tommy brown in the studio

Views From The Studio With... Producer Tommy Brown

Producer Tommy Brown shares his success behind the boards in the latest installment of VIBE's “Views From The Studio" series

Tommy Brown shares his success behind the boards in the latest installment of our semi-monthly series on songwriters and producers called “Views From The Studio"

Tommy Brown's resume is as insanely long as the police chase scene in the comedy-action flick Blues Brothers 2000. The producer-extraordinaire has constructed soundscapes for artists from Ariana Grande (My Everything) to G.O.O.D. Music ("Sin City"), showcasing his versatility as a beatsmith.

Before dipping his toe into the industry, working with Gorilla Zoe and 2 Chainz, the Pittsburgh native packed his bags and moved to Atlanta, Ga., where he sold beats for $100 a pop. Mix in a heavy amount of persistence and dedication and the "Trippin' On Me" artist worked his way into booths alongside big names. "I don’t know who the biggest artist [I've worked with] is because I like to look at all artists as equals," he tells VIBE. "If it’s Big Sean, Ariana or Eminem calling me, I just want to give them the best record possible."

In the second installment of VIBE's Views From The Studio series, Brown details his rise to fame as a producer, his most intense moment in the studio and his plans for rolling out his forthcoming album To Be Honest.

VIBE: How’d you get your start in production?
Tommy Brown: I got my start by actually lying about making beats when I was 15 years old. Then I had to go to a class where I actually had to make beats when somebody was like, 'Yo, let me hear you make a beat.' I kind of had to teach myself how to do it.

Do you remember the first beat you made?
I had to be 15 or 16. I used this scary movie theme, I think it was the music for Jason I used to make my first beat. I thought it was pretty jamming back then.

Did you grow up playing any instruments?
No, I would say my instrument is the MPC. I know it’s not considered an instrument, but I started playing around at 16.

When did you know producing would be your career?
One day, I moved to Atlanta. I just woke up, had a couple of dollars saved up and I was like, 'I’m packing up and I’m going to Atlanta.' I went there, stayed with a friend for a while and got my own place but I was like, 'All I’m going to do is music.' I just started off selling $100 beats and then I moved up to actually working with artists and I’m still in shock that [I'm still doing this].

Who was the first artist to give you your big break?
I got my first placement with Gorilla Zoe and 2 Chainz. It was around the same time. Gorilla Zoe and 2 Chainz both were showing me a lot of love. When Gorilla Zoe was dropping his single, I would be in the promo van. I [also] remember when 2 Chainz introduced me to Rick Ross. Those were the two guys that were pretty influential in the beginning of everything.

Where does the inspiration for a beat come from?
It all starts from chords or a cool sound and a melody, and bringing it all together. A lot of people put too many sounds in the beat and don’t leave room for melody. To me, melody is one of the most important parts.

There’s writer’s block, but have you ever experienced producer’s block?
Sometimes, but I have so many dope people around me that I produce and I work with because I have a big house where everybody stays and we all build off of each other creatively. If one person is not into it, maybe he comes up with the chords and I come up with the melody, or vice versa.

Can you describe the most intense moment you had in the studio with an artist?
When I first went to work with Machine Gun Kelly. They gave me a call to come down and work with him, and I didn’t know what his plans were but I get to the studio and he’s flipping out like, 'I got all these people here. I got songs to do and who is this? There’s too many people in here.' Two days later, he came to the studio and we all talked about it. It was kind of a long day. I sat down on the piano and we did his single that drops in the next two weeks. It’s a huge song.

What makes your sound different?
I always want to do stuff differently. It doesn’t necessarily have to be better, just different. I’m not in a battle to challenge who could have the best sound, but I think what you do is build with your team and everybody has something specific that they do, and we mesh all that stuff together to make something great. It doesn’t always just have to be a solo deal.

What are your thoughts on production today?
I think there are successful people in all genres of music. Sometimes, I wish people would challenge what they were doing more to make it great, but music is just different now. It’s so quick. I think it’s in a good place for me to come in and take over.

How do you plan to stand out?
I think more producers are going to be here and less beatmakers. It’s definitely a difference. Back in the day, you would have one or two producers producing an album. It’s not like, 'Let’s go open this email from 60 people who made a beat and pick the best 10.' I think it’s going to go back [to that] because if you look now, those are the albums that do the biggest. The albums that have producers producing and not just, 'Let’s go and do something for the club.'

