Interview: Fantasia Is ‘The Definition Of’ Strength

If anyone knows a thing or two about life, it’s Fantasia. The 32-year-old singer has experienced many obstacles in her life, including rape at age 14 and a suicide attempt in 2010, that has made her a survivor. Her new album, The Definition Of, is the soundtrack for anyone who’s going through tough times.

The Definition Of represents strength,” Fantasia reveals to Rated R&B. “I’ve been through some things that people may have not been able to bounce back from. I am fighter and I will continue to fight. My reason for fighting is to encourage other women to accept the storms and the tests because they only come to make you strong.”

Fantasia worked closely with music exec and producer Ron Fair to create The Definition Of. It wasn’t easy, especially since the album steps outside of her R&B box to explore different sounds and genres of music. “Rock soul” is how she describes the album’s sonic mix.

In an interview with Rated R&B, Fantasia discusses the challenges of making her new album, finally gaining creative control, bringing back passion to the music industry, returning to Broadway and much more.

RATED R&B: What was the most challenging part of creating/recording the album?

FANTASIA: The most challenging thing is when you hear a sound and you want something so bad and you need certain things for it. Thank God for the relationships because there were a lot of times when we needed certain things or we wanted to bring in a live band. When you call the label and you tell them that, it’s like, “We don’t have the money for this…we don’t have the money for that.” That bothers you when you’re in the studio and somebody tells you, “We don’t have the budget for it” or “we don’t believe in it.” That can be frustrating.

What does The Definition Of represent?

It represents real music. When I say that I’m not just talking about the singing, I’m talking about the horns that you hear, the guitar, the strings, the drum, the arrangement, the vocals. Ron Fair really brought something out of me I didn’t even know I could do. There were times when I would be in the booth and he would play [music] on the piano and would be like this is the note I want you to sing. I’m like, “Ron, I don’t quite hear that in that.” He’s like, “Just do it, just do it.”

We wanted the album to represent the definition of music — the definition of the strength of a fighter. He and I both fought for this record. We don’t have timeless records like we did back then. You can still put in a Luther Vandross CD or Anita Baker or Elton John or Queen or Stevie Wonder, and those were timeless records. It seems like they were just recorded yesterday. That’s what we wanted.

Fantasia RatedRnB.com

Although you wanted to bring back real music on this album. Did you ever feel the pressure to cater to radio and what’s being played on there now?

Nope! I think that’s what everybody else on the other end was thinking. Right now on the radio, it’s really not a lot of singing. It’s mainly hip-hop. Right now there’s no good messages in the songs. There’s no motivation in the songs. Nobody hears good love music anymore. So I just wanted to know when the radio stations would stand up and say, “Let’s bring back music.” Let’s do both. People are saying singers are dying off. They’re not. It’s just that we aren’t getting the support we need to continue to keep that type of music alive.

With you being in the music industry over the last 12 years, do you believe creative control is something that should be given to artists early on, or is it something that should be earned over time?

Early on. If you are an artist and you are a writer and you know what the sound is and you know what you want it to be arranged, I feel like it’s something you have to fight for in the beginning because it’s harder when you put people in control of everything and allow them to do what they want to do. You kinda get stuck in a box, which can hurt you in the long run because you are allowing them to make you what they want you to be and if it doesn’t go far, then you find yourself fighting harder to get back to that place where you know you should have been. For me it was a lot harder because I was coming from a show and they had everything all planned out. Your deal is already there, so you’re walking into a ready-made situation and it’s kind of harder for you to call the shots.

That’s why it was such a fight, but I finally got to that place where I just knew what I wanted, and if I couldn’t do it, then I just couldn’t do it anymore. Twelve years is a long time and I plan on doing it for as long as I can. But when you’re getting up on that stage and you’re away from your family and the sacrifices you make when you’re out here, you want to do what your heart is telling you to do. You want to create music and be in that space you’re in and share that with the audience. I’m at that place right now where I just couldn’t do what they wanted me to do or record a song just because it was sent to me. That’s where the fight came in for me on this album.

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So, The Definition Of is the album where you felt you had some creative control and was very hands on?

Yes, with the help with Ron Fair. He fought with me because he believed. With Ron I was almost at that place where I was like, “I would rather not do it at all if this is what you’re telling me I have to do as an artist.” This is what you’re telling me is hot right now, and musically what it should sound like. If you’re telling me that, I would rather stay home and be with my family. When I met him, we were in the same place of, “Somebody out there wants to hear good music, timeless records.”

That’s something I can respect about you. It’s so easy to just do what people tell you to do to collect a paycheck. For the simple fact that you’re willing to make sacrifices and fight for music that you actually believe, I think that’s a quality that more artists should kind of take up. I feel like that’s something that will keep you in the industry longer because if you know your worth as an artist and as a person, you’re not going to settle for anything less than that.

