by Dom Jones
Before the New Edition biopic series on BET, did you know who Luke James was? I’ll be honest, I didn’t, even though I’d heard his voice before. The New Edition Story propelled all of the actors playing its main characters into new notoriety, but in my opinion, particularly Luke James. While Bobby Brown was clearly the groups most controversial member, and Woody McClain did a great job playing Bobby in the film, it is Johnny Gill who had (and still has) the most vocal chops in the group – and would therefore be the most difficult to find someone to authentically portray him. If you haven’t seen the film, I’ll tell you that all of the actors playing New Edition (including the child actors) have vocal chops. Luke James simply sits above the rest. Let this clip from their 2017 BET Awards performance serve as evidence.
In September of 2014, after releasing a few mixtapes, Luke James released his self-titled debut album. I didn’t purchase and listen to the album until after I’d seen him in the New Edition film. As I listened to it, I understood both why he’d received Grammy nominations for two songs on it (“I Want You” and “Options”) and how he could be a Grammy-nominated artist, handpicked to open for Beyoncè on her Mrs. Carter World Tour, who had his start singing background for Tyrese, and I still not know about him. Luke James has an incredibly special voice, and while there are standout songs on his debut album, the project as a whole doesn’t serve that voice, stylistically. The songs sit primarily (and eventually agonizingly) in his falsetto register, and where you can hear the strong effort towards coherence in the music, it eventually just starts to feel like one long song with different movements. The sonic diversity isn’t there strongly enough, and the vocal arrangements don’t allow the listener to fully hear Luke’s range, which is one of the most remarkable things about his instrument. Overall, I enjoyed the album, and could still see why it hadn’t reached the level of success that would put Luke where he belongs: at the forefront of R&B/Soul.
Returning with this latest single, “Drip,” gives me hope that he has found his sonic center and his music will get its proper due. The video for Drip (seen above) puts you immediately in the mind of D’Angelo’s “How Does It Feel” video, even though the frame never moves below Luke’s shoulders. For the novice listener, the sound of his voice could put one in the mind of Prince. For me – the song as a whole was so electrifying and rich with history – putting me in the mind of Bootsy Collins. Where Prince absolutely referenced funk in his music (and many other genres), Bootsy sat firmly in its nucleus, and that’s what Luke James does with “Drip.” He manages to give the feel of Bootsy, without at all sounding dated, and while separating himself from some of the male vocalists his style could have been compared to in the past (see: Miguel). This is the song that you can put on both at the club to get a slow grind going or you could even play at the family cookout, where it would evoke a feeling of nostalgia for all of the aunties, who will no doubt yell “This is my jam!” having never heard the song before.
Before you dismiss this song as simply a funky tune brimming with sensuality, the lyrics hint at a deeper side of James, with the first verse starting: “Never be afraid of the sh*t that you’re going through/don’t underestimate your ability to push through…” and the second verse starting: “Feeling on your booty but I’d rather feel your soul/girl I know you ain’t Janet but I like you in control.” The writing feels smart, as though he’s not writing down to his listeners, but rather pulling them forward. Keeping the hook simple and catchy will absolutely allow for throngs of women (and men alike) everywhere to yell “LET IT… DRIIIIIIIIP” at his next group of concerts. Everything has prosody in the song, from the guitar line to the way the bass and drums are locked in to the rhythmic choices of the lyric. If people still made slow jam mixtapes, this song would be a prime candidate.