PJ Morton PJ Morton
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PJ Morton Talks Grammys, Super Bowl And Finding His Niche

It's only three months into 2019, and PJ Morton has already had a strong year: A Grammy Award, a Super Bowl performance, and a beautiful new record with JoJo.

Thank goodness that PJ Morton trusted his gut.

“PJ, you're not mainstream enough / Would you consider us changing some stuff / Like everything about who you are / No offense, we're just trying to make you a star,” Morton sings on “Claustrophobic,” a song from his 2017 album Gumbo. “PJ, you're not quite street enough … can you switch your style up a little more? You can be yourself later, for now we need the radio.”

Whatever advice he got from out-of-touch record execs was nonsense. PJ Morton being himself has served him well: the album that hosted the above lyrics earned him two Grammy nominations for Best R&B Album and Best R&B Song. He took home his first Grammys trophy himself this year with the Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Performance for his “How Deep Is Your Love,” one of three nominations at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards from 2018's Gumbo Unplugged.

Along with the hardware, he also got one of the most memorable experiences of his life. As a member of Maroon 5, he headlined the Super Bowl LIII halftime show in a performance with Travis Scott and Big Boi. His beloved football Saints may have gotten robbed in the weeks leading up to the big game, but New Orleans still has plenty to celebrate with Morton’s recent success.

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“I felt [the energy] even when we were rehearsing with nobody in there. But then, when you feel that audience in there and you know it’s live, it’s just—to me it started as nervousness a little bit and then it just turned into excitement, knowing that you’re reaching all these people. Really for me, it’s a sentimental moment,” Morton said. “Our manager passed away last year, and I remember, since I’ve been in the band for nine years, the Super Bowl was just something that we were always looking [forward] to. For Jordan [Feldstein] to not be here for this made me reflect a lot on that and reflect on my life as a musician and the things I’ve did that ultimately got me to the biggest gigs a musician could want.”

Rather than celebrate his accomplishments for the rest of the year, Morton is using them as momentum. Weeks after the Super Bowl, he had the Valentine's Day release of  "Say So," a beautiful new duet with JoJo.

VIBE caught up on the phone with PJ Morton prior to the Grammys as he sat in his studio in New Orleans to chat about his nominations, his journey into creating his sound, the Super Bowl halftime performance and New Orleans Saints, and whether black musicians and fans should still care about the ceremony.

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What were you doing when you found out about you were nominated a second time?

It was about 5 a.m. in the morning, I had to wake up, I was on the West Coast and that’s when I found out, but this year, I was more just in shock. I was shocked about [being nominated for] Best R&B Album, I wasn’t necessarily expecting it. I [was nominated for] Best R&B Album last year and…whew, I almost shed a tear last year. This year I was just in shock (laughs). I called my family and shared the news and it was amazing.

At this point in your career, what does the award mean to you?

It still means a lot to me. I’ve yet to win one [until now] as a solo artist or as an artist period. It still means that it was voted by your peers. It’s voted on by the professionals in the music industry so that always means a lot. You definitely want to impress your friends. So this is like impressing your friends, known or unknown, who are amazing artists, musicians, and engineers so it still means a lot to me.

There’s a lot of conversation about the validation of these type of awards when it comes to black music. Which one means the most to you? The validation of the Academy or the people?

Ultimately, I make music for people, whether I win an award or not. Like I said, I was up for two Grammys last year and didn’t win, but it didn’t take away from the impact that I had on the people who've been supporting me and being able to go out on the road and sell out tours, that’ll always mean the most to me. [The Grammy] is like a cherry on top, the award and the validation from them. I make music for the people first.

And a lot of your success reminds me of your song “Claustrophobic,” considering the story behind that song. Do you feel like you’re fitting in nowadays or are people recognizing your individuality more?

I think individuality is being more celebrated in general these days. Before, the big labels and everybody were able to prove to us what was hot and what’s supposed to be the best thing and everything. I think that the way the industry is moving now, people are able to make their own decisions. They don’t have to listen to the radio if they don’t want to or listen to anybody who tells them who to listen to. They can go and create their own playlist and find the artists they love. For me, now I’m able to stand out a little bit more and my fans are able to choose on their own without anybody having to feed it to them. I think that part is being celebrated, who I am in “Claustrophobic” and really fighting to be myself. I think people connected to that more than anything.

What was the real life experience that lead you to create that song?