The thing about it is — and I think record labels have forgotten this, radio stations, artists have forgotten this — when it all started for all of us, it started as passion. The A&R’s that had that passion to go out and find great artists and then after finding them, go out and build relationships with the radio stations and get them where they could see them going when they first heard them. I think that the passion is gone. It’s not about the money and that’s what me and Ron were talking about. There were days we would come out of the booth and just have conversations where we wouldn’t record. And I always said this is perfect.

I think when you record, everyone feels like they put a time limit on it, and they feel like every day you should go into the studio and do something. Sometimes it don’t work like that and that’s how you be creative. We would go in the studio and just have deep conversations and we talked about this album and the direction we’re going. Some might not like it, some will, but we were so passionate about it. We talked about the sales and what if, what if. We were both at the place where it’s gonna do what it needs to do. I’m not focused on if it’s going to go number one.

That passion I had since I was a little girl, just getting up and singing, it’s my therapy. It blesses me. I remember when we used to stand on the side of street and sing for free. I remember when we would go to different places and it wasn’t about the money, it was about the passion. I think that the whole industry, everybody needs to get back to the passion about it…about singing and writing and deejaying and A&R’ing. We are losing the passion.

That’s what I like about your new album. I feel like you did not put yourself in a box. You didn’t stick to that R&B lane. There are elements of country, pop and gospel. You really kind of just stuck to the music and went whichever way felt more comfortable. I like how you show your versatility as an artist and a singer.

Thank you and that’s rock soul. People say to me, “what’s rock soul?” I tell them rock soul is every genre of music and that’s what I wanted to do on this album. “Ugly,” my country song, people were so blown away by it. When you love music, you love it all. When rock soul came to me, it was that lane of me doing everything. You can invite me to your jazz concert if you’d like, I got a little something for you. You can invite me to your country concert, I got little something for you. You should be able to step into any arena and be able to adapt to whatever is going on. I know I can because I grew up on it.

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Let’s talk about acting — because you’ve been in two Broadway musicals and a movie. Do you foresee yourself returning to Broadway?

Yes. Back then, when I first did The Color Purple, I probably would’ve said “hell no” because Broadway is no joke (laughs). Every time I go see a show, I’m always impressed and proud because I know how much it takes to do that every day and to step into that character’s shoes everyday as if it is a new show. I’m always awed and proud of them because doing The Color Purple was no joke. The role I played, Miss Celie, she was tough, and it was all new for me and I didn’t know how to come out of the character. I didn’t know how to let it go. So, I woke up Celie, went to bed Celie. When I look back at it, I couldn’t have played the part if I did not step fully into her shoes. After doing it here in New York for a year, I went on the road with it.

After that, I came back and did After Midnight. I enjoyed the challenge, and I enjoy being able to step away from Fantasia and go into being another character and live that life so well. I get a kick out of stuff like that. I want to do it again. I want a totally different role this time. I want people to say, “I never expected her to do that.” I think from playing Celie and doing my Lifetime movie, everybody knows I can tap into the woman that’s been beaten and been down. I don’t want to do that anymore. Whatever I do, I would want it to be a challenge in a role I’ve never done and something nobody would ever expect.

What’s next for you?

I don’t know to be honest. Everything that I’ve done has come to me. Of course, the tour is next. We are going to do a tour with Charlie Wilson coming up soon and I love him. The man puts on an amazing show. I feel like I’m just getting started, even though I’ve been in the game for 12 years. I have the right team of people around me. I’m working on the rock soul label. I want to bring artists out and actually take good care of artists — we’ll have to have another conversation about that. I want to take care of artists and let them be artists and support and love on them.

Get Fantasia’s new album The Definition Of on iTunes here. Follow her on Instagram/Twitter @TasiasWord.

Keithan is the founder/editor-in-chief of Rated R&B

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Exclusive: Ro James Talks Sophomore Album

When it comes to R&B artists pushing the envelope, Ro James is at the top of the list. From his three-part EP Coke, Jack & Cadillacs to his debut album Eldorado, James shows his commitment to the traditional R&B sound while adding his own unique touch. His debut single “Permission” was one of the biggest R&B songs in 2016, reaching number one on Billboard’s Adult R&B Songs chart. Meanwhile, Eldorado has racked up over 263 million streams on Spotify alone.

James’ popularity has afforded him major opportunities that aren’t always obtained by new artists.  From joining legendary acts like Maxwell and Mary J. Blige on tour to headlining his own XIX Tour, James has been consistently booked and busy since his Eldorado era

“I grew up listening to the legends — respecting their work, emulating their voices and just learning their writing techniques,” James tells Rated R&B. “You don’t realize while you’re in it but then you sit back you’re like, ‘I just did a show with Mary J. Blige. I just did a show with Maxwell.’ It’s an honor and it also lets me know I’m on the right path.”

