It’s August 2021 and Leela James is sitting comfortably at the third spot on Billboard and Media Base’s top 10 airplay R&B charts. Her soul-stirring single, “Complicated,” has maintained a hold on said charts since mid-summer and with an almost certain No. 1 position in her near future, it’s a moment worthy of a bottle of Cristal. A round of bottle poppin’ may be in her sights, but it’s hardly time to lose focus for a night of pleasure. Having braved the pandemic and then recording perhaps her most complete project yet, James has cities to please and crowds to engage. In fact, as she preps for the release of her seventh studio album, See Me, the immensely talented vocalist still has something to prove.
The title track and album are self-explanatory sentiments for the R&B veteran, who’s been belting her unique vocal cords over radio waves since 2005. For whatever reason, she’s flown under the radar, but it’s about damn time she reintroduced herself.
“It was the last song we recorded for the project,” she says of the title track, which might serve as a subtle reminder of the unbreakable spirit 2Pac exhibited on his bestselling album, All Eyez On Me, featuring the 1996 ditty “Can’t C Me.”
Similarities aside, James’ desire to be recognized is real and comes through loud and clear, in speech and in song. “I just would like you to get to see me. I mean, I’m here, I’ve been here been making music and there’s a good body of work. I’m an artist and I feel like I deserve to be seen and heard. Just like so many artists, I feel … are out there and sometimes are just, you know … we’re overlooked.”
As one might imagine, James’ singing exploits weren’t always underappreciated. She was in the eighth grade when she realized she had the extraordinary gift that rests within. She’d always been told she had a big voice, but didn’t pay it much mind. After all, she couldn’t hear what others heard. Her speaking voice was the polar opposite of the God-given sonic expressions she effortlessly emitted from her soul. However, as choir directors, deacons, ushers and mothers of the church all insisted how special she was, James soon understood and accepted her superpower within.
That understanding came full circle when she was on tour with the legendary James Brown, who took a special liking to the young songstress. He was so impressed that he ultimately anointed her “The Goddaughter of Soul.” While she’ll admit to cutting a rug or two in Brown’s presence, it was clearly her voice that called her to his attention and created the moment of a lifetime.
“It was a dope moment,” James recalls. “We [were] overseas … on tour, where I was able to open up for him, and watching him [on] stage, and seeing how great he was. Then [to] be able to, actually have a conversation with him — a legend at that time, and still is — it was such an out-of-body experience. And for him to ‘see me’…. he was like, ‘Hey, yo, you got [it]! You got that stuff.’ I was like, ‘OK.’
“That’s all I needed, because he was the best. So it’s like … to basically be embraced by a person that you know, or people that you perceive as the best and the greatest, yeah, you feel good.”
The Godfather of Soul would be proud to see his protégé dominating radio, as her intoxicating single maintained the No. 1 spot on the Billboard and Mediabase Adult R&B airplay charts for three consecutive weeks in September. With no signs of slowing down, James recently served up another version of “Complicated” that includes the equally harmonious vocals of Anthony Hamilton. It’s the original though, that captured the ears of the masses. With its rich vocals and James’ storytelling efforts, the Rex Rideout-produced track was destined for greatness. And that climb to No. 1 is a well-deserved feat for an artist who deserves it after such an arduous journey.
“It feels good,” she says of her smash hit. “If I had a collar, I would pop it (laughs). It feels nice. You know, when you work on music, and you go through some of the things I’ve been through, just even [to] get the music out … and just to be heard — blood, sweat and literally tears — clawing and scraping, and clawing and scraping again. … It’s like, ‘Damn, how much more I got to go through?’ It definitely feels good to chart high.”
With little to no signs of slowing down, James will, no doubt, encounter arbitrary promoters begging her to fill some arbitrary venue with people who are dying to feel normal again.
“I definitely feel like this body of work can serve as therapy to people because it started as therapy to me,” she discloses. “I’m no different from the next [person]. We all have a lot of the same emotions, I’m sure. If you’re a human person, I feel like the music can definitely be therapeutic.”
Images by Antonio Dixon Photography