It was a combination of things, but the last straw was that I had just left Young Money and was looking to go into working on a new record and I took a meeting with a label and the meeting had went so bad. These people didn’t understand me at all. I remember myself kind of checking out of the meeting even before I left. I knew I had to get out of there both figuratively and [literally]. I was ready to just move on and do something else. And that meeting kind of put me on my path to leave Los Angeles and move to New Orleans and really find myself again.

How long did it take you to find your niche all the way? I know you’ve been through some ups and downs with that.

That’s the other side of it. I feel like I’ve been myself the whole time. It’s not like I’ve made some huge transition and made some music that I’ve never made before. I’ve always kind of done it like this. But I think it was more so when I wasn’t making music, when I was trying to make music and couldn’t really get to myself and couldn’t figure out who I was. It’s just more of what I’m talking about in “Claustrophobic,” but any time I’m making music, I feel like I’ve been my authentic self. It was just a matter of making sure I got back to that and gotten back to it fully. And I feel like, for me, it’s always a journey. You live, you evolve, you grow, and I think the art reflects that. I never feel like I’m done learning and growing. I think it was all through the journey that I found my niche, but if you listen to my first album 10 years ago, you still hear the same PJ, you still hear the same instruments so it’s not like I drastically changed or found some new sh*t I didn’t have in the beginning. I’m always perfecting it and growing and evolving.

Let’s go back to the Grammys for a second. In previous years, they’ve gotten many awards wrong when it comes to our music and some would argue that both black artists and fans should no longer care about them or other mainstream award shows. Do you think that they’re relevant at all to black music?

I think black people—so there’s two levels to the Grammys, right? I think the voting usually gets it right because you have small committees who are making sure—and these committees are industry professionals. So, the R&B singers and the R&B producers are the ones who make sure that the right artists, the right songs are in the right category. Even [from] last year to this year, I think the categories are right, the songs are right, whoever I’m up against I think all of that is right. I think sometimes when you get to the general voting where sometimes people who aren’t experts in those categories have to put their vote in when they don’t even know what’s been going on in the streets or what’s been going on in these genres. That’s when sometimes it goes a little left. So, I think they’re relevant. I think the Grammys are relevant. When the Grammys work when they’re designed to work, it’s a beautiful thing. So, I don’t need to be voting in the country category because I’m not listening to country all of the time and I’m not creating country music. But when the country guys are voting for country music, then they’ll get that right. I think that’s what it comes down to, it’s being able to stick to what you know. In that sense, I think they’re relevant for sure.

 

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Much love to everybody that celebrated with me last night!! 🙏🏾⚜️⚜️⚜️ #NEWORLEANSFINEST #GRAMMYS

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With this new influx of new R&B and jazz artists, do you think that at this point, both genres are getting the respect they deserve?

I definitely think it’s getting better, it’s growing. I don’t know if it’s getting the full respect that it deserves but it’s going in the right direction. We’re getting more love.

I’m sure you’re familiar with Jennifer Lopez performing the Motown tribute at the ceremony. Who are some legends that you think should get deserve a tribute that might not have had one before on that kind of platform?

That’s a good question. I think sometimes we wait until people die before they get a tribute. I think we’re at the point where probably Anita Baker deserves a tribute. Chaka Khan, maybe. It’s so many people who’s had an impact, I don’t think Al Green has had a tribute [since his BET Awards tribute in 2008] and that’s one of the soundtracks to America.

On your Super Bowl halftime performance, the New Yorker called it an “artless spectacle.” How did you and/or Maroon 5 handle the negative criticism?

I mean, I think the other side of when you play—when you have that many people watching you, at one time, you can’t expect for all of it to be good. What I haven’t heard out of everybody is the critique that they sounded bad (laughs), which is what I wanted to accomplish. I think they had expectations for us to do something other than play our songs. I think what gets you to the Super Bowl is lots of success and we’ve been blessed to have hit songs and successful tours for years and years. Like I said, I’ve been [in Maroon 5] for nine years while the guys have been a band for 20 years and to have success like that and still currently have success with a huge #1 song with “Girls Like You.” I can’t really let a bad critique [bother me]—or really not even bad, all of it just like a regular “it wasn’t great, it wasn’t bad,” that’s what I’ve been hearing.