You’ve went platinum a number of times from working with artists like Ariana Grande and Chris Brown, but has there ever been a song you produced that you felt should’ve been biffer?
A song that I feel didn’t get the biggest recognition would probably be T.I.’s “New National Anthem.” I feel like there’s huge hooks, Skylar Gray is on there and the song was so great, but I don’t feel like it got put to the place that it needed to be to be the great record it should’ve been.

You've dabbled in all types of genres. Is there one where creating sounds comes easiest?
What comes easiest to me is actually doing real songs. I don’t want to necessarily give it a genre, but I feel like it takes me longer to do a gimmicky record than it would to sit down on a piano and do something for Ariana. "My Everything" was a record that took maybe an hour, which was her album title and used for the Stand Up To Cancer charity. It was a huge moment for her.

Now that you’re putting your vocals out there, how do you approach the tracks you create? Are you more meticulous on how a certain beat sounds when paired with your voice versus creating something for another artist?
I’ve always been a songwriter but I feel like I’ve developed a particular sound for myself, building with the people who I have in-house. I have one guy who does sounds like a sample, whether it’s '60s, '70s, Beatles or Take 6. There’s another guy whose tracks are so crazy and when you put it all together, it's just a sound that nobody has. "Trippin' On Me" was the first [song] to get the attention everywhere. I feel like what's coming is going to be really fresh.

Which do you find most challenging: songwriting or producing?
I think it’s where you’re pulling the vibe from at the time because there are songs like “Trippin' On Me” that I produced and wrote in an hour. Then there are other songs that may take a month to write. There’s a song that I did that took a month and half to write. The next song I’m putting out is called “Killers.” I was writing this song and then went to New York during the time the Eric Garner case and all the protests were going on. I went down to the protests to actually see what it was like to build up what I needed to say on this record.

Do you have a new project coming out that fans can look forward to?
The album that I’m doing is called To Be Honest because I feel like that’s what we lack a lot of times. It’s a lot of relationship-based stuff. I’m shooting videos now and we’re getting the whole layout together. Within the month, we’re probably going to put these videos and songs out. It’s some really cool people that I’m working with, even artists that are already involved. I think it’s going to be really cool and unexpected.

Where do you see yourself in the next 10 years?
Hopefully on a boat somewhere. (Laughs) I would love to actually be one of the fresh new CEOs of one of these labels because I feel I have a lot of ideas, a lot of visions for artists and new artists, and just a great ear.

What’s next for Tommy Brown?
I’m just focused on putting this album out. There were a couple of situations that were offered, but I wanted to wait and see what I want to do before I jump out the window.

Photo Credit: Emmai Alaquiva

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6 Pop Culture Tributes In Normani's Jam-Packed "Motivation" Video

Since its release this morning at midnight (Aug. 16), Normani has been the name on everybody's lips. The former Fifth Harmony member dropped a video for her latest single, "Motivation," which shows off the 23-year-old's incredible dance moves and also pleasantly pays homage to some of our favorite visuals and pop-culture moments from the 2000s.

"Motivation" was produced by ILYA, and Normani revealed that Ariana Grande was one of the song's co-writers. The video was directed by Daniel Russell and Dave Meyers, who is as iconic (and throwback) as it gets. Take a look at a few moments the video pays homage to below.


106 & Park (0:00- 0:29)

BET's music countdown show is the basis for the visual. A teenage girl is shown running into her living room, and she is eager to see if one of her favorite music videos will be shown. To her delight, Terrence J and Rocsi announce that Normani's video will be playing.

Beyonce, "Crazy In Love" (0:30-0:42 and 2:43-3:08)

A given considering Normani's vocal appreciation of the Queen Bey. To start the video within the video, 'Mani is seen strutting down the street a la 'Crazy In Love' with denim bottoms and a white tank, serving us life on a silver platter.

She also served us sexy choreography in the rain, a likely homage to Bey's iconic video. The bedazzled outfit screamed 2000s, but there was no denying there was Bey influence for the scene.

Ciara, "1, 2 Step" And/Or Ashanti, "Happy" (0:45- throughout)

Normani storms into this scene with energy, which prompts everyone else to get in formation and dance with her, reminiscent of when Ciara showed us how to 1,2 Step. Much like in the homage, everyone rallies behind CiCi to have some fun.

This could also be an homage to Ashanti's "Happy." Videos in the 2000s were clearly all about dancing in front of houses, and with the synchronization of both groups of dancers, we could also lean towards Ashanti being a definite inspiration.

