Jussie Smollett loves nayhoos, but not just any nayhoos. Like many R&B lovers, the genre’s 90s era holds a special place in his rhythmic heart. Just hours before the listening for his debut album Sum of My Music, the creative is reminiscing about R&B’s most prominent period.
“You know, I’m supposed to be a 90s R&B singer,” he says at the Public Arts theater in New York City. Smollett’s eyes sparkle as he runs down the line of underrated R&B artists. “In my mind, in my heart of hearts, I’m Rome, I’m Case. I like Aaron Hall. But I just love R&B, I love Soul. I love vocalists. I love music that hits you with the ‘one-two, punch.’”
I’m not interested in anything related to Empire and at the moment, neither is he. Smollett, while known to many as Jamal Lyon from the hit series, has laid out a 10-track project that showcases his vocal abilities and touching songwriting. There’s “Insecurities,” the honest opener that finds Smollett holding the dead weight of anxiety in his hands. His singles “Freedom” and “Catch Your Eye” (featuring Swizz Beatz) are fun extremes. “Catch Your Eye” possesses a red light to smooth lounge vibes while “Freedom” is a heroic declaration from your fears. While he’s able to make bops on Empire as Jamal, the singer is upping the ante by finally stepping out into the music world as Jussie Smollett.
Under the purple and pink hued lights, Smollett is beyond excited to share his tunes and doesn’t want to sip too much Crown Royal. In addition to his album release, he partnered with the brand on their latest campaign dedicated to the beauty of uniqueness.
VIBE chatted with Smollett on the most compelling aspect of his uniqueness, why he's down to perform Empire cuts and his diary approach to Sum of My Music.
You’ve always pushed the mantra of being true to yourself. With that being said, what are some other things that make you unique?
It’s leading with love. There’s so much stuff out there you know? So much stuff to make us question love, or ignore love, or step away from love. But I think my uniqueness comes from my ability to love. My sense of loyalty. When you know how to love and know about being loyal, that doesn’t just go for people, it goes for yourself. That means you know how to love yourself and be loyal to you.
I say this all the time; every single thing about me is debatable. My talent. My looks, the way I dress, whatever it is. But the two things I know factually that you can’t debate for – anyone that knows me – is my ability to love and my sense of loyalty. My uniqueness is that I been through it, you know. I’m in my 30s now. I been through so many beautiful moments, so many horrifying things. But at the same time, the one thing that has not changed is my ability, my capacity, and my need to love. So, if anything, that’s my uniqueness.
How was it going into this album, keeping all those things in mind?
It was a really emotional experience. And when I say ‘emotional’ I don’t mean like crying everyday, meaning whatever emotion was flying. Whether it was joy or pain or sadness or excitement, or even anger and frustration; that went into the album. I had so many different things coming at me to stop me, and I just believed that it was going to happen no matter what anyone said, no matter what ‘red tape’ was there. Cut that sh*t, rip it up and just do it yourself. It’s about ownership. But it’s from my heart and it’s created from a place of joy and pain.
My music is not created for executives to tell me which piece of it should be heard by the people it was actually created for.
It was created so that people can listen to it and feel it, vibe to it and ultimately, love it or hate it. Someone told me, ‘Having the album is like giving birth,’ and I said, ‘No, recording the album was like giving birth.’ Releasing the album is like, throwing your kids into school and now your kids are able to be bullied, able to be told, ‘You’re ugly, I hate the way you dress. You’re so dumb.’ But at the same time, there’s a certain freedom of releasing. And letting the people have it. Artists do not dictate with other people who have the art and what it should mean to them. They release it and it’s up to y’all to debate it. It’s not just mine anymore. That part is a little scary, but it’s also very freeing.
Your album felt like a diary.
That’s exactly what it is. To be free and honest enough with your fellow woman or man is really scary, but it’s also very empowering because you see the way your honesty affects others. It’s like the way you look back at artists you listened to and remember how their honesty affected you. You’re thinking, ‘Damn, that right there. That’s what it’s for.’ And I’m blessed enough to support myself doing what I love.”
I like how a lot of the albums are keeping a 10-track format since it allows you to digest the songs nicely.
You know what my favorite album is? Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall. I feel like it’s the best album in the world. I mean there are plenty of albums just as good like Marvin Gaye's What’s Going On, or Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. But to me, Off The Wall is the perfect album, from beginning to the end and it was only 10 tracks! He got in, did what he had to do and got out.
It’s dope because now I am able to go around and literally perform the entire album from Track 1 to Track Two. I wanted people not to be overwhelmed because with Empire, we are releasing music every single week and at a point, it can fall on deaf ears. But with my music, I wanted to take my time. There’s literally so many songs that I wanted to put on the album but I was like, ‘Nah, Imma keep it simple, sexy, grown, and flavorful.’ I hope that’s what people get from it.
As someone that's releasing music at a very interesting time in R&B, what do you think about the genre today?
We are in a time that a lot of people are going through a lot of pain and that’s rhythm and blues, baby. That’s what we do! Somehow it paints a picture of reality while also painting a picture of escapism. That’s something R&B has always been. Whether you’re talking about Bruno Mars, Daniel Caesar, Miguel, SZA, Ledisi or whomever it may be, all the way back to Smokey Robinson and Sam Cooke, R&B has always been soul and always spoken about things we all deal with, which are matters of the heart. Whether it’s intimately, family wise, or what society is going through at the time. R&B will always be there and be the voice of the people. R&B isn’t dead. It’s always been there so it’s not like R&B is coming back. It never left.
What did you learn the most about yourself when creating this album?
This is going to sound so stupid but I think I learned that through my humility and through my gratitude, I learned to claim my ‘dopeness.’
We’re always told when we do something bad to accept that responsibility for it, but no one really tells us it’s okay to acknowledge when you’re doing well.
It’s okay to acknowledge that something was really hard and made it through it. It doesn’t matter what anyone else says because I did it. It’s okay to look in the mirror and be like, ‘What up, boss?!’ When I completed the album, I was able to acknowledge that. No matter what anyone says about the album or me, that’s fine. That’s all love. I know what I did and I know what me and my team bring to the table, to R&B, to the industry and to humanity. For that, it’s okay to be proud of yourself and I’m proud of myself.
What drew you to partner with Crown Royal?
They came on board and said, ‘We really want to celebrate uniqueness,’ and to me I realized the relationship. Brands do have a real impact on communities and on people. Usually, I am a vodka man. Yes, I love vodka. But I’ve become a whiskey man because I like flavors and their flavors are dope. They’ve been wonderful and supportive and very generous. It’s been great.
Are you reluctant to perform any Empire tracks while touring this May?
Here’s the thing, I’m not ashamed of Empire songs. I wrote a lot of them. I’m proud of the work I’ve done with Empire. I just can’t be only Empire, that’s not all I am. I wrote “You’re So Beautiful” with Jim Beanz. I wrote “I Wanna Love You” before Empire existed. What we have to realize is that I’ve been singing on soundtracks for four seasons. This is now my album. Those soundtrack songs are just as a part of me as my own songs because they are my songs. I won’t be singing every Empire song, but it’ll be the Empire songs that I feel like I had something deeply to do with. There’s no way in hell I could do a concert and not sing “You’re So Beautiful.” There’s definitely enough material on the record for it to be okay.
Stream Sum of My Music below and learn more about Crown Royal's unique flavors here.