Interview: Rico Love’s ‘Turn The Lights On’ Is A Real And Raw Force To Be Reckoned With

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“The worst thing an artist can do is be in my f–king way,” Rico Love shamelessly admits.

But don’t take his confidence as arrogance; he’s just speaking his truth. Having been in the music game for a decade and some change, the singer-songwriter, record producer and rapper’s resume is stacked high. A true standout amongst his tunesmith peers, his knack for storytelling and capturing emotions has cemented himself as your favorite artist’s favorite songwriter, churning out platinum hits with ease from Usher’s “There Goes My Baby” to Beyoncé’s “Sweet Dreams” to Kelly Rowland’s “Motivation.”

But what’s next for a guy that’s mastered making hits for chart-topping and Grammy Award-winning albums? A solo career of his own, of course. After pursuing a solo album back in 2007 that was shelved, Love has been relentless in his pursuit of transitioning from the beloved behind-the-scenes hit-maker to full blown star.

“I’m a novelty,” he tells VIBE. “I’m not a joke.” And Rico has definitely proved just that for the past two years, dedicating his full attention to carving out his own lane in the music industry with “They Don’t Know” (2013) and “B-tches Be Like” (2014), commanding the attention of audiences worldwide and holding his own weight amongst the same musical peers he once penned songs for.

But he didn’t stop there. Rico is most certainly gunning for the top. On Monday (May 18), Love took his solo career to the next level with the release his debut album, Turn The Lights On, a collection of 12 cutting-edge tracks that’ve been 32 years in the making. A refreshing departure from the fleeting Ratch&B wave (whose 15 minutes of fame is slowly dwindling down), you can definitely can learn a thing or two from Love’s thought-provoking lyrics alone.

VIBE caught up with Rico Love while on his NYC press run. Here, the hardest working (and slightly slept on) man in the music biz shares the inspiration behind the album that took his entire life to create and the lessons the music industry taught him along the way in preparation for this special moment. –Ashley Monaé 

VIBE: Your long-awaited debut album, Turn The Lights On is finally here. How does this moment feel for you?
Rico Love: It’ so incredible. I always say to people you’ve been writing your first album your whole life so to be at this particular point where it’s finally is coming out is cool. There are so many people that have tried and we made it here.

Tell me about the meaning behind the title.
At first, it was named Turn The Lights On because that’s just my thing. But then I started writing the songs and really making sense of the fact that the lights represented so much from the fame to the success and how the spotlight is on you. I wanted to talk about what happens when the lights come on. It’s easy to make a song about money, cars and buying expensive sh-t, but who wants to hear that? People have proven that they don’t want to hear that anymore because they don’t buy the albums of artist who put out those types of records. So, I felt like talking about the effects of those things was a bit more interesting. You know, stop being so cliché. Stop being so regular and challenge yourself.

And the album as a whole?
It’s a complete story from start to finish. It starts from figuring out what you’re going to do when success happens for you. You can’t say you’d never do something because what you’re going to do when success happens to you, you start realizing who you are there are something’s you’d do that you never imagined because of all the temptations surrounding you. The second record, “Bad Attitude,” is describing the girl that I grew up idolizing and obsessing over. You know, the girl with the big earring, the fat ass, driving the nice car—the drug dealer’s girlfriend. We wanted that girl so bad even though she wasn’t really sh-t. So, it’s just telling the complete story of some of the things that molded me into the person that I am, both good and bad.

A lot of people have been talking about the album’s art nudity and giving their own two cents. But, from the desk of Rico Love, what was the actual inspiration?
The nudity represents being stripped, and the lights on represents seeing everything for what it is, the truth. And the truth is just like it’s there, raw and naked. You know how they say the naked truth? That’s what it is. That’s why it was done in a very tasteful way. I didn’t want it just to be like, ‘oh there’s a naked girl,’ but I feel like it’s a bunch of immature people commenting on it but I believe people with class and tact knew it was gracefully done. I don’t even want to say tastefully done. Gracefully.

What has been the biggest difference for you in making the transition from singer-songwriter and producer to solo artist?
Getting the opportunity to perform, that’s really big for me. It’s so much more fun. It’s a lot more pressure and a lot more work but it’s so much more fun to be able to get on the stage and perform your music for people and really talk about your true-life experiences and what you deal with everyday. That’s really the biggest difference.

When you were writing for other artists, were you actually telling your story through their songs?
Most of the songs I’ve created for people were just things I felt like they would say. Expect for towards the end of my credit writing songs because I felt like they [songs] started to pertain to me like “Mr. Wrong” by Mary J. Blige, Melanie Fiona’s “4 A.M.” and “Heart Attack” by Trey Songz. Those songs were all written around the same time and they were all about me. I had never done anything like that before, and I was going through those things and felt compelled to make those records. That’s when I started thinking like maybe it’s time for me to go out and do this on my own because this sh*t is starting to get real.

So with the release of the TTLO will you still be penning hits for other artists still?
I would love to do it on my own terms. I believe I’m going to have so much success as a solo artist that it won’t be a necessity for me to write songs for other people unless it’s something I want to do. I just want to become extremely successful so that when I do I can demand it. I’m more interested in executive producing projects as opposed to just writing a few songs for an artist. I feel like that’s what sets people like Pharrell, Kanye, Rodney Jerkins, Swizz Beats and Timabaland apart from the rest. Those guys are able to say that they executive produced one talent and took projects on and created a sound. We saw what Timbaland did with Justin Timberlake and what Rodney did with Brandy. I want to be able to do that. So, if I do [write for others], it would be for that reason.