Jennifer Lopez Feat. Ja Rule, "I'm Real (Remix)" (1:42-2:13)

The 2000s were all about the basketball court too, and "Motivation" screams "I'm Real." The OG video features J. Lo and Ja playfully canoodling on the court, which is also what we see during Normani's take on the hit.

Britney Spears, "...Baby One More Time" (1:54- 2:05)

You can't deny that this particular scene has Brit Brit written all over it. The Louisiana native, who is a former dancer and gymnast, pulled out all the stops in her debut music video. Normani (a fellow Louisiana girl as well as a dancer and gymnast) pays homage in a very loaded way.

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Katherine Bomboy / Bleecker Street

The Devastation Of Delayed Justice And The Necessary Timing Of 'Brian Banks'

Anger is nothing but clouded judgment, and Aldis Hodge wants me to be clear on that. It’s a pleasant June afternoon and before the actor departs from the East Coast for his next film project, we’re chatting over the phone about the particulars of the infamous Brock Turner case. In 2015, the former Stanford University student, then 19, was caught sexually assaulting an unconscious 22-year-old woman behind a campus dumpster after a frat party. At the time of sentencing for his deplorable crime, his father wrote a letter to the judge presiding over the case, begging for a more lenient sentence than the prosecutor’s requested six years because “that is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.”

To say Hodge felt certain things when the judge okayed a gentler sentencing—Turner was given six months in Santa Clara County Jail but was released after three—would be an understatement. Like many with sense and empathy considered it, the meager “consequence” for his actions was a spit in the face.

“The judicial system failed that woman,” Hodge says sternly. “When [Turner] gets let off with a slap on the wrist for three months, then I have to question how does the judicial system look at the value of women. They're saying, ‘his life will be severely impacted if he's in jail.’ I'm sorry, it's supposed to be. Why? Because this young woman's life is now severely impacted forever. She can't escape that. Where is the real justice?” The passion manifesting in the inflections of his voice, however, is steeped in disappointment, not quite anger. “I speak with full clarity and understanding of the subject matter but I'm still quite disappointed because we have been let down as a society.”

It wasn’t lost on Hodge how similar this judicial fumble was to the case of former Atlanta Falcons player Brian Banks, whose infuriating story is the basis of the Bleeker Street film bearing his name. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why he auditioned for the lead role in the first place. Those familiar with Banks’ tale will know that in 2002, the then-17 high schooler and NFL prospect was wrongfully convicted of rape following a consensual sexual encounter on campus with classmate Wanetta Gibson. Although he maintained his innocence, she accused him of raping and kidnapping her, sued Long Beach Unified School District for lax security and an unsafe school environment, and eventually received a settlement of $15 million.

After being given 10 minutes to pick fighting the charges and risking 41 years-to-life in prison, or taking a plea deal and spending just over five years, he chose the latter with a no contest plea. Banks was sentenced to six years and a lifetime on the sex offender list, serving five and a year on probation (complete with an ankle monitor). With the eventual help of the California Innocence Project (who he had to convince to advocate on his behalf) he was exonerated a decade later on May 24, 2012 when Gibson recanted her story and admitted to fabricating the rape.

Brian Banks finds Hodge (Underground, City on a Hill, What Men Want) retracing the steps of the athlete’s redemption story from solitary confinement breakdowns to his rocky reentry to society on parole to the day his accuser, whose lie temporarily shattered his future, reached out to him on Facebook to “move past” that time.

Tucking away the pain of his ordeal took time, but in spending time with Banks, now 34, Aldis has developed a deep sense of awe and respect for Banks’ resilience and healing process. During the making of this film, in which Banks served as an executive producer, tough days were far from absent. Hodge can recall times when the flood of emotions were too strong to be kept behind stoic facades and focused eyes.

“There's a scene where I'm presenting my evidence to the C.I.P., showing them that this woman lied and they’re saying that I cannot present that in court. It's inadmissible,” he says, referencing Banks’ almost moment of freedom. After agreeing to talk to him in person about the incident, Banks and a neutral party secretly recorded her recantation. Unfortunately, because she did not agree up front to record the plain-as-day confession, her new words could not be used to free him. One could imagine the crushing feeling of defeat. “We talked about that before I shot the scene and were sitting there, two grown swole dudes in a hallway sitting on some stairs crying, going through the emotions.”

