José James

Love in a Time of Madness

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As he went into making his fourth Blue Note release, José James envisioned the follow-up to the Billie Holiday tribute Yesterday I Had the Blues as a double album. It was going to be split between love songs and outward-looking material inspired by persistent injustices and increasingly visible and frequent attacks upon persons of color in the U.S. At some point, James scrapped the second half of the concept, too distressed to see it through. In the liner notes for Love in a Time of Madness, he briefly addresses -- in pained but optimistic language -- the condition of his native country and the planet at large. James ends by asking, "What is the value of human life? And of what value is love?" Throughout, he and his collaborators approach answers to the second question by writing from various states of a one-on-one relationship. Seduction, euphoria, salvation, devotion, and distrust are among the moods in the mix. Due to the frequent presence of producer Antario "Tario" Holmes, the primary mode is commercial and contemporary R&B -- booming bass, burbling electronic FX, and other tricks of trap-style production, most prominently those snaking synthetic snares dragged as rapidly as flicked comb teeth. With rare exception, that approach to slow jams is for the sake of vocalists with a small fraction of the skill and life experience possessed by James. In these settings, his silken baritone is restricted, though the likes of the aching "Last Night," suitably closer to Miguel than to Bryson Tiller, and the candy-coated "Always There" (impossible to mistake for Ronnie Laws), are richer than the majority of mainstream radio playlist entries. Three collaborations with Mali Music are comparatively organic and traditionalist, dispersed across the album. Additionally, a throwback-to-throwback sequence of disco-funk numbers, also produced by Tario, provides an untroubled break in the middle. A sparse duet with Oleta Adams comes across like a bonus track transplanted from a different project, but it lets the listener out in a state of romantic contentment, the finishing touch on a uniquely bittersweet addition to the box of chocolates that is James' discography.

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