ House of Blues