In 2011, the R&B artist Luke James released his mixtape #Luke, which earned him a Grammy nomination.
Two years later, James was jetting across the world as Beyoncé’s opening act of the European leg of her Mrs. Carter Show world tour. In 2014, he released his self-titled debut album, and he received another Grammy nomination, for Best R&B Song with the track “Options.”
James was clearly on the fast track to establish himself as one of the greats of his generation—and then he put it all aside.
But to hear him tell it, he didn’t have much of a choice.
“In that hiatus, I was in a not-so-loving place,” he says. “It wasn’t exactly a decision of taking a break. It was more of where life was taking me. I was looking for new inspiration.”
James’s second studio album To Feel Love/d, released last month, was six years in the making and marks a formative shift for the artist. From going independent to developing a sense of creative fearlessness through acting (Little, Star, The Chi), James’s journey has illuminated cracks in the major label system and has given him a new perspective to figure out the great question of any creative: What do I want to say?
Phase one: Finding his way as a rising-star musical talent
Born in New Orleans, James started in the R&B trio Upskale that got bumped down to the duo Luke & Q when he moved out of Los Angeles. James and bandmate Quinten Spears were signed to Clive Davis’s J Records, which released their single “My Turn.” However, the duo eventually split.
While James was developing his own sound as an artist, he was penning songs for the likes of Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, and Chris Brown. After he released his first mixtape, #Luke, his solo career began to take off, including a new record contract with Island Records, which supported his 2014 debut studio album. Although Luke James was received well, James couldn’t say the same for his experience with the label.
“At the time I was signed, I wasn’t exactly on their radar,” James says. “With music being part of my identity I was feeling like I wasn’t being received. I’m knocking on a door that’s not being answered, trying to get in. Being in that weird place pushed me to try something I was scared of: auditioning.”
Phase two: Luke James, actor
James made his acting debut in the 2013 musical drama Black Nativity, but really started to hone his craft after starring as Johnny Gill in BET’s 2017 miniseries The New Edition Story. That helped springboard him into even bigger TV and film roles, including Little, Star, and The Chi.
“When that opportunity (The New Edition Story) fell into my lap, it just made sense to pursue it as strongly as possible,” he says. “It gave me a new perspective on everything—on life, on how to tell stories creatively, and how to just enjoy where you are—the ups and downs. And having that perspective inspired me musically.”
Phase three: turning inspiration into a new musical direction
But that inspiration wouldn’t manifest within the traditional label system. As James found himself at a crossroads with his music career, he linked up with industry veteran Jonathan Azu, cofounder of Bonnaroo and former EVP of Superfly, to help manage his relationship with the label.
“One of the challenges we had when he was on the major labels was, ‘Well, we just gotta wait until he’s done with acting and then we’ll invest money and time into it,’” Azu says. “Versus saying, ‘How do we strategically work with his film and television career to make sure that we can get music out in a way that’s impactful?’”
So when Azu created his own management company, Culture Collective, he brought James on as an independent artist and began working out a more flexible solution.
“There’s a lot that has to change [at major labels]—not just the school [of] thought, but also actual business practices to be able to embrace these artists that are multifaceted, multitalented,” Azu says. “I’m a manager, but really I’m a strategist and a marketer. It’s like figuring out different ways in which the product could come to life. So it requires real thought.”
Part of that equation for both Azu and James has been telling a cohesive story with everything they put out.
“We’re living in this consumption game where it’s all about consumption. It’s all about the stream. And that’s important. But you can’t forget about the totality of what an artist is trying to communicate to their fans and building their own brand,” Azu says. “We just live in a world where it’s just about that one song, and if that one song doesn’t work, we’ll just put out another song. There’s no connective tissue. There’s no story arc. How do you build a career out of that?”
The solution: to allow James to have his artistic freedom but with the distribution might of a major label. Culture Collective recently partnered with Ingrooves Music Group, an indie marketing and distribution arm of Universal Music Group. Culture Collective, which also represents Anita Baker and former Destiny’s Child member Michelle Williams, has its own pipeline into the distribution network of all major streaming services through its partnership with Ingrooves, as well as marketing support around the launch of a project.
James’s To Feel Love/d was the inaugural album of Culture Collective’s partnership—not to mention a new creative mind-set only a six-year hiatus could bring.
“I’ve really had to get to a place of whatever it is I want to say, it’s okay to say it,” James says. “On my hiatus, I spent time working past the PTSD of ‘I gotta write a hit!’ I had to create a lot of music that sounded like a hit to get to a place where I don’t know if it’s a hit, but I feel good. It makes me feel something. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know where this plays. I don’t know where this lives. But what I do know is, I feel good. That’s what this music is.”
As for how that meshes with James’s career in acting, Azu says he and James “spend more time talking about Will Smith and Donald Glover than we do just R&B artists,” in terms of how to shape James’s career.
That said, James is proceeding with caution with his newfound flexibility and freedom outside the walls of a major label. “As an artist, I felt rushed in my development, so I’m taking my time in finding the thing that really speaks to me, rather than just taking on a project to get money,” he says. “I really want to be a part of something that means something 62 years down the line—something that is fulfilling, and not just ‘cool.’”