With a successful album under his belt, James is gearing up for his sophomore album that is expected to drop this summer. Before he drops the project, he plans to release the second installment of his two-part EP, Smoke & Mirrors.

Rated R&B caught up with James at his tour stop in Washington, D.C. In our interview, James dishes on his Smoke & Mirrors EP, his sophomore album, collaborating with Salaam Remi and his love for cars.

Check out the interview below.

Tell us about your Notorious B.I.G.-assisted song “Lost My Mind” from your Smoke EP.

That song was produced by Salaam Remi. I’ve known Salaam for a while and this is our first time actually getting into work. That song came right out of us getting in the studio — it was the first day, within the first hour. He was asking me what I was going through in my life. I had just got come off a breakup. It was either I really go hard with my music or try to appease my girl who was complaining that I didn’t have the time or wasn’t giving her enough attention — women need that too and my career needs that too. So it’s like in a sense, you have to decide and it kind of makes you a little crazy because you don’t want to lose either if it’s real.

If it’s your dream that you’ve worked hard to get to a certain place, nobody should be able to stop that. Anybody that’s joining energies with you should be able to say, “Let’s get this together.” So, “Lost My Mind” is about the idea of losing your mind and choosing which way to go. The Biggie sample, man it’s kinda crazy. I’m signed to ByStorm/RCA Records. Mark Pitts is my OG. It’s an honor to be under them too because I’m from New York. So, growing up, 90s hip-hop was NEW YORK and Mark Pitts was a part of that. When I was with Salaam, I was literally just mumbling and rapping the feeling because I knew the feeling I wanted to have in the hook and he was like, “Yo I have an idea” and he put the Biggie verse on there.

What can you tell us about your Mirrors EP and how does that compare to Smoke?

I had just come up out of a relationship, came off tour, did my own tour…and really tried to find the time to have a peaceful moment so I could gather all of the things I’ve been through and being able to talk about it. It’s hard. I was just in a place where it was kind of hazy. I was just creating music with people — Ryan Toby, Verse Simmonds —  just a lot of different people. When you see fire, you see smoke and when you see smoke you know there’s a fire. It’s like I got all this music that I’ve been holding and just growing with. I wanted to put something out eventually. I’m not the type of person who just puts music out. I want people to appreciate it and I feel like we’re in a time where we’re just oversaturating music. With Smoke, I’m in a haze but at the same time, I’m out that shit. I’ve been creating some fire shit. I decided to call it Smoke & Mirrors because in life everything is fucking smoke and mirrors. The Mirrors part is about reflection for me. In a time of, through the smoke, through the fire, through the breakups, through being on the road — all of that shit — it’s something that you’re moving so fast and you don’t have time to really breathe and appreciate it, take a moment to see how far you’ve come.

You seem to incorporate cars into your music, somehow. You have an EP called Cadillac, your debut album is titled Eldorado and your Smoke EP has a truck in the artwork. Is this all on purpose or by coincidence? 

Man, first of all, I love cars [laughs]. Me and my dad have that thing in common. I kind of tie that into all of my work. Everything I do is inspired by family and certain things — and myself. My father loves cars and my mother is really into fashion, so I got both.

Photo credit: Cheril Sanchez

How did you approach your second album? What was the process like compared to your first album?

I won’t say harder but it was different because Coke, Jack and Cadillacs was all me. I had nobody in my ear, concept-wise, saying “you should do this” or “you should put this here.” Eldorado was my first time going to the label saying “I don’t want to do this, this is who I am” and accepting their advice too, so we can create something timeless. My next album is the same process — growing with people who now are a part of your trajectory, your growth and who you are…I had a concept from the jump but the thing is finding the sound that matches the concept. It was definitely harder but I enjoyed the process and everybody …

Do you have a title set for your sophomore project?

I’ve been going back and forth between two titles but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be Ro Mantic MP3.

Are there any features on the album?

I got some people I’m working with but I wanted it to come out with no features because I really wanted people to vibe to me, my sound and my feeling. I’m a rebel.

Follow Ro James on Instagram at @RoJamesXIX. Stream his Smoke EP below.

Exclusive: BJ The Chicago Kid Details ‘The Opening Ceremony’ and Teases New Album

It’s hard to believe BJ The Chicago Kid released his major label debut album, In My Mind, just two years ago. Looking back, the Motown Records artist had an impressive debut era. He went on a headlining world tour, earned three Grammy nominations — including “Best R&B Performance,” “Best Traditional R&B Performance,” and “Best R&B Album” — and racked up over 75 million streams on Spotify alone.

In January, he released a vulnerable track called “I’m Sorry” as a treat to his fans. “It’s a song that’s pathetically R&B,” BJ explains to Rated R&B. “I feel like it’s R&B at its most essential feeling,” he continues. “R&B is made to say the things that you can’t or don’t have the balls to say. It’s like you can’t figure out the words to say but somehow this writer and this artist makes this song say exactly how you feel. That’s a part of my job as an R&B singer.”

