In mid-2007, a reserved, amicable, soon-to-be-star shuffled out of a hotel elevator for his initial biography interview. His earnest, boyish features creased repeatedly into easy grins, and his unaffected, endearing manner reflected a sturdy upbringing and a refreshing newness to the entertainment game. The world had yet to meet J. Holiday. Well, what a difference a year makes. Now in late 2008, having put the finishing touches on his sophomore album Round 2, the 25-year-old singer sat for this current biography with a quiet purposefulness, a portfolio overflowing with praise, and a global fan base at his fingertips.
“It’s been an amazing year, and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished,” he reflects in typically understated fashion. “You always balance your hopes about what the fans will appreciate versus the reality that it might not work out.” By accomplishments, he means: consecutive back-to-back #1 R&B singles “Bed” and “Suffocate;” utterlyusurping of BET’s 106 & Park; his album Back of my ‘Lac debuting #1 on the R&B chart and selling nearly 800,000 copies; BET and American Music Award nominations for Best Male R&B Artist; and the most recent capstone—a Grammy Award Nomination for Best Contemporary R&B Album. “I’m glad to have the respect of my peers,” he says about the Grammy nod. “It’s nice to be recognized for putting out real music.”
Bridging 2007 and 2008, J. Holiday took to the road, wooing fans from Texas to Tokyo. He crashed the public consciousness as part of R. Kelly’s ground shaking 40-stop Double Up tour, alongside Ne-Yo and Keyshia Cole. He also crisscrossed the country co- headlining a 21-stop tour with fellow crooner Trey Songz. Amidst all that, he found time to lend a breathy hook to Fat Joe’s club sizzler “I Won’t Tell.” “I’m still new to all this, but I also feel seasoned,” J. remarks ironically. “A lot of the game I can do without, but I love being on stage. So I just lose myself in that. And at the end of the day, I’m first and foremost a fan. On the Double Up tour I’d perform first, then go sit in the crowd for the rest of the show. People never understood that; it was never about me being seen, it was about watching R. Kelly and Keyshia and Ne-Yo. I’m out there taking notes. On some level, as the new guy, I had to prove that I could hold my own with them.”
Fittingly, Round 2 boasts an impressive roster; lead single “It’s Yours” springs from the artful hands of StreetLove production/writing team members Big Reese (Mario, T.I., Andre 3000, Pink) and Jasper Cameron (Ciara, Tiffany Evans, Christina Aguilera). Unsurprisingly, “It’s Yours,” with its soothing, seductive sound and J.’s enviably trademark falsetto flourishes, is the #1 most-added R&B song to mainstream urban radio. Asked to describe the song, J. looked sheepishly at the floor and said, “I guess J. Holiday is falling in love.” He laughed off this writer’s subsequent quip: “Yeah, he’s known to do that,” a wink to his romantically-themed hits.
All kidding aside, J.’s old-soul sensibilities and God-given attributes leave little wonder as to the colossal success bestowed upon this preacher’s son. But he’s not content to rest on his laurels or regurgitate recycled material. “I’m definitely on another, more mature level now,” he confirms. “Some of the songs on this album you’d never have heard on the first album. And it’s going to continue to be a growth process; I hope my music never stays the same. I don’t want to be stuck in a box. I want people to say ‘I like J’s music’ and not ‘Did you hear that one song he did?’”
Unusual discourse in today’s single-obsessed musical climate. Indeed, Round 2 runs deep, devoid of the filler and half-hearted attempts plaguing other offerings in the genre. “Lights Go Out” is a dawdling, dripping, soul-slathered freak fest produced by XXXXX. “Forever Ain’t Enough” is stripped-down balladic beauty. The pulsing “Fall” manages to touch the heart and nod the head, reminiscent of transcendent ‘80’s R&B. “Sing 2 U” throbs in a similar vein; J. Holiday appropriately references the Chi-Lites and name checks Marvin Gaye and Jodeci in the first verse. “Fly” is spirited and celestial, and its synthesized hook subtly knocks the current wave of pseudo-singers clogging up the airwaves. Meanwhile, fans wanting for some harder fare will dig ”Wrong Lover”, a collaboration with Floridian flame spitter Rick Ross. There’s a whole lot here to like.
Round 2 is dense, deliberate, and destined for the rarified air gulped in by Back of My ‘Lac. But again, critical and commercial triumph isn’t enough for J. Holiday. He’s tackling weighty issues, another anomaly given today’s artists’ reluctance to stick their necks out. The song “Homeless,” featuring Cee-Lo, is probing social commentary. It’s also the precursor to a larger endeavor: “I’m working on a homeless awareness campaign,” he shares. “I’m actually in the process of starting a foundation. I’m just trying to do my part; it’s an issue I feel people don’t pay enough attention to. It’s always been in the back of my mind, and now I’m in a position to better address it. This isn’t to get any personal recognition, it’s just to show how many people this still affects. I’m coming at this not looking at myself first at all.” J. plans to appear in a TV commercial, dressed in rags and posing as an indigent on New York City’s unforgiving streets, as passersby step over him. Another admirable feather in J. Holiday’s familiar fedora, although this writer’s half-serious suggestion that the campaign’s motto be “I’m a give you a bed, bed, bed,” was laughingly dismissed.
J. Holiday has made a home in fans’ hearts and ears. In turn, his epic one-year odyssey has opened his own eyes: “Being inside the game has given me a whole different perspective. I would like to think that I’m very good at what I do, and I believe in my craft, but I still feel blessed. I have done a lot more than some very talented people who were in my position at one point in time, in the timeframe that I’ve done it. I’m still new to all this. But I can’t worry myself about what other people are doing. I know just by staying me, my music is going to stand on its own.” So too will the world stand, and applaud.