To have a lot of that success over the years and to make it to the Super Bowl and to allow somebody that gives a “regular” critique to sway me in any way, it just doesn’t do anything to me. I’m happy. I wanted to make sure that we play the music well and that we sounded good and we put on a good show. I’m sorry that we couldn’t (laughs) live up to the expectations like I think we were supposed to do some backflips or something like that or do some other things, but I just wanted to play the music and that was our plan from the beginning and that’s what we did. I’m proud of my bandmates for doing what we do. We’re musicians and we play music and entertain people. That’s what we did.

As we both know, the actual Super Bowl game was terrible. As a New Orleans native, how did you feel about the Saints not making it to Super Bowl?

I was deeply hurt! I was deeply hurt, man! We should have been there. I thought that the call was as obvious as it gets, and I don’t think I’ve seen a worst no call blunder in my life watching sports. It was bittersweet with for the Saints not to be there. They should have been playing and it would have been a more exciting game too. It was disappointing and we should have been there. But at least one New Orleans native made it to the Super Bowl.

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'The Last Train To Paris' Turns 10: Revisit Diddy's Aug./Sept. 2010 VIBE Cover Story

YOU EVER WATCH a control freak mellow out? It’s fascinating. When said micromanager is Sean “Puffy” Combs, it’s an enlightening ordeal altogether. Sitting at trendy Asian eatery Philippe Chow in New York City, two days before LeBron James announces that he’s taking his show to South Beach, Combs has talking points: impact and legacy. “This ain’t a regular run,” says Combs of his two-decade laundry list of accomplishments. “I’m saying that in the most humble way possible. I’m me and I’m seeing it. Most times the impact of what you do you don’t even live to see it.”

He’s the only patron seated for the evening, lounging at a table that comfortably seats eight. This is clearly a Sean John zone. His voice remains even, but the arrogance skyrockets. “It trickles over into sports. It goes into the way the free agent negotiations are going. [Athletes] have that belief. But that level of confidence as Black businessmen wasn’t really there. Unforgivable swagger. That shit wasn’t there.”

Translation: Sean believes that his ambition has been infectious. In his “humble” opinion, his drive has taught the have-nots that not only can they have, but they can be gluttonous and acquire wealth rather than riches. Will it ruin his day if people don’t agree? Not really. But he’d still like the legacy to be accurately documented. His reactionary reflexes have given way to him thinking long term, which could be why he’s unfazed by trivial shots like 50 Cent’s claims of having nude pictures of his artist Cassie. He’s more interested in guiding careers—Rick Ross, Red Cafe and Dirty Money, among them. And really, he’d like to do square biz and have your kids’ kids respect him like his contemporaries admire Warren Buffet. That would truly be money in the bank. In the meantime, he wants to mellow with a plate of chicken satay and talk Diddy legacy.

VIBE: You have said that rap’s heavyweight class consisted of Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Drake. Do you still believe that?

Diddy: Definitely. I feel like Drake is somebody that entered professionally in the heavyweight division. He didn’t come in as a middleweight, he didn’t come in as a light heavyweight, he came in as a heavyweight. He’s gonna be a force to be reckoned with for a while. He is the definition of a new age musical rapper . . . going forward a lot of rap artists are going to have [singing and rapping] in their repertoire.

What’s the ranking in that heavyweight division?

Jay, Kanye, Wayne, and Drake.

Jay still No. 1?

Hands down as far as worldwide impact and due to this last album [The Blueprint 3]. He’s moved up in the rankings.

People don’t realize that you two are friends and not just industry acquaintances.

Over the years as we’ve grown, Jay and I have needed each other. We’ve needed to be able to pick up the phone and call somebody that can understand what each other was going through. We needed each other to motivate each other; we needed each other to push each other. We needed each other to support each other and also to challenge each other. He’s definitely been a great friend to me. There’s never been anything that I’ve asked him to do or he’s asked me to do that we really haven’t done for each other.

Give an example of when you had to pick up the phone and call Jay for assistance.

I wanted to do something game-changing with Sean John. And I just picked his brain. I did [a fashion line] before him but I think that business-wise he did a lot of things better than me. He picked the right time to get out and get his check, to sell his company. We sat on the phone and talked about itŃput our egos in our pockets. I didn’t see Sean John versus Roc-A-Wear. I just saw that my man over here is doing it [and I had] a couple of offers for Sean John. It was a beautiful conversation, ‘cause we’re sitting down at this restaurant and we’re talking about apparel. We’re not talking about music. It was a beautiful moment. Two quarter-of-a-billion dollar companies—just getting advice from your competitor. It was something that you heard rich White boys do.

