Until his hit single "Permission," Ro James' biggest claim to fame was co-writing "Use Me" from Miguel's Kaleidoscope Dream. And like that 2012 R&B outsider, James' major-label debut, El Dorado, shows little interest in the flavor of the moment. He prefers drums that are big and blocky. Guitars linger over singer/songwriter licks, vibrate at the frequency of a buzz saw or jab in the pointy, two-dimensional style favored by some stripes of indie rock.
On a recent afternoon in a coffee shop on Manhattan's Lower East Side, the singer laid out his artistic vision, addressing himself to an imaginary collaborator. "The way I create, I have to vibe with you," he says. "You understand that there are no limitations, and I understand that there are no limitations.
"I don't produce," he continued. "I can suggest to you what the beat sounds like; you have to take it from there. But you can't limit yourself to just R&B sounds. Get some guitar in there; get some bass in there; get some instrumentation."
James appears to have come by a willful eclecticism honestly. He was born in Germany and lived in Hawaii, Oklahoma, Indiana, California and Illinois. His father was a pastor, so he also got plenty of gospel in his diet. The singer moved into his grandma's house in Jamaica, Queens, before transitioning into Manhattan, where he threw himself headfirst into New York's creative scene. "Because of my experiences and travel, I was able to adapt in different environments," he says. "I was able to maneuver in between different scenes and groups of people."Eventually this talent helped him connect with Miguel and Mark Pitts, President of Urban Music at RCA Records, who served as the executive producer of El Dorado.
Though James sails though his stories as a smooth operator, his official debut didn't come without a few lumps: In particular, he didn't always see eye to eye with his label. "Say I'm painting this picture," he said, pointing at Eiffel tower-themed artwork on the wall. "I'm almost through with the colors and the story. It's a blue and grey story. You come over and you're like, 'Add some neon orange to that. I think everybody likes neon orange these days. It's gonna sell.'"
Absorbing the counsel of others was a gradual process for James, but El Dorado has seen some shaping courtesy of Ryan Toby, who encountered success in the early Aughts as a member of City High, and Stacey Barthe, who has helped write songs for Rihanna, Brandy and Miley Cyrus. Surprisingly, the decision to release "Permission" was one of the more divisive. The track borrows a guitar sample from Willie Hutch's "Brother's Gonna Work It Out;" a cyclical riff that has already buttressed great records from Jaheim ("Lookin For Love") and Chief Keef ("Nobody"). When the guitar is paired with a simple beat, the spark is immediate. James works with a gliding falsetto and a thirsty but deferential mid-register. The song doesn't have much of a bridge, but it doesn't need one.
"We had con-ver-sa-tions about 'Permission,'" the singer says. "I felt like it was too simple. I have to give that to Mark Pitts for calling that, because I argued that to the end. I thought it was a great song. I just didn't know it was going to do this."
The single is an outlier on El Dorado, more in line with contemporary trends than most of the record. But James is confident that the hit will entice listeners to immerse themselves in the rest of the album. "Sometimes you have to simplify it so people understand you," he said. "You can't give 'em all you got with the first take. You gotta pull them in."