I BECAME a fan of Ro James about a year ago, when his sensual slow jam “A.D.I.D.A.S.” (which stands for “All Day I Dream about Sexing [you]”) popped up on my Spotify Discover Weekly playlist. It’s almost absurdly steamy, incorporating sweet falsetto vocals that remind me of the desperate confessional tone of an unfaithful Usher or the temperament of Boys II Men. The five-minute track concludes with emotive riffs and a long, whining guitar solo. Other highlights from James’ short catalog include “’84,” featuring Snoop Dogg, and the wildly popular “Permission,” which earned him a 2017 Grammy nod for Best R&B Performance—rightfully so, as it’s one of the sexiest songs you’ll probably ever hear about consent.
Born Ronnie James Tucker in Stuttgart, Germany, the singer/songwriter has lived in several states including Oklahoma, Hawaii, Indiana, and, for the past 12 years, New York. But this week he’ll come to Portland for the first date of his first US headlining tour, which supports last year’s soulful full-length Eldorado.
Though he hit his stride over the past three years, James has known his purpose for a while. He grew up the son of a preacher and had a bunch of musicians as role models, including his aunt Rosie Gaines, who used to sing for Prince.
“I grew up with so many amazing singers in my family, and also a lot of people around me that I looked up to,” James says. “I felt like I had to be amazing, too.”
Now that he’s about to embark on his first-ever headlining tour, it’s hard to believe that James used to have stage fright.
“I never had vocal coaching or vocal training, so it’s all been just ability and just learning on my own and figuring it out,” he says. “So you know, that came over time: figuring it out, cracking, hitting wrong notes. And with that just came the confidence.”
Since James and his brilliant voice are representing the new generation of genre-melting R&B, I asked him whether music should center on political and socially conscious themes or serve as feel-good escapism now that we’re living in the Trump era.
“I feel like it should be all of those things,” James says. “I’m not gonna say that we need more politics in music—I feel like people need to be more honest and say what your feeling is. If you’re bothered on something, speak on it. Music is supposed to be expression, and I feel like what we need most in music right now is love. I don’t think that people talk about love and connecting to your feelings. Yes, I do agree with the conscious as well, because that taps into love; that taps into knowing who you are and speaking positive messages, or at least speaking from a true place so that people can feel it.”
Speaking of feelings, Eldorado gets vulnerable on tracks like “Last Cigarette,” a tweaked version of “A.D.I.D.A.S.,” “Everything,” and “Holy Water.” All are master-class examples of how to sing with soul, sensitivity, and dynamism. James says “Holy Water” is one of his favorite songs to rehearse at the moment.
“Cause you know, it’s like a new year,” he says. “It’s like you’re reflecting on the past year and what you’ve been through, your mistakes and all your blessings at the same time.”
It’s one of my favorite tracks, too, perhaps because it blends James’ rich, velvety voice with triumphant melodies and classic pop-rock production. Plus, I love that hopeful chorus: “When the rain gets to falling/It’s coming down on me/Feels like the weight of the world/Was blind but now I see/That it’s just holy water/It reminds me not to lose my soul.”
“I went through a lot of things this past year but also had a lot of blessings, a lot of positivity and positive things: growth career-wise, and a Grammy nomination!” James says. “You know, and in spite of whatever negative things are going on, positive things kept happening to encourage me to keep going. And that’s kind of what ‘Holy Water’ is for me.”
Now that Eldorado is out, James is ready for the next phase of his career to take off, and the opportunity to get closer to his fans.
“I love being in the studio and creating and being away from people and, you know, experimenting with my voice and sounds,” he says. “But I also enjoy being on stage, ’cause you get to actually see people’s responses and see how they relate to what you’re saying.”
After touring, James plans to work on a new EP and another full-length, try his hand at acting, collaborate with other artists, and even create a clothing line.
“Just expanding the brand and letting people know exactly why I’m here,” James says. “At this stage of my career I would describe it as: right before the liftoff.”