Dr. Dre said that the last beat that floored him was “All About the Benjamins.” How does that make you feel?

It’s humbling. I was in the studio with Dre the other day. He started working on a record for me. Watching him as a producer is watching greatness. We had a lot of similar traits. It was like looking in the mirror. He would ask questions like, “How you feel about this?” People don’t really understand true producers want to know how you feel about things. We are some of the most observant people on the planet.

You’re a lot more into the music now than the last time we spoke.

I was waiting to get a lot of inspiration from the outside and it just wasn’t coming. And I’m not knocking anyone’s hustle that’s out there. I just come from musical history that musically people gave more of themselves . . . I was able to go back and listen to all the great records that I made. I ain’t do it on purpose. Like sometimes I’d be in a club and the DJ was just throwing tributes and would go deep in the crates. I would be like, “Damn, I forgot that I made that one.” It just gave me a deep connection and another level of confidence for me to do me.

Are you feeling more comfortable writing on your own?

Yeah. I learned a lot more. I feel a lot more confident and free. On this album, I wrote like maybe two or three records by myself. But I still like writing with somebody. It helps me. Not using it as a crutch, but I get better results from co-writing; having my own feelings and thoughts, and, you know, getting some help with it. I love the feeling of collaboration, community in the studio. I don’t like being the mad scientist and being in the room by myself.

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Desus & Mero Bless A Bronx Bodega With A Year's Worth of Rent

You know them as the hosts of the hit Showtime series Desus & Mero, aka "the greatest show in late-night history, featuring only illustrious guests." These days you might catch them chatting with President Obama, but  Bronx natives Desus Nice and The Kid Mero have never lost touch with their roots as the Bodega Boys.

"On our first podcast me and Mero used to have to ride the train back afterward," recalls Desus. "And basically our conversation on the train sounded exactly like the podcast. And somebody was like, 'Yo, they sound like two guys you hear in the bodega.' Which was true, because when you hear guys in the bodega, they talk very passionately about things. They may not have all the facts, but they're talking with their hearts."

"Their confidence is strong!" adds Mero with a laugh.

"That's just us," says Desus. "We're raised in bodegas. Probably 90 percent of the food we grew up eating was either our mother's cooking or chopped cheese sandwiches."

"Facts," Mero confirms.

Ever since the pandemic hit, New York City's community bodegas have served as a lifeline by providing New Yorkers with daily necessities, especially in neighborhoods where door-to-door gourmet food delivery is not an option. But staying open hasn't been easy—the daily risks of doing business under threat from a deadly virus—not to mention a spike in robberies and violence—has made running a bodega very challenging, to say the least. But day in day out, in good times and bad, they find a way to keep their doors open.

"If your block is the solar system, the bodega is the sun," says Mero. "The hood orbits the bodega."

So when the makers of Pepsi cola decided to give back on the bodega owners who provide life-giving sustenance and ice-cold soda to NYC's five boroughs, they reached out to the Bodega Boys as their official goodwill ambassadors. Today Desus & Mero appear in a short film called The Bodega Giveback, which highlights the way one Bronx bodega overcame extreme hardship—and the way Pepsi is helping them keep going after 2020 comes to an end.

For Juan Valerio and his son Jefferson, the proprietors of JJN Corp Deli & Grocery in the Bronx, 2020 has been a horrible year. Juan still remembers when he came to America with his father in 1990. "To buy a bodega at that time was well over $100,000," Juan recalls in the short film, which you can watch above. "It was a dream that seemed unreachable. I never thought I would achieve it. And now this is what I do. My whole life is here."

Then in April 2020, tragedy struck when Juan's father lost his life to COVID 19. For the first time in three decades, the bodega had to close its doors down briefly. "It’s something very powerful to lose what you love the most in a split second," Juan recalls with emotion as his son comforts him with a hug. "Life goes on. And I decided to come back because he always taught me to work. To stay closed was disrespectful to him."

"He had to shut down for a little bit," says Desus. "But then he reopened cause the community needed him. Cause the lockdown a lot of stores closed down. And in the Bronx, you can't really get stuff delivered. And he's the hub. We heard stories of what he did, so we were like, how can we give back to him? Shout out to Pepsi with the Bodega Giveback. And just giving him a year's rent—that's the most amazing thing you can give a bodega owner. Shout out to Juan and his son. The look on their face when they really get it—you see the appreciation."

