The centerpiece of Leela James’ new album, See Me, is the title track, an arrestingly forlorn piano ballad built with snapping fingers and rich, Jam & Lewis-style chords — think of their work on New Edition’s “Boys to Men.” That 1988 cut was a plea for understanding from a group of child stars as they hit maturity. James’ “See Me” is a plea for understanding from a music business that has always given R&B singers, especially women, short shrift. “I am somebody just like the rest,” James sings. “But you look right through me even when I give my best/What more can I do, after I give my all to you?”
“That was dedicated to the industry, a letter about how I was feeling as an artist, a woman, an African-American woman, who is feeling unseen,” James says. “It’s like, ‘hey, I need you to see me, because I’ve been working really hard for many, many years.'”
James, whose imposing, finely textured voice is reminiscent of Seventies soul singers who made their name on Stax and Buddah Records, released her major-label debut album back in 2005. By that time, the neo-soul boom of the late Nineties and early 2000s was slowing to a trickle, and the music business in general was suffering hard times due to piracy. It seemed like the industry didn’t know what to do with singers like James: Her label dropped her and her career temporarily stalled.
When she reemerged with a second album in 2009, James was an independent artist, presaging the recent major-label exodus of R&B acts. She kept recording and touring, and eventually won a devoted following in the R&B community, cracking the Top Ten at R&B radio for the first time in 2015 and hitting Number One the following year. Her latest single, “Complicated,” a burnished southern soul cut with echoes of Zapp’s great “Computer Love,” is climbing the chart right now — it reached Number 6 last week, hitting an audience of more than 5.5 million people.
“Complicated” fits perfectly next to James’ other raspy radio singles — especially her Number One single “Don’t Want You Back” — which emphasize meaty guitar lines, piston-like piano, lung-busting power, and expertly placed backing vocals. James is from California, but these are some of the only examples of contemporary R&B hits that still draw on the venerable Southern soul tradition, using it as a foundation to create songs that have enough oomph for modern listeners. In contrast, James’ current competition at radio is almost entirely blatant pastiche: neo-Janet-Jackson (H.E.R.’s “Damage”), neo-Stylistics (Silk Sonic’s “Leave the Door Open”), neo-Maxwell-by-way-of-Kate-Bush (Tank’s “Can’t Let It Show”).
While “Complicated” is one of James’ most hummable songs, it’s not the only mode she demonstrates on See Me. If R&B radio is into the Eighties references in “Damage,” it might also appreciate “You’re the One,” which evokes gleaming Eighties singles from the likes of the S.O.S. Band. And James ends her album with the joyous disco cut “Rise N Shine,” a thunking bolt of optimism that brings the set to a hopeful close.
She takes a very different tack on “Angel in Disguise” — this is eerie funk, with a melody like wind chimes drifting in the breeze and a muted bass line that falls out of the track for long periods. As James sings, sifting through memories of the start of a relationship, she realizes she’s been conned by her partner. “Things that I saw stayed on my mind, still I gave up what’s mine for yours,” she sings. “You had me thinking you were the one/…your pretty wings were the perfect disguise.” There’s no resolution here, only the sting of her realization — and those sinister chimes.
“Some people in relationships wear their mask, they come off like good people,” James explains. “But that’s all to draw you in. Then you get sucked into a relationship with them and come to find out this person is an awful human being. They can’t maintain the mask too long and you’re like, ‘I need out.’ You’re not the person I thought you were.”
She explores similar themes on See Me‘s second single, “Put It On Me” — “You’re just who you are/I just shouldn’t have let this thing go so far/You wasn’t worth all this, I shoulda stayed on my own” — which stomps forward in 6/8 time, the classic southern soul ballad tempo. And in a way, “See Me” is about the same sort of toxic relationship with an industry that still refuses to provide R&B singers with the same opportunities as their white counterparts.
“Can you see me? I’m standing right here,” James sings. “Can you hear me? Singing so loud and so clearly/Trying to get through to you and hoping that you understand.”