FORWARD has a multitude of meanings for Jordan Ward.
Visiting the Billboard office during the New York stop of his opening slot on JID and Smino’s co-headlining Luv Is 4Ever Tour, the St. Louis artist is on his second iced coffee of the day and our hour-and-a-half long conversation reflects that. Ward is excited to be discussing FORWARD, his debut album released via Interscope on Friday (March 3).
The record’s title represents the direction he’s moving in to evolve his sound and creativity. It’s also for Ward, a dedication to his family and their future and a project that he made for himself. FORWARD is also his fourth project overall — and as his debut album, acts as the foreword to his story.
Across 14 tracks, Ward tests his vocal limits as he explores themes of romantic and familial love and personal growth. “For this album, I wanted to indulge and see what world me and the homies can build, and what way we can innovate on what we’ve been doing,” he says. “These are love songs. There’s voices on the album of people who I’m talking to. I’m trying to kind of come to terms with breaking cycles of these unhealthy patterns of relationships.”
Born Jordan Alexander Ward, the 28-year-old grew up singing and dancing around his neighborhood and school. He eventually became involved in musical theater in his adolescence and joined a dance studio to train in ballet, tap, jazz and hip-hop. Throughout high school, Ward honed in on dancing, booking under-the-table gigs and teaching classes to earn extra money. At 18, he moved to Los Angeles, and in his early 20s, he began touring as a backup dancer for artists like Justin Bieber and Becky G.
“I was a young Black boy from the south side of St. Louis. First I started doing theater in the suburbs, then I started being the only Black boy at the dance competitions,” he says. “I wasn’t chasing those types of spaces, but I found a lane. I found a creative space where it was like, ‘This is my escape.’”
While dancing full-time, Ward rekindled his love for singing. Becky G encouraged him to sing, and on Bieber’s 2015 Purpose Tour, he befriended a fellow dancer and artist who inspired him to freestyle and try to make his own songs. In 2017, Ward released his first EP A Peak at the Summit, and since then, he has landed a sync placement on Issa Rae’s Insecure (for his song “Tryingthings” from 2019’s Valley Hopefuls), and signed a deal with Interscope in 2020. He is also slated to embark on a solo headlining tour in May.
Billboard spoke with Jordan Ward about FORWARD, St. Louis and adjusting to the pace of the music industry.
What’s your earliest memory of music?
I remember being in this wedding and hearing these strings and being like, “Yo, Mom. These strings sound yellow,” and she didn’t know what I was talking about. But as I grew older, I came to realize that’s synesthesia, when you hear colors in music. I do remember seeing Lauryn Hill laying around the house, the [The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill] CD, and putting that in my radio and listening to that. Being a kid, I used to listen to Radio Disney because my mom wouldn’t let me listen to the other stations.
How did you go from dancing to making music?
When I graduated high school, I moved to L.A. and started touring a little bit as a dancer. I used to dance for Becky G on and off for like three years before I started with Bieber, and Becky was like, “Jordan, just sing for me. I know you can sing” — and I’m like, “What are you talking about?!” The universe was trying to tell me.
I met Rudy, he does what’s called martial arts tricking, but he’s also a dancer. I met him on the tour, we was dancing for Justin Bieber on the Purpose Tour, and we had so much downtime so he would just be making beats and making his albums. I just got comfortable around him, freestyling. He basically helped me really get into music and I started making demos for fun. Then I was like, “D–n, I want to make a tape.” So once the tour ended it was like, “Oh s–t, I’m finna just focus on this music s–t.”
How has St. Louis influenced your sound? You collabed with Ryan Trey and you’re opening for Smino. Did those happen due to your hometown connection?
Smino, I just been a longtime fan. When I heard Smino’s music, I saw a small piece of myself in him. We connected more so on the backend, less on the mutual hometown tip. We definitely have mutuals, but we got a few people who work together on our teams and s–t, and it kinda happened organically like that. And Ryan Trey, literally, same thing. We been tapped in for a minute. I made [“WHITE CROCS”], I sent it to him and he sent it back the next day.
And St. Louis, how it influenced my song, I always like to start with gospel music. St. Louis has a really strong gospel music culture. My mom is a singer, and when I was coming up, we had like real gospel superstars doing concerts. Different choirs [came] from different churches for conferences, and I used to travel with my mom and s–t. That has a big influence, fasho’. And then musical theater. St. Louis also has a big musical theater community, that was a big influence on me as a kid and an adult.
