I first learned about the release of Luke James' newest project, to feel love/d, while attending his live show in February 2020. The singer had quietly dropped his second album the day before, yet I was one of only people on the crowded floor of New York City's Cutting Room who didn't know the songs from start to finish. Clad in a fetching fuchsia velvet co-ord set, the R&B singer hit the stage and sang the house down for a full set all about love.
The magic of to feel love/d is in how personal an experience it is for anyone who comes across it. Its universalism is somewhat ironic because the nine-song project is a love letter from Luke, to Luke, a collection borne from a process of deep introspection that spanned the course of six long years. It's the second album in his discography, a belated follow-up to his wildly successful self-titled album that dropped in 2014, but to feel love/d might as well be James' introduction to the world — and to himself.
"Before I took my hiatus, I wasn't in interested in the business or even the creation of music," he shared during a phone call with Refinery29. "I was just trying to find what got me going and what made me truly happy. It was hard, but it was worth it because I needed to do it for myself. I could not longer walk in these shoes that didn't fit me anymore, so I had to find my way without them. And in that, I found another path."
What brought about life-changing pivot? Love, says the New Orleans-born musician happily, his voice taking on a dreamy, faraway quality as he explains. What's driving James now, and what inspired the epiphany that birthed his Grammy-nominated album, is literally just love.
His shift in perspective is evident in the track list of to feel love/d, a project marked by otherworldly R&B and soulful, poetic lyrics describing the different types of love worth moving heaven and earth for. Songs like "shine on" (featuring fellow sanger Samoht) take on a hymnal, spiritual quality to explore agape love while "go girl" (featuring Ro James and BJ the Chicago Kid) and "traveling" tackle Black love with playfulness and finesse. And in "gratitude," James teams up with gospel titan Kirk Franklin for almost four minutes of moving self-love affirmations rooted in one simple but powerful phrase: "I am blessed."
"Part of the journey was to not think about the audience," James revealed. "When making the album, I just wanted to do what I liked, what I could feel good about."
"to feel love/d is more like a love letter to myself, to my love for music, to the kid who used to be in his room by himself all day playing D'Angelo's 'Voodoo' and singing all the parts of Boyz II Men songs," he continued. "I just wanted to get back to that feeling of creating from truth — my most honest and most genuine is in that space."
Longtime fans of James will notice the change in his intentions from his previous work. The singer, who built the foundations of his own career by writing hits for the likes of Tank, Charlie Wilson, and Justin Bieber, made his debut as a solo singer-songwriter with the 2011 single "I Want You." The song rocketed James into the mainstream, and alongside later song "Options," earned him a Grammy nomination. But even amidst all the success and accolades, he found himself in a state of stasis in those early days; something just wasn't right about the music he was making.
James' ambivalence about his career at the time led him to lean into his other passion: acting. Taking a break from the studio and moving to the set, the musician fell in love with acting while starring in projects like BET's The New Edition Story, Fox musical drama Star, and the fantasy comedy Little. Even after returning to music, the singer is still dedicated to his new craft; he's currently hard at work filming the latest season of The Chi, a Showtime series created by Lena Waithe. Tapping into his inner actor is just as important for his musician side, helping to unlock a different aspect of himself.
"Doing film and television really helped me get to a new space," said James. "Where I can just listen and feel and make music from the new guy, from the new me."
With his resume growing by the day, a Grammy win would be the icing on the professional and personal cake. James and to feel love/d are nominated for Best R&B Album in this year's award show, and the category is absolutely stacked with heavy hitters (to the R&B aficionado's absolute delight); he's going up against John Legend, Giveon, Ant Clemmons, and Gregory Porter in the noticeably all-male group. But win or lose come Sunday night, James is just happy to finally be making the kind of music that moves him at the end of the day. Just as importantly, he's glad that people are being fuelled by love as a result.
"The world is in need of an extreme, godly outpouring of love," James shared. "Spreading that is the mission. And you just hope that what comes along with it is a beautiful song."
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.