Whether occurring privately or right out on front street, there are various telltale signs of a man’s coming of age. The first stubby coil of hair pushing through on a bare chin is usually an indication. Privately, it’s when the family patriarch slaps a hand on the living room couch beside him, summoning the youngin’ for a man-to-man on what it means to exit adolescence. We know it’s happening when pint-sized Michael Jackson voices crack and creak before reemerging husky gravels. Sometimes the premise of J. Cole’s “Wet Dreamz” sums up that moment, where cautious, wobble-legged boys fumble past unwrapped condoms to satisfy nervous first time pleas for pleasure.
For singer Ro James, pinpointing that sweet spot when his young life pivoted into uncharted territory is a no-brainer. Age 19 was, and still is, a bookmark in his life’s Moleskine, a mental gateway to the year the state-hopping military brat—born in Stuttgart, Germany, Ro has lived in Indiana, California, Hawaii, Texas, Oklahoma and New York—did plenty growing beyond the physical.
“Nineteen was the first time I really had a real relationship, really fell in love, really had my heart broken, really broke her heart and sex meant something a little bit different,” he says from a cozy break room at New York’s Jungle Studios, pulling teen memories from the back corners of his mind. It’s evident by both his anecdotes and his attire that he has a penchant for details.
The symbolic number is inked on his body at least twice; a faded tat adorns his ring finger and a set of fresh numerals is still healing on his neck. Between flashy rings and commemorative ink, no fingers besides his thumbs are bare. Glimmering scorpion and marijuana leaf pendants—odes to his notoriously lusty zodiac sign and medicinal musical muse, respectively—dangle from a chain around his neck, popping against the billowy neon yellow shirt he opted for today instead of his traditional black-on-black threads. He’s already running late for his session; his engineer waits idly in the adjacent recording room, fiddling with buttons and levers as he waits. Unbothered, Ro keeps on going about his golden year. “At 19 years old, I started to put that into my music and connect it emotionally, so it wasn’t just sex. It was love and sex.”
Not only was 19 years old the age when his heart became a stretched, shattered and re-stitched plaything of love, but it’s when a rebellious Ronnie James Tucker was also gifted an old-school Cadillac, the vehicle that literally and figuratively took him from 0 to 100 in his adult life and set the groundwork for his career.
“I knew I could sing a little bit, but I didn’t know my voice,” he says, likening his sense of self-discovery to that of Prince circa Purple Rain. It’s hard not to hear the nuances that he pulled from the departed legend—and his number one influence—from his style of singing to his sartorial flair to the subjects of his music. “I watched that movie so many times. And as I grew, it was not to mimic or not to copy or duplicate. It was like, I relate to you. That is my life, too. He told us the story of his life, all the girls that he went through, the relationships, the freaky tales. I had some very freaky tales in the back of my Caddy, so it’s like I want to tell about that and have people understand and be able to relate, too.”
Exploring that emotional terrain became a breeding ground for the things explored on ELDORADO, his debut album bearing the name of the car model where these acts of love and learning were committed. The project, comprised of sleek and seductive bedroom odes (“Burn Slow,” “Everything”), relationship reflections (“I’m Sorry (Interlude),” “Last Cigarette”) and naughty numbers (“She said, boy you need Jesus, I said girl get on your knees,” he sings in “New Religion”) peaked at No. 3 on Billboard’s R&B Albums chart and No. 8 on their Hip-Hop/R&B chart. But “Permission,” the LP’s clear supernova, was what took him to the next level.
“With your permission, I just wanna spend a little time with you/With your permission, tonight I wanna be a little me on you…” Ro coaxes, climbing high into his trademark raspy, scratchy falsetto before digging right back down in weighty mid-tones, aiming to please. Since it’s November 2015 release, the sultry selection has won over both ladies itching for a little nookie and men who appreciate a certain era of soulful R&B.
“I think ‘Permission’ connected because it bridges the gap from old school people who appreciate Willie Hutch and the movie The Mack and those people who’ve heard it before, and soul, feeling and emotion, then it connects to the youth in the sense of that bass, that knock, that high hat and that ride. And then that melody brings everybody together,” he says.