Here, Aldis Hodge talks about the feeling of retelling of such a heavy yet hopeful story, why it’s unfair to measure Brian Banks against the #MeToo movement, and why the time to take America’s flawed justice system to task—no matter the victim’s demographic—is right now.


VIBE: How much did you know about Brian's story before this project and did you find this project on you own or did someone seek you out? Aldis Hodge: I was familiar with it because of the juxtaposition of the case of Brock Turner and you see how it was handled versus how Brian's case was handled. I was quite frustrated with that, so when the story came up, I said, wow, this is really a grand opportunity to say something effective. Hopefully share a little light on the disparity when it comes to how we're treated in the judicial system versus how folk who don't look like us are treated.

What was that knee-jerk reaction when you heard the Brock Turner case? My personal take on that, first of all I was, "Who's judging the judge?" The judge failed us as a society when it came to not necessarily making an example out of this young man, but just doing what was supposed to be done right. Justice wasn't served. I was pissed off. I'm not even going to lie, I was pissed off. In life there are so many grey areas, but when it comes to cases like this, there's black and white.

We can point back to Brian's case where they had a bunch of evidence pointing towards his innocence, where he should've gotten the benefit of the doubt. He should've gotten a second chance. The judicial system failed him and they didn't give him a chance at all because of who he was, what he looked like, where he came from. That's how we as black culture in this country are continually treated by the government, by the justice system. That needs to change, which is another part of why I did this film. I believe it has something more to say than just “it's a great story about hope.” It's really a wonderful, beautiful story that, to me, inspires faith and belief in oneself, because what Brian did for himself is insane. He went into prison, came out smarter and far more educated than when he went in. He manages to achieve exonerating and clearing his name, then goes on to achieve the ultimate dream—being in the NFL. That's insane to me, the fact that he held so much faith in who he was and his value that he just beat down wall after wall after wall of doubt. [He] pushed forward to create experiencing the impossible.

That was miraculous. I mean, how many times do you actually hear stories like this? Especially the fact that he cleared his name just a month or two shy of his parole being up. If his parole had completed, doesn't matter what would've happened, he wouldn't have been able to clear his records. If he had stopped believing in himself a day or two, a week, a year, a month earlier, imagine what would not have ever happened for him.

I can feel the passion that you have, just as a person in the society towards it. Coming to the table with Brian to talk about how to embody this role going forward, was your passion matched in the same way? What did that look like for him? Is his stance more reflective, and has he moved past those raw emotions? My passion is not anger, it's disappointment. I do have a bit of reverence to allow people to understand the degree of severity of when it comes to these situations. My passions are very real because the fact is that this could hit me, this could affect me at any moment. When it comes to Brian, he's been through the anger. The very first question I asked him when I talked to him the first time we met was, “Hey man, are you angry?” He said, “No, I'm not. I've been through the anger, I want to put that to bed. What I want to do now is just live my life. Live the happiest best life that I possibly can. I want to live freely.” I think we both share the same passion, where we understand that people in positions are not doing the jobs that they are challenged to do, and that’s why we do the work that we do in ways that we hopefully can be most effective.

How did you prepare for the role emotionally? Initially I was trying to get my weight up [for the role]. I was thinking about trying to get a trainer and then after a while, I was like, nah, let me just Brian train me. Brian and I spent our time in the gym and that's where we started learning more about each others’ mentality, our work ethic, how serious we are about this. From there, when it came to being on set Brian was on set most days and the days he wasn't there was a conscience choice because he had a hard time dealing with certain situations. When we did the solitary confinement scene, he had to step away but we would talk and before every scene I would hit him up and be like "Look man, what were you going though in this time frame and where was your mentality on it."

Before watching the film, some of the critiques I saw when it first premiered at the L.A. film festival were, "It's a great film that came out at the wrong time.” They felt it was “bad timing" given the height of the #MeToo movement. Did you have any of those reservations? I can't compare my pain to yours, yours is equally as valid as mine is. I know that from a very basic and narrow and, to a degree, I would say emotionally immature perspective, people like to compare what this is and could be to the #MeToo movement. What they have to realize is as far as the victims for the #MeToo movement, they deserve their voice. They deserve to be represented, they deserve to seek justice. On the flip side of that, there are also victims who are in prison for crimes that they did not commit. I'm talking robbery, I'm talking rape, I'm talking drug charges.

