Mila J didn’t take the express route to success. Post two disbanded girl groups, one shelved album, a fleeting name change and a host of mixtape releases, the “Kickin’ Back” singer is more sure of her voice than ever before. “There are no shortcuts,” she tells VIBE over the phone, fully unashamed about the detours in the rear view of her career. “I feel like I’ve learned from every test and obstacle I had to go through.”
After pressing reset during a brief hiatus from the music industry, Mila J re-emerged with her 2014 EP M.I.L.A. (Made In Los Angeles), featuring singles like “Smoke, Drink, Break-Up” and the Ty Dolla $ign-assisted track “My Main.” Her latest effort 213 is also an indiscreet nod to her hometown, where her passion for the arts crept into view after attending a Prince concert with her father at the tender age of two. Five years later, the then rising dancer landed an appearance in the late legend’s visual for his 1991 classic “Diamonds and Pearls,” a coveted honor many had hoped to brag about.
“This is the place of entertainment,” she says of her training grounds. “I want to rep L.A. hard because this is where I’m from.” After what feels like a lifetime of untraditional artist development, Mila J is cutting her losses and celebrating her wins as she inches closer towards the long-awaited debut of her first album–and warms up for a nationwide set on Jeremih’s Late Nights Tour.
VIBE caught up with the Motown signee about testing out daring looks in fashion, experimenting with sound on her upcoming project and “selling out” for mainstream success.
VIBE: M.I.L.A. was your reintroduction to the music industry. With that end in mind, what strides do you feel you’ve made since that time now that you’re on your second EP 213?
Mila J: I definitely think I’ve grown as an artist just from different things I’ve experienced since the first EP. I’m just happy to be in that artist mode. Coming from groups (Gyrl, Dame Four) definitely helped me and prepared me for where I am right now as a solo artist. As far as musically, I’ve definitely evolved as far as my sound and just being comfortable with my voice.
I’m looking at the titles of both projects, and it’s easy to spot the common denominator between the two, that being California. As far as your early girl group days go, did the West Coast scene have a lot to do with why you tapped into rapping first?
It definitely did. Growing up, the first album I bought was The Chronic. That and Snoop [Dogg], and I loved DJ Quik. I preferred rap music over anything when I was younger so I was into all the West Coast rap. Ice Cube, Mack 10, all of that. It really did mold me, and it definitely had an influence down to my hairstyles and the way that I dressed. I would literally get sent home from school because my clothes were too big. Even now, people think that I still haven’t grown up because they thought it was just a stage or a phase for me.
You just debuted your newest single “Down,” and the cover art for the song doubles as a fierce fashion statement. Where do you pull your sense of style from these days?
I can walk past anything or anybody on the street and get inspired. My grandparents inspire me honestly. I look at old pictures of them like damn, you guys were fly. I just feel like there was so much authenticity back then because they had to make a lot of their own stuff. My mother and my grandmother still sew today. My grandmother stayed in furs and gowns. She was flashy but very classy at the same time, so I definitely pull from that. I’m also naturally sporty and tomboyish, so I’ll look at athletic stuff. For that particular shoot, I wanted to do an Asian theme because I’m mixed with Japanese so I spoke with the photographer about my vision, and we found a really good location that gave off that feel. We found the props, the pants and everything just tied in. I really love Japanese style. They’re not afraid to throw on anything, and it looks effortless.
“Down” definitely sounds like it could’ve fit perfectly on 213. Is there any truth to the speculation that it didn’t make the cut?
You know what’s funny? I just finished my album, but I wanted to keep it to a certain number of songs. “Down” was ready for the album, but I just decided to put it out because I already have enough. I recorded it right after 213, even though I did that project fairly quickly, like in a week’s time.
It’s impossible to ignore the odes to old school records that you’ve weaved throughout the scope of your music like Brandy’s “I Wanna Be Down” for example. Which three albums have influenced you the most as an artist?
Some of my favorite R&B albums versus the ones that helped mold me per se were Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip , Usher’s Confessions, Jodeci’s [Diary of a Mad Band], Brandy’s Full Moon, Jagged Edge’s Heartbreak–I love all music, but ‘90s R&B music just does something to me so I think that’s why I always refer back to it. It’s very nostalgic, and I just miss that sound and that feeling so I always want to have it weaved throughout my music.
The evolution of R&B has fallen under attack to the point that some critics have argued that the genre is on its deathbed while hitting artists with allegations of selling out for mainstream success. How do you react to those conversations?
