Ro James - Eldorado (2016)

Ro James
ro_james_eldorado.jpg
Click on CD cover
to listen or purchase

Named the “New Bad Boy of R&B” by Billboard or the RCA marketing machine - one can never be sure which came first - Ro James’s major label debut is actually quite tame by the cold, Nietzschean dirges parading as radio R&B today. While James achieved his aim of not delivering a “soft” album, its sometime romantic yearnings and relationship adorations aren’t exactly DMX set to music either. What immediately hits you upon a first listen are James’s more obvious influences, especially on radio singles like “Permission.” And, while you hear Prince, D’Angelo, Miguel (a collaborator of his), and even little Keith Sweat in James’s uniquely soulful concoction of crooning, whining, sing-talking, howling, and the occasional gospel riff, Ro James is still his own artist.

Named the “New Bad Boy of R&B” by Billboard or the RCA marketing machine - one can never be sure which came first - Ro James’s major label debut is actually quite tame by the cold, Nietzschean dirges parading as radio R&B today. While James achieved his aim of not delivering a “soft” album, its sometime romantic yearnings and relationship adorations aren’t exactly DMX set to music either. What immediately hits you upon a first listen are James’s more obvious influences, especially on radio singles like “Permission.” And, while you hear Prince, D’Angelo, Miguel (a collaborator of his), and even little Keith Sweat in James’s uniquely soulful concoction of crooning, whining, sing-talking, howling, and the occasional gospel riff, Ro James is still his own artist. He might not make the traditional “Grown & Sexy” crowd set list, but mature listeners shouldn’t too readily dismiss him as another Chris Brown, Trey Songz, or even Ty Dolla Sign, if they even know whom the latter is. There is some real musicianship to be found throughout El Dorado and more than a handful of catchy melodies who suffer only a smidge through one too many choral refrains.       

What aspects are consistent with Ro James’s sound and those of his peers are a preference for mood and atmosphere over almost anything else, and an over-reliance on technology despite possessing a voice that appears solid enough to stand tall on its own. The shiny El Dorado is very hooky, almost to a fault, painted in indigos, silvers, and black nightscapes, and, in its frequent experimentations, sometimes heavy-handed with deconstructing traditional song structures. What rescues it from the meandering of The Weeknd or the avant-garde obscurities of too many to name in the underground electrosoul crowd is that Ro James’s melodies largely hold up and his choruses stick to you, even when you don’t want them to.

A hybrid artist with a rock, soul, hip hop and gospel blend, it is Ro James’s sensuality and familiar vocal influences that provide a doorway for older generations to enter an edgy sound often dismissed as young and unmusical. Unlike D’Angelo, whom one hears on songs like “Ride,” James has very clear diction and is lyrically more discernible without liner notes than that Gen X genius. Like Prince, who one undeniably vocally hears on “Permission” and “Burn Slow,” electric guitar features prominently throughout the project, garnering an orgasmic instrumental solo on the sensual ballad “A.D.I.D.A.S. (All Day I).” Both artists' easy incorporation of sex talk and the occasional expletive are definitely on deck, and reflective of a long line of male artists rebelling against strict church upbringings like what has been reported of this military brat preacher’s son. But, there is an airiness to the way James uses such language that for some reason here lacks any provocativeness or crude lewdness. For some reason, James manages to get away with it in ways that are often otherwise considered abrasive and gratuitous for many artists of his generation. In a humorous line, James references Marvin Gaye on the jingly “Already Knew That” and there’s something in his sincerity, playfulness, and raw vulnerability masquerading as confidence that makes the intimacy overloads acceptable, much like the sexiest of Gaye. Ultimately, it’s on songs like “El Dorado,” where all those individual vocal and musical influences fade away and the culmination of their sound makes one fresh, new raw vocalist who has something to say in his own streetwise way.

There’s also a bit of old school romance and relationship yearnings playing underneath the sonic bravado of El Dorado in the lyrical testimonials of “New Religion” and searing love cries of “Everything"; even silly lyrical throwaways like “Last Cigarette” are partner celebrations. Again, these traditionalist lover themes belie the ill-fitting moniker of the marketed “New Bad Boy of R&B.” James’s musical brand is more aligned with artists like Gene Nobel and Anderson.Paak, where the musical hybridity, frank honesty, and vocal ease are more stars than these artists’ occasional nods to dark themes. The exemplary guitar work, vocal consistency, strong melody lines, and unique blend of old and new collectively deliver a rock solid debut from a young artist whose early, gimmicky EPs (Coke, Jack, and Cadillacs) were critically-acclaimed but pale in comparison. El Dorado’s bolder, more naked step forward harkens a shimmering, soulful future of fine, (and what we hope to be) more truthfully packaged material we’re eager to hear for years to come. Highly Recommended.

By L. Michael Gipson

 

Leave a comment!