If you want to get a rise out of music legend Jermaine Dupri, ask him about the new Jagged Edge album, J.E. Heartbreak II. Dropping October 27, J.E. Heartbreak II reunites Dupri with the group he signed to his So So Def record label in 1997. And Dupri promises that J.E. Heartbreak II will deliver the kind of lush, harmony-rich ballads that helped Jagged Edge become an R&B and pop success 14 years ago.
“The new album is straight Jagged Edge,” he says in the following interview, which he recently conducted with me. “It’s what Jagged Edge does and what it has always done.
What Jagged Edge has always done is create music that defines the sound of R&B and also succeeds commercially. When Jagged Edge emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Jagged Edge such as “He Can’t Love U” and “Let’s Get Married” captured the groove-heavy romance of R&B and also ranked high on both the R&B and pop charts. Jagged Edge’s breakthrough album, J.E. Heartbreak, released in 2000, topped the R&B charts, made the pop Top 10, and sold more than 2 million copies. Throughout the 2000s, Jagged Edge remained an R&B mainstay, recording six albums (its last album was recorded in 2011) even as R&B began to lose its mainstream appeal.
Dupri also believes J.E. Heartbreak II may also serve a larger purpose: to rekindle music fans’ love of R&B, which Dupri believes has been kicked to the gutter.
“R&B used to be the most popular of all music,” he says. “Now you have to go seek out R&B artists on the right radio stations.”
Fourteen years have gone by since the massive success of J.E. Heartbreak. As Dupri discusses in our interview, J.E. Heartbreak II captures the Jagged Edge sound, which is to say the sound of pure R&B. All the hallmarks of Jagged Edge are evident in the recently released single off J.E. Heartbreak II, “Getting over You.” With J.E. Heartbreak II, Dupri seeks to draw attention to the R&B genre just as Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash reignited interest in country music through their collaboration in the 1990s.
Read on for more insight into a new collaboration forged in R&B.
How would you describe the new Jagged Edge album, J.E. Heartbreak II?
The new album is straight Jagged Edge. It’s what Jagged Edge does and what it has always done. Jagged Edge creates love songs. Jagged Edge sings songs like “Let’s Get Married,” or the new single, “Getting Over You,” which is not the kind of thing you hear in rap or hip-hop. This is a group that has a fan base already. This album will appeal to that fan base. J.E. Heartbreak II is for people who are wondering where are you guys been?
How did you guys get back into the studio together?
I was just doing what Jermaine Dupri does what he’s supposed to do: always moving. Always looking for opportunities to make great music. Jagged Edge was ready to make new music. Jagged Edge is part of my legacy. So working together was a natural and easy decision.
J.E. Heartbreak II captures the sound of R&B. How would you describe the state of R&B?
R&B is headed in the direction that country is in already: it’s a marginalized specialty music that you have to look to find it as opposed to a form of music that you listen to everywhere. R&B used to be the most popular of all music. Now you have to go seek out R&B artists on the right radio stations just like you have to find real country on specialty stations.
Why has R&B become marginalized?
Music has become so fragmented, and R&B is a victim of that fragmentation. R&B has become typecast as the kind of music your mother and father listen to. But, in fact, younger generations will listen to it and love it when they hear it. On my Twitter feed, which represents pop America, people are telling me how much they like what they’re hearing from the new R&B album coming from Jagged Edge.
Generations coming into the industry in the digital age are not learning about R&B, and artists with distinctive R&B sounds are being overlooked in the generic American Idol era. If Al Green were starting out today, he would not become a star because the record industry would keep his music in an R&B box. Here’s the problem: Al Green has a distinctive voice that helped him break through in the 1970s. But that distinctive voice would hold him back today. Why? Because he doesn’t sound like the kind of generic artist who American Idol has conditioned the public to hear. But the greats don’t sound like everyone else. Al Green does not sound like Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson does not sound like Prince. Prince does not sound like Luther Vandross.
Today it’s hard to find the separation of styles necessary to make R&B its own style.
