I’ve always wanted to make sure that my fans, and fans of soul music, feel cared for — comforted and loved. I accept being a voice of and for the people. I’ve been told that songs like [2004’s] “Charlene” are embedded in people’s hearts. That might seem like a lot, but it doesn’t bother me. I’m okay with people saying that about my music. Ultimately, I am my brother’s keeper.
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As far as right now is concerned, it’s all about helping people heal and keeping their heads together. I feel like my “Quarantine at Home” performances helped people out because they were refreshing and peaceful. The intimacy of performing at home created a sense of real purity. I’m at home, and they’re at home; we’re comfortable. The elevated sense of vulnerability made me feel like I was hand-delivering messages of positivity that sank in deeply with listeners. Like Uber Eats, but with music!
Many of the songs I’ve written have deeper meanings now. [2011’s] “Life Has a Way” suddenly means a lot more. Here we are in a place where arrogance is outweighing love in our universe. In return, life, God, and the universe had to humble mankind down. “So you thought you knew everything,” life’s saying to us. “You thought there wasn’t room to grow.” Well, life has a way of humbling you down. That song is really resonating. Songs bring life to circumstances, and circumstances bring new life to songs. They work hand in hand that way.
I sound like the heritage of our ancestors. The Black church in the ’60s South. Man, I sound like an old whiskey barrel, or somebody playing a rusty bass while wearing hard-bottomed shoes.
As far as my new material, “Back Together,” working on a song that has the vocals from “Mr. Superfreak” himself, Rick James, actually allows me to showcase much more of my talent. I changed my voice to fit the big, open-chested Rick James vocal. I’ve learned how to use many voices in my career. There’s that one, there’s [Earth, Wind &Fire vocalist] Philip Bailey’s falsetto, Bill Withers’ “chest-head” voice, the “chest-chest” voice of Teddy Pendergrass, so many. Every time I can use another one of these voices, it showcases another side of me.
Any time I’m working with or inspired by the greats, I want to do them justice. I try to take their songs and styles and make them a part of myself, without damaging their legacy. When Al Green and I partnered for “You’ve Got the Love I Need” [in 2009], I sang my tail off to make sure that Al Green was proud of me! When I was asked to work on that one, I was surprised. Al’s more of a freestyler, just like I am. This is Al Green; he doesn’t need my help! It was a great time. He’s one of my favorites, hands down. We worked together in the studio, singing off each other’s lead. He had a mic, and I had a mic. It was old school. I was like, this is it!
That’s why it was actually an honor and a compliment when Jill Scott and Erykah Badu — two artists I consider as peers — mentioned my “old-ass voice” during their Verzuz battle. I know my voice, though! They’re not wrong; I sound like the heritage of our ancestors. The Black church in the ’60s South. Man, I sound like an old whiskey barrel, or somebody playing a rusty bass while wearing hard-bottomed shoes.
Overall, people love it when they hear everything that a soulful, passionate, and loving Black voice can do. It’s an undeniable feeling.
As told to Marcus K. Dowling