BJ most certainly doesn’t have an issue with tapping into his feelings. Earlier this month, he dropped three new songs collectively titled as The Opening Ceremony. The lyrically-rich project consists of “Going Once, Going Twice,” “Nothing into Something” and “Rather Be With You.” The songs are just a taste of what fans can expect on his next album that is slated to release later this year.

While fans get acclimated with his three new tracks, the R&B champion teamed with his colleague Ro James for their co-headlining The R&B Tour. Rated R&B caught up with BJ at his tour stop in Washington, D.C. In our interview, he dishes on The Opening Ceremony, his upcoming album, his fight for R&B and more.

If you could add one more artist to The R&B Tour, who would it be?

It would definitely be Luke James. That’s our brother. He’s going to pop up at one of these shows, I’m not going to say which one, but he’s going to pop out and have some fun with us.

What inspired the songs on The Opening Ceremony?

On “Going Once, Going Twice,” I was really eliminating some things in my life that I didn’t really need. I wasn’t necessarily auctioning things off but I thought it was a cool way of having a song in that type of phrasing…describing how auctioneers get rid of things.

“Nothing Into Something” is a song that says you were here with me at the start and right now having what we have is a beautiful thing. It’s about seeing the growth and evolution of our love.

“Rather Be With You” simply describes the feeling with her is like no other. It’s the one place you’d rather be versus anywhere.

Are these three songs tied to your upcoming album in any way?

Absolutely. This is not an EP. To let the secret out the bag, a lot of people put EPs out to see what songs stick with the people. These three songs are on my album.

What can you tell us about the album?

The album is incredible. I’ve grown. I’ve evolved. Life has evolved for me. I’ve grown and seen the world with my label Motown Records. It’s been an incredible asset to add to the music. I just can’t wait to put it out the right way.

Is there a title?

I can’t say yet.

Who are some producers you worked with?

Cool and Dre, Danja, Jarius Mozee, Tubb Young and Karriem Riggins.

Photo credit: Jack Beaudoin

The title of Opening Ceremony and its artwork seem to be inspired by the Olympics. Does the album play on that theme?

Everything I do is huge and worldwide. My first tour was a world tour. So, everything I do begins with the world — not just my community, not just my neighborhood, not just to the people I’ve met but it’s to the world.

You recently said you’re “fighting for R&B, not trying to change it, just push it.” What elements of R&B are you trying to preserve for the masses?

I’m trying to preserve very essence. Our forefathers and our foremothers have laid down such an awesome pedigree of what we should follow. I think it’s up to us to take the responsibility to evolve it, be ourselves and really take it to another level — be creative. Keep the people involved…slow song, fast song, it doesn’t matter. It’s how life has evolved away from me and has given us other opportunities and lanes to help it grow and express ourselves so we should use that.

Speaking of evolving, how would you say you’ve evolved since In My Mind?

Life evolving, my family evolving, my music evolving, my producers evolving…working with producers I’ve never worked with before that I’ve always idolized.

Stream The Opening Ceremony below.

15 Times Missy Elliott Brought ‘FIYAH’ To R&B Music

Let’s be clear, Missy Elliott is and will always be universally relevant in the world of music.

Misdemeanor Elliott has been an unstoppable force since establishing herself as a trailblazer for R&B and hip-hop music and its culture in the early 90s. Some people, such as myself, may say they first heard Elliott and her iconic “hee-hee-hee-hee-how” line on Gina Thompson’s hit “The Things I Do.” Others may remember Elliott’s artistic expression in a large black trash bag from her 1997 video “The Rain.”

What remains consistent with those possible introductions to Ms. Elliott is R&B has been the meeting place. For instance, the chorus on “The Rain” samples “I Can’t Stand the Rain” by ‘70s soul diva Ann Peebles. Missy Elliott not only lent her rap talents to the remix of Thompson’s lead single – she co-penned the track too, which is one of the reasons why we’re here.

For the past few months, Elliott has been on Twitter sharing memories of writing and producing R&B songs for past and present artists. Rated R&B has compiled a list of Elliott’s top 15 R&B hits that she either produced, wrote or was featured on, along with a reason why they are absolute FIYAH (as Elliott would say).

Aaliyah – “One in a Million”

Written by: Melissa “Missy” Elliott & Timothy “Timbaland” Mosley
Produced by: Timbaland

“One in a Million” is FIYAH because it helped shift the direction of R&B and way we heard it with its advanced melting pot of melody and rhythmic. From Kanye West and BJ the Chicago Kid to Jay Z and Tink, the cultural impact of this record is undeniable. The song spent six weeks at No.1 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart.

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