"It really hit home," said Mero. "Cause it's like, we're children of immigrants. So that could have been us—if we didn't get seen by the right people and put in the right positions, we coulda been workin' alongside our dad at a bodega. And then watchin' your grandfather pass away and then comin' back because you know how important you are to the community. Like, that's really selfless. It's just a dope story. And those stories occur all over the place, it's just people don't see them. Cause they don't get exposed on a national level. But a brand like Pepsi can put that on a national stage and be like,  "Yo, look—this is a mom and pop establishment for real. And these are the small businesses that you supposed to be supporting."

The release of The Bodega Giveback kicks off a larger holiday giveback from Pepsi this season that includes cash gifts to bodega owners and consumers across NYC's five boroughs.  “Pepsi has so many longstanding bodega partners in New York City,” said Umi Patel, CMO of North Division, PepsiCo Beverages North America. “They are not only pillars of the community, but they have gone above and beyond to take care of their loyal customers during the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic. They have worked around the clock to stay open, filling shelves to ensure their customers, friends, and family have the essentials they need to stay home and stay safe. They have even shifted their businesses to meet the needs of the community, offering new delivery options, adding crucial items like masks and gloves, and more, all while dealing with their own personal challenges of the pandemic. We are proud to do our part in giving back to these unsung heroes.”

From now until December 20, Pepsi will also be surprising customers at local bodegas across the five boroughs by gifting pre-paid credit cards of up to $100.00 per customer.

As Juan says in the film, "one hand washes the other, and with both, we wash our face."

Check out our full convo with Desus & Mero above and the short film, The Bodega Giveback.

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Courtesy of Level.com

Level Announces Their 'Best Man 2020 Awards' Featuring Entertainment Elite to Everyday Kings

It is a hard feat for media brands to survive the content landscape these days. To pull off the incredible undertaking of informing an audience as a new publication in the digital space is damn near impossible, yet the team at Medium's Level has done just that. To celebrate making their mark as a one-stop information shop for black men with their one-year anniversary this week, the team of bright and witty editors has launched their first annual Best Man Awards 2020.

The plan to honor the brand that started in December of 2019, focused on the interests of African-American males, has expanded into encompassing the efforts of a few good men during this mess of a year that is 2020. In doing so, those that broke through barriers of personal pain, new business frontiers, and support of others are highlighted and given the rightful pedestals to gain well-deserved props.

Of the 12 awards, esteemed gents like Swizz Beatz, Timbaland, and D-Nice are saluted as Quarantine Kings for their Verzuz and Club Quarantine (respectively) social media music creations that entertained the masses during the dogged days of our universal shut-down. There is also a heroic soul of a man who protected a black woman and her family from the surrounding presence of racist neighbors on his own time and dime. They have an award for Father of the Year, where former NBA all-star and champion, Dwyane Wade shines as a glowing example of understanding and ushering in new ways of parenting in today's society.

With the awards being a noble move towards giving Black men some much-needed praise in 2020, Level made sure to round up the last 365 days with themes on "The State of Black and Brown Men" as well. Essays that cover the realms of political ideology, coping with covid among Blacks health care workers,  how Black men fell short of protecting Black women, and exploring what Black men see when they look in the mirror (a piece that is a user-generated content driver/audience-led convo). All hard topics that need to be detailed, yet are rarely in a space for deep-dive convo.

Helmed by former VIBE editor-in-chief, Jermaine Hall, Level's editors explain their thoughts on the special coverage and celebration of their one year old brand:

“With the Best Man Awards, we wanted to lean into people who are doing incredible things to support society and publicly thank them. Anthony Herron, Jr is a hero. He stepped up to protect someone he didn’t know because, as he saw it, harassment is unacceptable. LEVEL wanted to make sure he received a nod for his heroics. But there are also several celebrities who are doing things outside of their jobs. D-Nice, Swizz, and Timbaland helped us cope through music. And it wasn’t a paid gig for any of them. They responded because people needed help healing so they provided care. That’s a strong attribute of the LEVEL man. It’s certainly is the definition of men being their best selves."

Click here to read about these individuals and learn more about the Best Man Awards 2020. Excelsior to Level.

 

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