Do you have anyone in mind?
That girl KeKe Palmer. I think she’s dope. I don’t think that urban America embraces her because we don’t embrace success in general. You know, we saw her as a kid and we saw her come up and it’s like we fail to realize that she’s really just a chick from Chicago who happened to make it as an actress. She still deals with the same struggle as us all. I definitely think there’s a story there with KeKe and her position as a young, black female in power. I’d love to executive produce a project for her. It would be a challenge to because obviously she has the talent, but it’s just about getting people to believe.

You’ve stated before that black music has become a novelty. How do you think you’re contributing to the dialogue that needs to be had in music with Turn The Lights On?
Real conversation, quality music and taking my time. I just did an interview yesterday and the lady said, “I can tell you took your time with this record.” What if you had to take your time to make quality music in order for it to work like back in the day? Now, they’ll throw out any piece of bullsh-t and people listen to it. I want to be able to get people back to having to actually give a record of true thought. I wish people weren’t so entertained by fluff. We’re the only genre of music that doesn’t accept a black man talking about love. Mainstream urban radio won’t play a song about love or a dude talking about “I miss you or love you,” those don’t even work anymore. You have to go to Urban AC (adult contemporary). I want to be able to challenge people. I wish it was just about the talent and the actual love for the craft as opposed to a bunch of guys from the streets that want to be famous, who don’t take it serious and get high all day. I just wish it was back to people really loving this sh-t.

You grew up under the tutelage of Jagged Edge. How did they influence you?
They are a very big part of my career. When I used to go down to Atlanta I used to sleep on their couch. I used to watch Brandon and Brian write songs and that’s how I learned how to write songs, although I didn’t start writing until years after I stopped being around them. They worked every single day. There were no days off from being in the studio. Their work ethic is impeccable. And that’s how I’ve been in the studio, everyday for the past six to seven years with only a few days off. I would be in the studio Christmas Day, even my birthday, not because I had to but I would be like what else am I going to do today.

Why do you think there such a disconnect in R&B music right now?
Because people who want to make R&B music are making the old, traditional kind. The guys who are singing are rapping over these high MPB tracks about nothing. You know, that “girl pop it out, shake it, blah, blah,blah” not really talking about anything. But then the ones that are, it’s too dated. The production is dated, it doesn’t sound current enough. How can you expect a 16-year-old kid to be dancing to a Temptations type of record (laughs)? So there’s a disconnect because they aren’t really making an effort to speak to the youth, instead they are trying to say that they don’t appreciate it. Find a way to speak their language. That doesn’t mean you have to talk about the dumb sh-t they talking about but find a way to connect with them, say something that will intrigue them and I bet word of mouth will spread. It’s a grind and you have to believe in the grind. You gotta work the grind itself and stick to it. Giving up too soon on your records, putting your whole life in a record companies hands; nah, you have to take control of your career and find innovative ways to get your music to the people.

You’re very transparent with your emotions on the album. Did you have any apprehensions while recording that people might not understand?
I’m always open. I feel like as an artist that’s what you’re supposed to do. We hide behind things, but for what? Think about this, if Baller Alert or Shade Room posts something about my personal life, that’s 150k likes. Why are we letting them make money off of our controversy? Why not find a way to talk about the truth because we as the artists know the real story. So if you like the drama and you like me being honest about myself, why not do that on a record and on my album and bring people to me that way because that will start the conversation. You know, when Confessions [by Usher] came out it was like, wow. People were so intrigued wondering if that really happened and did he really cheat on Chili. People are nosey, so why not give them a piece of us? I’m not saying tell all your business but be honest about what you’re really dealing with and not just the f-cking stuff you bought.

Speaking of being honest, which of the song(s) hit closet to home for you?
It’s tough. “Stay For The Kids,” “Days Go By” and “The Proposal” are so real and raw. Really, every song is real and raw, but I think “Stay For The Kids” was the toughest one to write because it’s so brutally honest. It’s something that makes people uncomfortable to hear and it’s the reality that we all deal with. So many people since the album has come out have been calling like they can’t believe that you said that because that’s what I’m going through and never knew how to say that.

You’ve only got two features on the album. After working with the best of the best, how did you choose who you wanted to be apart of your debut solo project?
There are only two features on the entire album, but when I heard the songs they just made sense. I heard Raekwon on the record and when I heard the beat I was like I gotta do this song with him. Plus, he’s one of my favorites. I’m a huge fan of his. And then I’ve got this chick, Armani Caesar, on “Bad Attitude” with myself and Raekwon as well. I saw her on Instagram. She posted on Instagram and I clicked on the video she did and I was like “Yo, she’s dope.” I ended up reaching out to her and explained to her I was working on my album and it wasn’t any funny business and I wanted her to be apart of it. She booked her own flight and came through, laid her verse and left. I have so much respect for her because this is a chick who could have easily had anyone fly her out, even I was going to because that’s the right thing to do, but she handled her business. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album.

After a decade and some change in the industry, you’ve experienced just about it all. Looking back on everything, what would you tell your 25-year-old self?
Don’t become so attached to people. They don’t care about you as much as you care about them or as much as you think they do. It’s a harsh reality to deal with (laughs).

Now that TTLO is out, how do you hope to be perceived?
I want them to know that I’m very intense and I’m serious about this music. I want to express myself and who I am. I’m lucky to be in this situation and I want them to know me and get to know me. You gotta give up yourself in order to get from others so that’s why I’m honest about this particular part of my life. I want to be respected as a creator and want people to want to be a part of what I’m doing. It’s not just ‘give me your money and buy my album.’ It’s more so about people being a part of the journey and us all growing together. I think when you affect people in that way, you’ve got fans for life.

Stream Rico’s Turn The Lights On below.