With Brian's story, a judicial system has failed because they did not do their jobs. Brian had evidence. Basically, we have the scientific lab report that's saying it was literally no sex. [Brian’s] lawyer has this in her hand and she tries not to use this evidence right. She chose to say, I'm going to figure out how to win this case and not lose, so I'm going to go in there and tell you take a plea deal, not fully explaining the consequences of what pleading out means, because 97 percent of cases plea out as opposed to fighting for their innocence and their justice. We’re talking about a judicial system that has failed people on all sides, so there's no comparison or really parallel when it comes to the #MeToo movement. They deserve their respect and they deserve their placement. Out of respect for victims of the #MeToo movement, we don't ever bring that up because we feel like, who are we to ever in any capacity compare? That's not who we are, that's not what we do, and that's definitely not who or what Brian is. They deserve their justice. Brian, being in his position, also deserves his justice and what the audience has to acclimate to doing is seeing the full scope of the flaws within these situations.

Are you familiar with the Albert Wilson case? No. Please educate me.

A former University of Kansas student was sentenced to over 12 years in prison for an alleged rape, where there was no DNA evidence that they had sex. He and the young woman went to a club underage at the time, none of them were carded, and afterwards, “fooling around” happened that she alleges was rape but he says was not. The minimum for rape convictions in Kansas is 12 years, and he was recently sent to prison to serve out the sentence even though he maintains his innocence. The timing of Brian Banks coming out and sharing this message is interesting because of how similar the DNA situation is, provided his actual innocence. It makes you think about how hard it is to experience a redemption moment like Brian did. I think that anytime to address flaws when it comes to fighting for justice, is the right time. For people who think, oh is this the wrong time, no we are talking about a real issue that happens on a daily basis and the fact that we're bringing it to light... The right time is today, now, yesterday. It's always the right time to talk about anything that's going to fight for true justice.

When it comes to Brian's case he did all of his time. He was a couple months shy of parole being up when he exonerated himself. So he did a year in jail, he did five years in prison and then he did five years on parole, living that caged hell on the outside of prison. Brian didn't get any kind of break when it came to his sentence. He wasn't let off early, he wasn't handed a break really even with the C.I.P. If it wasn't for him really fighting for himself he would've been lost, lost to the system. I do hope for this young man’s sake, presuming his innocence, that he gets the help that he needs because it's out there. Hopefully this film sheds a little light on more people that need that help.

A frustrating thing is not knowing when, if or how an entity will advocate on your behalf and fight for you the way you want to fight for yourself. Like you said, Brian had to find a way to prove, "Hey, I'm worthy of being helped. What do you think should be the takeaways as far as advocacy, especially in fine line situations? The whole idea that you may likely be innocent but there could be a doubt that you're not and how that shapes the way people approach your situation. I remember when I first met Brian, in order to really take on this role, I had to believe him. If I was going to represent this man, for me this is not about a job opportunity or check. This is about what I’m personally putting my name behind and what I believe in. I had to believe him and I did. If you put yourself in a position professionally or charitably where you are able to and you’re supposed to help build the need, do the due diligence and do the work. Go out there and make yourself a bit more accessible. Granted, I understand there's a lot of people who might say "I'm innocent" when they're not and, again, if you do the work, you get as much info as you can. As much evidence as you can and just make yourself available for these people to find you so they can access you. There's a lot of people in prison who don't realize that they have access to more help on the outside. If they know they have more access, they might be able to actually help represent themselves in a position where they can clear their names.

I say if it's family and friends, do as much research as you can. We have access to more resources than ever in this particular age in time and reach out and find out these organizations like the C.I.P, the California Innocence Project. If not that, you might have to go do the work yourself, get a private investigator to go look at the location, the scene of the crime. Just like with Brian's case the DA, no one went down to investigate where the girls said that she was kidnapped. If they had, they would've known that everything that she said was a lie. Given the time of day, given the access, given the people that would've been around, there is no possible way that she could've been dragged, kicking and screaming down an open hallway with all these doors open and students in class. Regardless of what they would've found, the fact is again they didn't do their jobs because no one went down there to investigate the scene of the crime. The scene of the supposed crime, that is the biggest issue there.

Also, if you're put in a position to do a specific job you have to do, step up to the plate. Don't be lazy and don't play the agenda bias of I'm just trying to get from point A to point Z. No, you have people’s lives in you hands and you are committed to that.That is what you're doing is to help actually save some lives, so do that.

