What do Romeo Santos‘ “Odio,” Nelly‘s “Just a Dream,” and Beyonce‘s “Sweet Dreams” have in common? First, they’re all hits: “Odio” went to No. 1 on Hot Latin Songs; “Just a Dream” spent 28 weeks on the Hot 100, reaching No. 3; “Sweet Dreams” had a 24-week Hot 100 run, peaking at No. 10. But success isn’t the only common ingredient connecting these tracks: All three came together with help from the multi-talented Rico Love.
In a rapidly evolving pop landscape, the hitmaker reigns supreme, and Love has proven his ability to create a smash. He’s a quadruple-threat, able to write, produce, sing or rap. There is a long and venerable tradition in black pop that includes figures like Smokey Robinson, Luther Vandross and Babyface — artists who are at ease creating undeniable songs for others, but are also admired for their solo careers. Love is trying to follow in these men’s footsteps. He released his first solo EP, Discrete Luxury, in 2013, and his debut full-length, Turn the Lights On, is due later this year.
Love didn’t always plan to be a songwriter. In fact, Usher originally signed him as a rapper on his US records imprint. As a young artist in a hyper-competitive market, Love came to his boss looking for money. Instead of a one-time infusion of cash, Usher — who admitted he loves to mentor in a recent Billboard cover story — gave the youthful rapper a shot at a steady stream of income through songwriting. Love helped compose “Throwback,” the third track on Usher’s Confessions album.
What’s a rapper doing writing songs for an R&B singer? “It’s just a gift that I didn’t realize that I had,” Love tells Billboard. “It’s like a guy who’s 7 feet tall and he doesn’t realize he can dunk. Someone shows him, ‘Look, just put the ball up there and jump a little bit.'”
After “Throwback,” Love “started working harder and got a lot of different records out” — for Fergie, Beyonce, Pleasure P, Chris Brown and others. Around 2010, he noticed that his songwriting process began to change. “I wrote ‘Mr. Wrong’ for Mary [J. Blige], I wrote ‘4 AM‘ for Melanie Fiona, and I wrote ‘Heart Attack‘ for Trey Songz around the same time,” he remembers. “All of those songs were about me,” he adds. “I had never done that before — most of my songs aren’t autobiographical, it’s just me putting myself in the shoes of other people. But then songs just started being honest to me, and I felt like maybe something is happening here.”
In 2013, Love released the Discrete Luxury EP under his own name, announcing his return as a solo act. The EP’s single, “They Don’t Know,” started to climbed the charts last year, peaking at No. 13 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. Male R&B in 2014 was dominated by a slinky, sexually-frank sound — tracks like Ty Dolla $ign‘s “Paranoid” and Trey Songz’ “Touchin’ Lovin’” — and Love takes a cool, understated approach to the style. “They Don’t Know” builds around call-and-response, as each of Love’s boasts about a secret relationship is greeted with cooed repetition of the title phrase. The track doubled as a declaration of purpose for a behind-the-scenes player stepping into the spotlight. If you don’t know about me now, Love seemed to say, you will soon.
Earlier this week, Love put out the video for “Somebody Else,” the first taste of his upcoming full-length. “Somebody Else” displays his remorseful side — he messed up a relationship and now he’s hurting. Love never interacts with the other woman in the video, and this ambiguity excites him. “Are they not acknowledging each other?” he asks. “Are they figments of each other’s imagination? Am I there and she’s not really there?” He offers no answers, but suggests that the song provides the key to Turn The Lights On — “the rest of the album is explaining what steps were taken in losing this girl to somebody else.”
Love is eagerly anticipating May 19, the day Turn the Lights On is set for release. A few guests will appear on the album — he mentions Action Bronson, Monica and Raekwon. Sought-after producers DJ Dahi and Danja also contribute.
“I believe that black artists can sell millions,” Love tells Billboard. “It’s up to us to make songs of substance [and] to connect to the listeners in a way that isn’t so typical. I feel like we all party and talk about the same thing on every record. And so many artists are just stuck in this little BPM thing, and they’re trying to keep up with what’s going on at radio instead of connecting to people.”
Love trusts that his experiences in all aspects of the music industry will allow him to avoid that trap. “The journey of writing records and producing songs was how I discovered who I am — as a person and as an artist and as a man,” he says. “That’s what brought me full circle back to the artistry. It was calling me.”