In 2013, Luke James' "I Want You" was nominated for a Grammy in the Best R&B performance
category. Every one of James' fellow nominees, Usher, Miguel, Estelle, Robert Glasper and
Ledisi, had already released albums. On top of that, Usher and Estelle had already won Grammy's;
Miguel and Ledisi had previously been nominated. James, an underdog with a handful of singles
and a couple mixtapes, was suddenly in the big leagues.That was the moment when "everything
started coming together," says James, whose self-titled debut album comes out Tuesday, Sept. 23.
On Luke James, the singer nods towards current trends -- the piano figure in "The Run," for example,
evokes DJ Mustard -- but he's not beholden to them. At a time when a lot of hits are uptempo, James
is willing to start his album with a string of ballads and mid-tempo tracks. He's a strong singer with
a knack for soaring through his hooks, and he makes deft use of short interludes to help weave everything
Growing up in New Orleans, James always knew he wanted to be an entertainer, but he wasn't sure
which kind. He was "surrounded by music. Everything, the whole city, works off of music." First he took
up the sax, focusing on jazz. Then, he says, "I got to middle school and peer pressure hit me and I
realized that it wasn't cool -- the girls didn't really dig the dude that could play the sax. So I kind of went
to a place where I thought the girls really dug." That place was singing. After high school, James moved
from New Orleans to L.A. and began singing backup for a couple of artists (including Tyrese). He started
meeting different producers and networking; he also got a publishing deal, which he says "solidifies you
a little bit." He fell in with the producer Danja, who James refers to as the Quincy Jones to his Michael
Jackson. (Danja has worked with Trey Songz, Britney Spears, Ciara, among others.) James started
writing songs for singers like Chris Brown and Justin Bieber. "I kind of used that road as a way of helping
me find myself," says James, "finding what I want to say and what type of artist do I want to be."
When James got acknowledged by the GRAMMY's, it seemed like what he wanted to say was now what
other people wanted to hear. Funny enough, it took a while for the singer to find out about his nomination.
He had an album listening party to go to on the night that nominations are made public. "I was late, like
I’m always late to stuff," he says. "My phone was buzzing," but "I really wasn’t trying to answer it, 'cause
I felt like it was somebody wondering where I was." Eventually, he took a look at his phone, ready to find
a bunch of nagging texts telling him to hurry up.
Instead, he found a lot of people telling him he'd made thecut and would be considered for a Grammy
award. "I got to the party," James explains, and "everybody's at this party -- John Legend, Miley Cyrus...
I walked through the door and John Legend yells, 'ladies and gentlemen, Grammy-nominated Luke
James is in the building!'" James call this "a pure wave I wasn't ready to ride." But that might just be
modesty -- he sounds confident on Luke James. Take "Expose (Wait A Minute)," a powerful song
with a gliding '80s beat. "I wear my heart on my sleeve, what you think about that?" sings James.
"I wear it where you can see, what you think about that?"