You'd be forgiven for previously assuming that José James was a man with something to prove. There was that decade he spent reshaping jazz with the genre-blurring verve of a crate-digging beat guru. And that time he declared his jazz career was over, ditched the bands, and became a solo R&B star. And then there were the last couple years he spent living in Bill Withers' shoes – recording and touring that legendary songbook for the Lean On Me project, a feat as brazen as they come. Now, well, it's not that James is out of mountains to climb, but sometimes you gotta stop to consider the one you've already got under your feet. Thus, the satin-voiced songwriter's latest is No Beginning No End 2, a sequel to his 2013 album that resurrects the bold eclecticism we first fell in love with, while taking us on a journey through both celebration and introspection.
Of course, things are a little different this time around. For one, while the prequel was James' Blue Note debut, this is his first set of new music for his own label/collective Rainbow Blonde Records. Secondly, the album is chock-full of collaborators who are auteurs in their own right – Laura Mvula, Aloe Blacc, Ledisi, Erik Truffaz, and Hindi Zahra, to name a few – appearing in unexpected sonic contexts. Thirdly, with the backing of a wildly good band held down by rhythm sections in Los Angeles and Brooklyn the songs are warmer and more defined than ever, balancing classic songwriting against immersive vibe.
Opener "I Need Your Love" basks in the kind of romantic groove the Roots or Fugees used to whip up, but with James and Ledisi duetting while a very overqualified Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – one of the greatest trumpeters of his time – happily flows over the living beat. The next cut sounds something like Mutations-era Beck interpolating "Hey Ya!", and it's exuberantly counted in by honest-to-god J-pop star Rihwa. And song three, "Feels So Good," is straight-up disco bliss, with James exuding Bobby Caldwell cool as he trades lines with divine newcomer Cecily. As if that weren't enough, he and Aloe Blacc flirt with Minneapolitan funk on the swaggering "Turn Me Up," just moments before James flips Billy Joel's gorgeously soft-rocking (and subtly jazz-kissed) "Just the Way You Are."
Naturally, NBNE2's players (whose bona fides are a bit too extensive to list here) are of a similar philosophical mindset, including: Brett Williams, Kris Bowers, and Takeshi Ohbayashi on keys; Marcus Machado, Alan Hampton, and LP coproducer Brian Benderon guitar; Ben Williams on bass; and Justin Brown and Jamire Williams on drums. James also enlisted Alberto Lopez (of Quetzal) for the sort of Afro-Latin percussion common to so much black music of that era, from Marvin Gaye to Gloria Gaynor – which befits James' own Angolan-Panamanian roots.
Because as much as the first half of the album displays James as the consummate entertainer – bright and extroverted – the second half finds the lyrical lens subtly pushing in on the man behind the band. The transition point is the aforementioned "Nobody Knows My Name," where he and Laura Mvula examine the slippery nature of identity in the face of fame, race, time, and place. Then, with Lizz Wright on the gospel-lifted "Take Me Home," James can be heard yearning for something soulful and familiar. A song later, he finds it with his partner (in business, songwriting, and life) Rainbow Blonde cofounder/artist Taali – their spare ballad, "I Found a Love," hits that balance of deeply intimate and universally felt, like something Stevie Wonder might've penned.
The search for Self evolving outward again into the search for Other – plays out in two of No Beginning No End 2's most striking songs as the album winds down. First comes our host's true singer-songwriter moment, "Saint James," splitting the difference between folk and soul as James coos softly from the other side of heartache and an empty bottle or two. Then comes relief with album-closer "Oracle (高尾山)," creeping in on Truffaz' cool blue trumpet, entwining itself around Zahra's beautifully elastic voice, and climbing as the band slowly surges toward what feels like impending revelation. But instead of some massive musical crescendo or clear-cut response to James' cosmic queries, we get a different kind of answer that speaks once again to the NBNE theme: the sound of a stream flowing from one unknown place to another.