That, and because in a year when Birth of a Nation director Nate Parker is getting torched for a 17-year-old rape case and young white men are walking away from sexual abuse trials with mere slaps on their wrists, the crux of the single is crystal clear consent. “Women are tired of the way guys approach women so aggressive,” he continues. “Just to approach her and say listen, I want to take the time to get to know you, I want to make you smile, and I just want you to say yes. So, you say yes? Give me that green light, yes or no.”
The song, which nabbed the top spot on Billboard’s Adult R&B Songs chart, as well as his other ELDORADO favorites like “I’m Sorry,” “Holy Water” and “A.D.I.D.A.S.” have been successful in bringing newer, older fans onboard this year as he trekked across the U.S. on very his first tour. Although thrilling, opening up for Maxwell’s Summers’ Tour 2016 was a nerve-racking, humbling experience. It’s not easy to get up on a stage with flashy rings and ripped skinny jeans when a mature crowd is specifically waiting for the suited up OG #MCM they paid to see (“It was a blessing for my very first tour to be able to be introduced to his audience that buys music, supports and buys concert tickets. Everybody nowadays wants something for free,” he says). Touching those stages from Washington to Florida (and now across continents on Maxwell and Mary J. Blige’s newly announced King + Queen world tour), involved a lot of show-and-prove.
“I took the opportunity to say, these people know nothing about me. I’m gonna tell you my story while I’m here, how I got here and why this guy right here gave me this opportunity,” he says. “So every night I did that. By the end of the tour, I had girls on the stage dancing.”
When Ro says that tour was his first time really performing consistently and comfortably, it’s hard to believe him. After unintentionally tailing the tender-tempered crooner at performances at Essence Festival, Heineken Green Room, BJ the Chicago Kid’s In My Mind tour and intimately for VIBE’s own VSessions this year, his confident on-stage swagger, flirtatious mannerisms, the flashing of his gleaming gold incisor and screaming women giving him all the “Permission” he wants come off as natural as breathing.
But it wasn’t always this way. At one point, young Ro was so shy he wouldn’t sing outside the protective walls of his house (not even in church, which is where he, his brother, mother and drill-sergeant-turned-preacher dad spent a good chunk of their time). Even into adulthood the fear of performing would gnaw at him pre-show (a swig of Jack Daniels tends to disperse some of the butterflies), until one day he had to nip the nerves in the bud.
During a sold out show at New York’s Highline Ballroom following the independent 2013 release of his Coke, Jack and Cadillacs EP series, he stepped out onto the stage, saw how full it was and felt hundreds of eyes staring back at him in excitement. Yes, his other singer friends Luke James, Melanie Fiona and Stacy Barthe were hidden on the bill, but the crowd was here to see him. “From that moment it was like, oh man, I have a responsibility to you to be my greatest self and not be fearful, because when you’re an artist and you have the power to influence, you have to know yourself,” he says. “In order for me to be up there and sing my songs, I knew myself when I wrote it, so performing it I had to knock that fear out and just be that.”
Since then, Ro has been on a mission not only to exceed his own expectations for himself, but those set by skeptics critical of the success of R&B in a time where half-rappers-half-singers reign supreme.
“They told me that singing R&B was dead, that I should try auto-tune and that R&B wasn’t a genre that was going to make money anymore, so labels weren’t signing that,” the ByStorm Entertainment/RCA Records signee says with a fading smile. It’s one of the insults that have been hurled his way during the course of his nascent career. “I’ve had people tell me that there’s a million people in the world who want to do the same thing with bigger voices. ‘How are you different? What do you got?’’
Ro snarls a bit at the recollected remarks, growing testy with the faceless doubters, looking off into space before regaining eye contact. With the kind of year he’s had under his belt and the tucked away momentum for 2017, consider that challenge accepted. “What, do you want me to prove it to you right now? Okay, I got you.”
Videography by Jason Chandler