One of the interesting nuances of the film is the presentation of “Kennisha Rice” and the part she plays in setting Brian's life back. It’s very interesting that she was not presented as malicious, sneaky or intentional; her inconsistencies were driven out of fear from her mother’s point of view. Do you think it's something to take into account when looking at some of the people who make these accusations and wind up ruining people’s lives, And the way they're seen after that? With this film, our priority was not to demonize her. If we were going to show her, we were going to show her as a human being, given Brian's current perspective of not being angry and not wanting to demonize her, not get revenge on this woman, anything like that. He's free of that. We want you to come up with your own idea, if you happen to understand her and sympathize with the fear and maybe you've made the same terrible choice in the situation. That's on you. We don't want to direct how you see this person.

As far as what may come of this, if it's karma coming back at her, it's not karma that Brian threw out her. Brian is telling his story and he has to be honest of that. However, we have to accentuate the fact that they are flawed human beings and this is what can happen when you don't take responsibility for your own flaws. When you don't look at it yourself and understand the power you made holds in the situation, these are the mistakes that can happen. We are not trying to get people to hate this character because that would contradict the entire journey that Brian as been on. We don't want you to hate anybody. We’re over that. Focus on the faith. Focus on the happiness. Focus on the belief and the fight that Brian had to fight for who he was in his value and maintaining his innocence knowing that he was still worth something.

What do you hope unsure audiences take away from this film and this very real story? I caution against my selfish ambitions when it comes to that question. I just hope people take away hope and belief in themselves and the power that they will, when it comes to actually helping someone else who maybe in need, I hope people answer the call if every they are or feel called to do so.

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Keith Anthony

Come As You Are: PJ Morton On New Album, Individuality And Journey Towards Nirvana

Dun-Well Doughnuts isn’t your mom’s pastelería. The East Williamsburg hub for vegan confectionery delights has no concern with fitting in. Playing above our heads as we order several sweet-sounding treats are tunes most certainly hailing from the ‘30s or ‘40s; they’re so sonically antiquated that not even Shazam recognizes them. The shop’s furnishings give off a rustic feel that doesn’t quite match the area outside, which is (as of now) virtually untouched by gentrification.

It’s clear we’re in a spot that’s content with going against the grain, which pairs well with the overall M.O. of the artist peering over his wire-frame glasses to glance out the window while nomming on a glazed donut. He’s a soulful musician who grew up listening to pop and rock icons, and infuses traditional R&B as well as good ol’ instrumentation into his work–– he’s known for performing live adaptations of his songs with a full band in tow. Much like Dun-Well’s playlist, he doesn’t adhere to people’s sonic expectations.

“I’ve felt like an outcast [in the industry], but I've always been a loner anyway, so I thrive being by myself. I'm cool with it, I'm totally comfortable with it,” PJ Morton says as he sips water from a white paper cup on a climate-confused day in early August. The New Orleans native, who sports an all-black ensemble with multi-colored Nikes, acknowledges that his music doesn’t always fit into a mainstream box. Still, his passion for his craft has paid off in spades.

Morton is the keyboardist for the platinum-selling pop/rock band Maroon 5, but has found solo success outside of the Billboard Top 40. He won his first Grammy Award earlier this year for his lauded cover of The Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love,” which was featured on the live recording of his highly-favored, self-released LP, 2017’s Gumbo. He’s lived his personal dreams by performing at Super Bowl LIII, on Saturday Night Live and with artists like Busta Rhymes and Lil Wayne. Despite huge moments in his career, his latest album PAUL (released on Aug. 9) is a feel-good journey back to basics.

“[With Gumbo], it was so much about 'I need to be heard, I'm tired, this may be my last record,’” he notes. “This time, it's really like, 'Okay, you got a lot of the good things you asked for, now what? What are you gonna say now? How are you gonna be honest now? What stories are you gonna tell now?'”

The 10-song project—which boasts guest appearances from Rapsody, Jazmine Sullivan, JoJo and more—is oozing with nostalgia in more ways than one. Smart production and samples recapture the days of Motown and R&B, evident by the album’s opener “Ready” and The Gap Band-sampled “Yearning For Your Love.” PAUL also has gentle nods to the simplicities of human emotion, as certain tracks amplify the importance of possessing child-like, carefree self-confidence. This particular theme is central to the track “Kid Again,” featuring two of Morton’s three children.