St. Louis locally and musically was such a melting pot when I was growing up. Of course Nelly, St. Lunatics, that’s just embedded. Chuck Berry, the Father of Rock N’ Roll is from St. Louis. Maya Angelou, Michael McDonald, Donny Hathaway, jazz, ragtime. And also, its proximity to Chicago [and] Detroit. St. Louis is definitely midwest — but it’s almost the south, but I was always drawn to the midwest influence. Whenever s–t was going on, a lot of the times we had to drive to Chicago — so I was always into Ye, Common, J Dilla just that whole midwest soul sound.
I just interviewed Metro Boomin…
We went to the same high school. He was a senior when I was a junior. We probably spoke like on some random s–t, never on no music s–t.
Have you reconnected since then?
Nah. I feel like it’s gonna happen organically, you feel me? I definitely feel like for the city, that’d be hard.
How did you come up with the song titles for FORWARD? The more obscure names.
“FAMJAM4000″ [was] because that song sounds like an electric slide, and I want people to just load up when they hear that. It’s shiny like a Godd–n Cadillac. “FORFOURFORE,” because it’s for Ward, and then 4 Ward and then foreword. And then “WHITE CROCS” because I was wearing white crocs a lot, and I was in the studio and this girl was like, “I wanna come see you.” I was like, “Man, I’m in the studio, I’m in Crocs. You can come here, but I’m not…”
And then “PRICETAG/BEVERLYWOOD,” that was Lido’s song that he put me on, but it’s just about… “Since I was taken for granted/ the price of my attention has gone up.” The other half is called “BEVERLYWOOD,” because that’s about this time I had to stay in this hotel in Beverlywood because my crib had no power. I owned a condo, and the power got f–ked up for a year and we had to move out. I had to file an insurance claim, live in a hotel, and they was like, “You can either live in this hotel in Chatsworth or Beverlywood.
“DANCE MACHINE,” I like that title because in the song, I’m talking about dancing with a girl at a club on Molly — and then you realize no matter what moment y’all have, she’s not really that into you, you both just are in a moment. Also, in the song I say, “we do the same dance every other week,” like choreography. Being in your 20s, or just in life, sometimes it can feel detached and mechanical. “0495,” the first half of the song is 2004, me and my mom driving to my Godmom’s new house in North County. And the second half is inspired by being born in 1995. “CHERIMOYA” — fruit, natural love, juicy, tasty.
Have you ever had a cherimoya?
Yes! I was [eating one] in the studio when I made that.
What was your biggest challenge when making FORWARD?
Not the biggest challenge, but a challenge was finishing the songs and having to go back in on the hooks. Redoing my verse here, reimagine a song, take the idea of a song and do it three ways. I’m so emotional — I be getting so emotional in the studio. There are periods where I’m not gonna do it. I feel like you’re not a real creative if you don’t wanna quit everyday.
How do you see or categorize yourself in the music ecosystem?
I’m trying to not categorize myself anymore — not because I don’t have an opinion, I actually have strong opinions on it — but it’s exhausting, and I don’t think it’s the most important thing for me to worry about. I just like to let the music speak, and it’s not even that deep. I could get on a country beat and I’m still gonna swag on it a certain way. Not that it’s rap or I’m a rapper, but it’s like, [I] brought a new wave. That’s what hip-hop is, new wave.
When did you sign to Interscope and why was that the right fit for you?
I signed to Interscope in October 2020, and that was the right fit because it felt the most organic. I feel like I developed an organic relationship there, even on a synchronicity level. You can say I’m R&B, but I’m on Interscope — that’s hip-hop, baby!
What’s the most surprising thing you learned about the music industry now that you’re fully in it, doing press tours and so on?
Just how fast this s–t can go. Time and space, all that is the same s–t. We really four projects into this s–t. I’m seven years into this and I swear I literally feel like I’m still moving off the conversations in the back of my head from 2016. [But] no, I’m grown, that time is gone.
What are some ways you protect your energy and peace?
Meditating and just communication. I really wanna try to avoid suppressing anything. I want to get to the point where if I have a thing on my stomach or my heart, I wanna find a way to, with respect, communicate it to where we can at least agree to disagree and understand. And sometimes it don’t even be that deep; I’m just really emotional. I hate feeling like I’m being mean to somebody or I’m being an a–hole or I’m being this or I’m being that. But you can’t be an a–hole to yourself either.