All Eyes on Ro James

Keeping up with the Joneses is a feat all musicians have faced for decades, but it is an intensified challenge in the current age of social media. While some celebrities feel the need to crank out content to stay relevant, R&B singer Ro James has stayed focused on perfecting his game and building something he’s proud to share, no matter how long it takes. James first broke onto the scene in 2013 with Coke, Jack, and Cadillacs, a trilogy of self-released EPs that introduced the world to the singer’s rugged yet soulful musical style. Three years later, James is back with Eldorado, a label-backed album that reflects a thorough transition from boy to man.

“So not only have I grown personally since then, but I’ve grown within my words; I basically discovered my voice and what my sound is,” he explained to legendary art and culture publication Interview Magazine. The album, released under ByStorm Entertainment/RCA Records, kicks off with the anticipation-building “The Ride,” a slow, seductive tune that holds out its hand and pulls you in, eager to hear what the rest of the record holds.

The second song, “Permission,” is a change of pace; sweeter and silkier than its predecessor, the song’s pop roots hold down powerful lyrics that emphasize consent and frame it as downright sexy-something not often seen in the world of hip hop and R&B. “We wanted to have a little more finesse when it came to approaching women…We always have the aggressive route, so this time we wanted to have a little bit more finesse and a little bit more respect,” James stated in an interview with YouKnowIGotSoul, an NYC-based website dedicated to R&B. His dignified take on sensuality stood out to listeners and proved that reverence can, in fact, sell records; “Permission” peaked at #1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary Songs chart and earned James his first Grammy nomination for “Best R&B Performance.”

Perhaps the singer-songwriter’s esteem for women can be traced back to his relationship with his mom. Growing up with a strictly religious father, James recalls that it was his mother that would expose him to secular artists like Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, and even Sir Mix-a-Lot in a home restricted to gospel-only tapes and records. The influence of these mainstream artists, combined with the powerful vocal melodies of his gospel roots, can be heard on dancey tracks like “GA$.” When James’s unruly antics in school got him into trouble, his mom would ground him by forcing him to read and write, something he now sees as a big help to his songwriting abilities.

His father’s cargo in the military constantly moved the family around throughout James’s childhood, from his birthplace of Germany to New York, Hawaii, and Indiana to name a few of the places they called home. “When you go to these new places, you have to adapt to what that environment is. You go [to a place] and everybody’s not wearing Jordans, they’re wearing cowboy boots and it’s like, I want some cowboy boots too because you want to fit in,” James told Billboard. Although moving from place to place stirred confusion and even some rebellion in the artist, the variety of genres and sounds it opened him up to, such as country and rock, left a definite stamp on James that appears in the raw, bluesy guitar that carries tunes like “Everything” to Eldorado’s conclusion.

Despite his interest in singing from a young age, the artist didn’t seriously consider pursuing music until late in his adolescence. When he connected with R&B crooner Miguel through MySpace- #tbt anyone?- the friendship evolved into a writing collaboration for Miguel’s 2012 “Use Me” that then motivated James to continue working on his craft and release his three-part project the following year.  

Although he has dropped hints about future ventures with the likes of Anderson .Paak and BJ the Chicago Kid, James wanted Eldorado to give listeners a  better idea of who he is and what he’s about. “ELDORADO means the golden road; this is my first introduction to the world like, ‘Yo, everybody, I know who I am, this what my voice sounds like, this what my music sounds like, so come take this ride with me,’” he described to Interview. The mission to familiarize audiences with the more personal side of James continues in 2017; he will embark on his first headlining tour, named XIX, across 24 U.S. cities in February. He will no doubt have plenty of experience to put into action from his most recent stint opening for Maxwell and Mary J. Blige.

Fans are beyond excited to get closer to James in the spring, with one commenting on an Instagram video of his NPR Tiny Desk performance, “I can’t wait to see this live.” There was a gap between Coke, Jack, and Cadillacs and Eldorado, but it is clear that the time between was spent working and hustling by the artist to create something that truly encapsulates his talents and resourcefulness. The enthusiastic response the album has received has proved that James was right to take his time to perfect Eldorado, and it was most definitely worth the wait.

-Isabella Gomez