“Although most people call me PJ, I came into the world as Paul, and I feel that's my purest form,” he says of the project’s straightforward, yet calculated title. “Paul is the child, and throughout the album, the nostalgic theme is me continually telling myself, 'Go back, reset…’ I was really trying to be as honest as I can, and I don't mean 'honest' as in storytelling honest, I mean the presentation and production is honest… I want [fans] to feel good, and I want them to like the songs, but I want them to hear me in saying, ‘This is Paul, this is who I am, and I want you to be who you are.’"

Additionally, PAUL turns up the volume on pro-blackness, an enormously necessary topic during a time where outsiders are working ‘round the clock to keep us muted. Political commentator Angela Rye schools non-believers about police brutality and racial inequality on the project’s thought-provoking finale, “MAGA?,” and the soulful Morton urges listeners to continue Nipsey Hussle’s marathon in their communities on the funky, retrospective “Buy Back The Block.”

“I think the more we started to get pushback and the more America started to get divisive, the more I felt pride in being black, and I wanted to make that known and to stand on that,” Morton explains of the album’s key elements. “I think that art should reflect life. It's important for us as artists to be the voice of the voiceless, right? I can be louder and tell our story for people who can't tell it for themselves.”

An admittedly “curious” preacher’s kid who grew up in the Crescent City, Morton has always known music would be his life. He was introduced to some of his heroes as a youngin—his mother acquainted him with the stylings of The Beatles, and he locked in on The Fab Four after noticing he bears the same first name as Sir McCartney. As he matured, he developed an appreciation for James Taylor, Donnie Hathaway and his future collaborator, Stevie Wonder (he garnered his first solo Grammy nom with Wonder on the track “Only One”).

When prompted as to why he didn’t pursue gospel full-time despite growing up in the church and around the genre, Morton discusses that he found it too “limiting.” However, he still infuses elements of his roots in his music today (“I was experiencing too much in life, I was gaining too much knowledge in life to only talk about God specifically,” he says).

“I like the grind of [making music], and I love getting to the next level. If there's no forward movement, I'm not enjoying myself.”

Instead, he continued to expand his palate and repertoire by learning how to play multiple instruments such as the drums and keys. As a student at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, Morton further learned the ropes by working closely with producers such as Bryan-Michael Cox, Jazze Pha, and Jermaine Dupri, who helped shape the way he approaches and crafts a tune. Ultimately, he says the “freedom” he grew up with in NOLA helped to light a fire under him to truly pursue the art form.

“There's a high badge of honor that you wear if you're a musician in New Orleans,” he details. “‘I'm not gonna play with it, I'm not gonna joke with it. If I'm doing music, then we're gonna do it for real.’ I think that speaks to the way I try to present my art into the world. I think the qualities you have to have to be a musician there are to take it seriously and to play from the heart.”

“I was a musician before I was a songwriter, before I was a singer, and I always wanna wave that flag for musicians to be here,” he affirms as he discusses his versatile voyage through the art form. “The reason I’m able to work on so many [genres] of music is definitely that New Orleans attitude. We just do what we want, we kind of just march to the beat of our own drum.”

As detailed in his Gumbo song “Claustrophobic,” there were apprehensions about his lack of mainstream success as a solo artist early in his career. On the track, he details higher-ups discussing difficulties finding him a market (“Would you consider us changing some stuff, Like everything about who you are,” he sings, “No offense, we're just trying to make you a star”).


“I was like, ‘Wow, this is how people look at me,’” he said of the comments made to him early on. “I took [the negativity] as ammunition and gas to go wherever I was gonna go next. We choose a path that's a little different… ultimately, I really just wanna make beautiful things and hope people like it. If they don't, I'll keep it moving, and we'll keep creating.”

What is the pinnacle of success that PJ Morton wants to achieve? He’s already won a Grammy, he’s already had hit songs, and he’s already worked with one of his idols. He details that all of the mountaintops he’s climbed are simply a bonus, and what would be paramount for him is to just create. No worries of sales or chart positions–– just a man, his distinctive approach to his craft and his artistic freedom.

“I love music so much, I would do it for free,” he smiles. “So, if it feels like I could do this for free and still be happy, that's my nirvana. I can say that if I didn't have that cushion or fallback of Maroon 5, I would still be on this journey here and still going.”

“I want as many people in the world to hear my music and to be affected by it,” he continues. “If nothing ever happens anymore [musically], I'm still very blessed in this industry. I like the grind of [making music], and I love getting to the next level. If there's no forward movement, I'm not enjoying myself.”

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