I think people do need to know that every sound and every genre is going to always evolve, so when it comes to the whole “sell out” thing, I don’t believe in that. I believe every recording artist has the right to make any style of music that they want first and foremost. You’re not going to tell a fashion designer, “you can only make pants.” Like no, I’m going to make an entire line of clothes if I want to. I think it’s always unfair that artists are expected to stay in a box that wasn’t created by them because of this notion of not staying true. What is staying true, and who creates this box?
I listen to country. If I ever release a country song, people may think where did this come from, but little did they know I listen to that music. Your influences will come out when you’re expressing your art, so I never feel like it’s selling out. I naturally like ‘90s R&B because that’s what I grew up listening to, but everyone’s opinion is probably going to be different based on the time they were born. I honestly appreciate the newer things that add to R&B. I don’t look at it like it’s dead. It’s evolving, and it’s changing. This is where it is now. Before cell phones, there were pens and pencils, but I rarely see people pull them out. You have to stay with the times. It’s exciting to me to see change. You can always incorporate new things but still stay true to whatever is organic for you.
Jeremih is having a great year in music, and you’re slated to join him on the road for his Late Nights Tour soon. Tell us more about how that collaboration came about.
Jeremih and I are really cool. We’ve collaborated before, and we actually worked together for my album so it made sense. He was going out on tour, and I haven’t been out in a minute. I have my project  out, and his camp was totally open to me opening up for him. I’m a fan of Jeremih and his music, and I know the show is great so I’m happy to be a part of it, and I’m definitely looking forward to hitting the road for the Late Nights Tour.
How intense has it been preparing for your set?
Hey, we were up there for an 8-hour rehearsal, me and my two dancers. I had to learn a lot of new choreography because I’m performing a lot of songs off of 213, so it was definitely grueling trying to mix the new routines with the old ones and teaching everybody the new stuff, but it’s fun. Being on the road is my favorite part, so even if it were 12-hour rehearsals, I wouldn’t even care because performing is what I like to do.
Throughout all your years in music, have you ever had an embarrassing moment on stage that still makes you shake your head today?
I haven’t had that yet. I had a situation where something happened to me, and I was like, “where’s security?”
Oh, no. What happened?
I was on the BET College Tour, and I took out my phone for a selfie with the crowd in front of the stage, and this boy literally comes out of nowhere and gropes me and runs off where no one can find him. I’m on the mic telling the students to rep their schools and trying to take this selfie, and my hands weren’t free so I couldn’t even pop him. It was really tacky, but that was probably the oddest thing that ever happened to me.
On “Kickin’ Back,” the lead single off 213, you make it known that you enjoy the simple but important things in life like family time. When you’re staring at your hectic schedule tied to recording, traveling and performing obligations, how do you carve out time to press pause and relax?
If I happen to have a day off, I’ll try to go see everybody. When I’m in town, I make that effort as soon as I land. Right now, I’m kind of all over the place, but I always try to squeeze in doing some type of activity when I travel because it sucks to say you went to all of these places, but you didn’t really do anything, so I make a point to do two or three things, see something historical or eat at a restaurant. I definitely try to take in whatever it is that I can.
What’s been your favorite destination so far?
I love New York just because [it] has really great energy, but my favorite would probably be Japan.
What do you usually do when you’re out there, especially because you have roots there?
To be honest, the shopping was overload. Everything down to nail designs, anything you can think of, they just have in abundance. I like thrifting, so I did a lot of shopping, but then I love Japanese food too. If I’m shopping and I’m fed, I’m happy.
As someone who hails from a mesh of cultures, what do you think about the surge of Black Girl Magic that commanded the world’s attention this Olympic season?
I think it’s so tight. I think Black Girl Magic is dope because a lot of times things are taken [from us] and other people are praised for it, so I think it makes a strong statement now that the recognition is here and isn’t going anywhere.
Earlier, you mentioned that the album is finally done. When you look back at the trajectory of your career to this point, I know working on this project had to be extremely special for you. Can you leave us with a sneak peek of what we can anticipate when it drops? Are there any additional features besides Jeremih that we should keep an ear out for?
There are some other features. I don’t want to say yet though, but they will be on there. I stuck with a very small group of producers for the album. Even though I’ve done EPs and mixtapes, this album is my reintroduction because it’s my first. It’s taken a long time, and I just wanted it to have a very cohesive sound so you can get to know who I am, so even though I have features, there aren’t many. My sound has evolved. I’ve definitely done songs that are outside of the R&B box, but it’s still R&B at its core and it still has that ‘90s vibe to it. I’m really happy. It’s my favorite project to date.
Check out 213 here.