“I’m just trying to create a world for people to experience and feel something,” Josh Levi tells Rated R&B over a video call one afternoon in April. The 23-year-old singer/actor is metaphorically speaking about his vision for creating a body of work, more specifically his new EP Disc Two, out June 9.
The multi-dimensional entertainer has been building his musical world since his childhood. After his recurring role in the Emmy-winning series Friday Night Lights, Levi took his musical talents to season 3 of The X-Factor USA in 2013. Levi, 15 at the time, was a finalist in the singing competition show. In 2016, Levi briefly joined a boy band, Citizen Four, manufactured by his then-label Island Records. A year later, he departed from the group to pursue his solo music career.
Levi doesn’t take any of his past experiences for granted. From competing in front of a national audience to working with a group, he believes his early start in music has helped build confidence. “I’m really grateful,” says Levi. “It’s given me a head start and some time to answer questions about myself and my artistry. Since I was young, I’ve had time to identify what I want to do.”
In 2018, the Houston, Texas, native began releasing standalone tracks such as “98,” “Door Step” and “Drive By.” Then, two years later, as shutdowns started happening around the globe, Levi’s musical world began to open more.
In April 2020, he released “If the World,” a rollicking fusion of R&B and rock, in response to the pandemic. It later appeared on his debut EP, Disc One, which dropped in July of the same year.
The genre-bending project also included popular tracks such as the finger-snapping “Know Better” and the stripped-down “Don’t They.” The latter track’s video, co-directed by Blair Caldwell and Éli Sokhn, co-stars fellow Houston native Normani, Levi’s childhood friend. More on that later.
Levi’s Disc One helped open the door to his next chapter. The EP caught award-winning actress/writer/producer Issa Rae’s attention. In 2021, Levi signed a deal with Rae’s imprint Raedio in partnership with Atlantic Records.
That summer, he released “NASA” as the first taste of Disc Two. “I feel like I was really able to express myself artistically with that song,” Levi notes about the radio-ready track.
“With ‘NASA,’ I was obsessed with how I take this concept of where I am right now with the girl I was talking about and make it feel fresh and bring it in the future,” he shares of the song’s inspiration.
Of course, the government agency’s Johnson Space Center, located in his hometown, also played a major role. “I grew up going to Space Center Houston. NASA was a big thing there. Everywhere you go [in] Houston, there’s NASA something.”
The “NASA” video, directed by Loris Russier, is reminiscent of an Afrofuturistic music video from the late ‘90s. Nostalgic aesthetics aside, Levi was intentional about underscoring his dance skills.
“I grew up dancing, but I had yet to commit to that in a visual or part of a song. That was one of the main themes that I wanted to bring out in the video,” he shares.
Ahead of Disc Two, Levi spoke with Rated R&B about his new project, his focus track “Vices,” his collaboration with Normani (“Don’t They Remix”) and more.
In the first episode of your Backstage YouTube docuseries, you revealed that you spent the first nine years of your life only listening to gospel music since that’s what was played in your house. Does gospel influence the way you approach your songs today?
Honestly, it may — just not intentionally. I think subconsciously. I’m so grateful to have heard amazing vocalists. As a singer myself, you can’t really complain about that. I feel that it innately shaped how I sing or maybe the notes that I hear. That might be different if I weren’t to have [gospel] be such a theme in my childhood.
“Vices” is the second focus track from Disc Two. What does this song represent to you?
“Vices” is about saying ‘no’ when you want to say ‘yes’ — and being proud of yourself because it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s about temptation and walking away from relationships that are not good for you. I’ve had my fair share of toxic women, entanglements, or whatever you want to call it. “Vices” is about putting those things down. It’s a storytelling song. It’s honest. It’s a vibe — if I do say so myself.
Normani is featured on “Don’t They (Remix).” Interestingly, she appeared in your “Don’t They” video. At the end of the video, a title screen pops up that reads “to be continued.” Did you already know that this collaboration would happen at the time, or is it a coincidence?
Oh, is that what the end of that video says? (laughs). No, it all just kind of happened. I thought [Normani] was joking on set of that video. She was like, ‘Send me the song.’ I was like, ‘Stop playing with me.’ But she was actually serious. She’s like, ‘No, for real.’ So we wrote that. We finished it. We produced it a little bit more and brought it to life. Then it ended up being on Disc Two. I think I wanted to release it sooner, but it ended up working out perfectly that it was on the second installment.
It looks like it worked out perfectly. From having Normani in the video to having her sing on the remix, it seems like a full-circle moment.
Thank you. I’m really excited about it. As long as we’ve known each other, which is long, we’ve yet to collaborate on something officially. We’ve done a fair share of covers together, TikToks and performances in Houston. But an actual song collaboration, this is our first — maybe of more. It’s a special little moment.
You previously said Disc One feels like birth. What does Disc Two feel like to you?
That’s a good question. It feels like growth. It feels like a coming-of-age moment for myself. It’s uncensored, more raw and honest. It’s Disc One on steroids. I’m really expressing the things that I’ve been through. Disc One was 2020. A lot has happened since then in my life, my relationships, my career, my family and my mind. So, it’s kind of all of that. I hope that I accomplished being able to hear all of that in the music.
You recently contributed to the Pixar animated film, Turning Red. In the movie, you perform the vocals for Aaron Z, a member of a fictional boy band 4*TOWN. The songs were written by Billie Eilish and Finneas, who also voices a group member. What was your experience being involved in that film?
That was pretty cool. I love animation. I [still] feel like I’m seven (laughs). The Incredibles is one of my favorite movies. Prince of Egypt is my favorite movie, which is [also] animation. So it was full circle. Billie [Eilish], who I’ve known for a minute, and Finneas had me in mind and asked me to be a part of the movie. It was really special. It came out of nowhere and it’s pretty dope. There’s a lot of fans of 4*TOWN, the boy band (laughs).
Back to Disc Two. What impression do you hope to make with this project?
I’m always hoping that people are able to escape when they listen to my music. That’s all I want. If I can create an experience for someone to feel something or go to some other place by listening to my music, then I’m a happy guy. I did my job. Also, I hope people feel like they got to know me more. I’m talking about things a little more personal in a way that’s just opening up. I’m a pretty private person, but I can also be really open. But I’m a Libra at the end of the day (laughs). I feel like I was more brave and honest lyrically [on Disc Two].
Stream Josh Levi and Normani’s “Don’t They (Remix)” below.