Kem’s discography is a treasure in the midst of the musical sea.
An R&B aficionado familiar with his work may bring up his name when debating about the most slept-on artists. Over the years, he has been referred to as “R&B’s Best Kept Secret.” Though, his resume doesn’t seem to strongly support this title.
Before signing to Motown Records, Kem independently released his debut album Kemistry in 2001. The Detroit native handled his own marketing efforts, as he went around selling the CD from his trunk — 15,000 copies to be exact. During this time, the neo-soul genre was making waves in mainstream music.
Kem’s ability to win over thousands of R&B consumers attracted executives at Universal Motown. Subsequently, he signed a record deal and reissued the album in February 2003, which was certified gold by summer 2004.
Through the years, as more audiences discovered Kem’s gift for singing, writing and producing, it’s been hard to contain him as a secret. With a platinum-selling album, two gold albums, three Grammy nominations and six number-one singles, it’s safe to say that Kem’s work is far from overlooked.
Kem is aware that some people refer to him as an underrated artist, but he is confident that his new album Love Always Wins, out now, will shift the conversation.
“I feel that those labels are about to change with this album,” Kem affirms over the phone with Rated R&B on a Friday evening in August. “I’ve had a wonderful career. I’ve enjoyed tremendous success and I’m a firm believer that the best is yet to come.”
Love Always Wins is Kem’s first album in six years. A few things have transpired for Kem, professionally and personally, since releasing Promise To Love in 2014.
“I’ve changed my management team and reevaluated the way that I make music,” he shares. “On the personal side, I got married. My wife and I have added two more precious children to our brew of five kids and moved across the country.”
Kem isn’t an artist who feels compelled to rush to release music. His longtime fans should know by now that they may have to wait a few years for a new album.
While it may seem like Kem drops an album every blue moon, it doesn’t mean he is not constantly recording. In fact, he started working on “Lie To Me” in 2016, which was co-written by Anthony Hamilton, Salaam Remi and James Poyser. “That song was recorded first, before the majority of the album was even recorded,” he reveals.
“Lie To Me” served as the lead single for Kem’s new album. Since releasing in April, the soul charmer has seen success at radio, peaking at number one on Billboard’s Adult R&B Airplay chart. It also has garnered much attention on streaming platforms with over 800,000 listens on Spotify alone.
“I knew that it was going to be the single just because of the vibe and the way that it feels,” Kem says when asked why he decided to pick the song as the leading track. “I wanted to come back and really set the tone for what was going to come.”
The early recording sessions for the album included crafting sounds at the iconic Hitsville U.S.A. in Detroit, the home of where many classic Motown songs were recorded. As an artist signed to Motown and is from Detroit, the experience was a full-circle moment for Kem. Not only did he record at the historic location but he also collaborated with Paul Riser, who has worked with legendary singers such as Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and Gladys Knight, among many others.
Kem notes Riser worked on the string arrangement on “With You In My Life” and “Live Out Your Love.”
“To have that caliber, legacy and history — it was really a treat watching him be back in that studio,” says Kem. “When you look up at those walls, you see his picture where he’s playing trombone. It was really meaningful, not just for me, but the musicians and the arranger, as well. It was an honor and definitely a moment in my career.”
“Live Out Your Love,” his duet with Toni Braxton, is the second radio single off the album. A solo version of the song also appears on the album.
“This record, in particular, I think some of that Marvin Gaye music was inspirational for sure,” he explains about the inspiration behind the song. “It’s got a Marvin-esque vibe to it and I’m doing some of the classic Marvin licks just to pay homage, not to try to emulate but just pay respect to that genre and legacy.”
Kem reveals his collaboration with Braxton happened organically. He recalls taking his wife to Braxton’s Valentine’s Day concert last year in Detroit. “Toni called me up to the stage and we had a musical moment,” he says. “From that moment on, the seed was planted for me to seek her out for a collaboration and ‘Live Out Your Love’ was the perfect song for that. Of course, Toni makes everything sound good (laughs).”
At the end of the day when all else fails, that love will still remain. – Kem
Like “Live Out Your Love,” his Erica Campbell-assisted duet “Love Always Wins” also includes a solo edition. “I was looking for someone to add a bonafide gospel texture to the song on the backend,” he reveals. “Erica’s name was mentioned to me. I have been a fan of Mary Mary for years, of course. I’m grateful she did. It wasn’t originally slated to be a duet but after we heard her vocal and her performance and the energy she brought to the record, I felt that it was magic and I’m grateful — she really added an element…she elevated the song.”
When asked why he decided to keep solo versions of his duets on the album, he bluntly responds with, “The standard versions existed before the duets. I sang the whole song and then the duet came into fruition. I don’t even always know if a song is going to be a duet, so I sing it as if it’s not going to be a duet, and then after I do all that work, there’s no way that it’s not going on the record (laughs). I did all that work, y’all gonna hear this! But both versions are great. I’m a fan of both versions.”
Love Always Wins hears Kem swimming in familiar territory. As an ambassador for love, the R&B balladeer makes it his duty to continue to promote that feeling we all yearn for, with his tender tunes about finding and falling in love.
“The one thing that has been constant for me is that I know that each of us, no matter where we come, no matter what our backgrounds are, no matter what our socioeconomic status is, there are two things we have in common: somebody loves us and we love somebody,” he says. “At the end of the day when all else fails, that love will still remain.”
The 51-year-old singer, who got married in 2019, has noticed how his perspective on love has changed over the years. “I think it’s natural as we get older and continue to mature emotionally, we get to discover all of these different textures of love in our life if we’re lucky — and that’s what love is. It’s my favorite topic and I don’t think we can get enough of it.”
For the album’s production, Kem wanted to experiment with sounds that haven’t been heard on his previous works. “You listen to this album and you go back and listen to Kemistry, it’s night and day. The feeling, essence and authenticity of both of those records are the same but the production is different,” he says.
He adds, “There’s definitely a trick to it because you never want to be in a position where you’re chasing a sound. I’m always trying to be progressive but at the same time, maintain the integrity of how I want to hear music sound.”
There are no fillers on Love Always Wins. However, Kem does think there are some standouts such as the acoustically-driven “Friend Today.”
“That song is special because when I sat down to write it, I didn’t get up until I was done,” he reveals about the socially-conscious song. “It’s just guitar and vocal. It makes a really powerful statement.”
“Can’t Stop Giving Love” stands out among the rest of the songs on the album due to its uptempo production. The dancefloor-friendly groove is reminiscent of a Michael Jackson song recorded during his Off The Wall era, which Kem says is “the fastest song I’ve ever recorded in my life.”
And then there’s “Praise,” a smooth jam that channels the stylings of S.O.S. Band. “It’s classic Kem in a sense that it’s a groove,” he describes. “I think that it’s a special tune and I really like it. You put that on loop and just drive or clean the house or whatever it is, it just takes me to a place of solitude.”
At a time when there’s a lot of uncertainty and unrest in the world, Love Always Wins should hopefully spread some light. “Love is the most important thing,” Kem declares. “There is good in the world. That good is love and without it, there’s only darkness. I feel that everything is in divine order and this is the perfect season for this album.”
Stream Kem’s new album Love Always Wins below.