What about Beyoncé or Justin Timberlake? They are not only considered R&B by Billboard, but they obviously have enjoyed breakthrough success
Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake are making more of a strand of R&B. They are not making traditional R&B. Beyoncé is kind of like Usher. She has defined a different wave of music that draws upon R&B. Beyoncé, Chris Brown, and Trey Songz are making more of a hybrid of R&B, rap, and hip-hop. Chris Brown is a pure singer. If he could clean up his act and present himself as an artist who wants to sing as opposed to a singer who wants to rap, he could become the biggest singer in the world.
What I’m talking about is traditional R&B. Go try to find it. You’ll have to look very hard. What’s going on is that artists who would have been R&B are instead rappers and hip-hop stars.
Did rap and hip-hop steal the audience for R&B?
A generation of kids that wanted to be in radio and wanted to run the record business all grew up in an era when rap became the most prominent music genre. The kids that are now growing up in the ranks, the A&R guys who find new music, first look for rap and hip-hop. They have no love for R&B. They don’t have a reason to love it because they don’t know about it.
But I know there is an audience for R&B. Young people who know about R&B are telling me, “JD, please bring back R&B because the music today sucks.” Fans want something different than what they are hearing today.
How are you promoting J.E. Heartbreak II?
We are doing a full-on rollout for this album, involving TV appearances, heavy social media, outreach to influencers, and radio exposure. Our approach is to give the group and the music maximum exposure to build up to the release of the album, whether we’re meeting with Rashan Ali at NBC 11 or playing J.E. Heartbreak II at Radio Station v103 in Chicago. We’re going all out to convince fans to fall in love with this album. We dropped the entire album on Pandora October 20, where you can stream the music and discover for yourself what R&B is all about.
I’m relying on my own Global 14 network to generate engagement. Global 14 is more musically savvy than any other audience. Global 14 members give me meaningful feedback on the music and generates word-of-mouth with their own friends. Word-of-mouth from by Global 14 is huge because Global 14 fans are more musically savvy than people on your typical social media network. The recommendation of a Global 14 member carries more weight.
I’m using my own social media presence such as Facebook and Twitter to expose Jagged Edge to the broader public that might not be as engaged as a Global 14 member would be, and I am tapping into the power of digital beyond my own network. The audience outside Global 14 is important because they represent the people I need to reach in order to ignite interest in R&B and generate sales for J.E. Heartbreak II. Here are just a few examples of how we’ve used digital to build engagement:
• We conducted an Instagram #HeartbreakII eight-day challenge. Fans could use Instagram to participate in several challenges related to themes such as “first kiss” and “first heartbreak” in order to win prizes such as necklaces engraved with J.E. Heartbreak II. We also revealed the J.E. Heartbreak II cover on Instagram, and I’m going to do an Instagram takeover of Vibe to share updates on the album release.
• We have partnered with Shazam to release content such as the official album trailer.
• We’re using YouTube to share the story of the making of J.E. Heartbreak II.
Those are just a few examples of how we’re letting people into the world of Jagged Edge through digital, but we’re doing a lot more. We recently had a listening party at a Microsoft store in Atlanta. Technology companies are in the business of selling music, but in the case of Microsoft, people are not using the tools they have to offer. A listening party at a Microsoft store was a great way to elevate Microsoft’s stature in music and get the word out about J.E. Heartbreak II.
The Jagged Edge fan base gives me an enormous advantage over promoting new artists who don’t have a pre-built fan base. Jagged Edge fans are looking for new R&B, and they don’t want Jagged Edge to go off in a different direction and try to imitate Chris Brown or Trey Songz. But I also need to expose Jagged Edge to people who don’t know anything about the group.
What did you think of the backlash that Apple and U2 suffered when they dropped the new U2 album, Songs of Innocence, for free on iTunes?
Apple flexed its muscles and forced U2 on everyone. It’s cool to cut corners and try a new way to distribute music, but who really likes the new U2 album? I have not heard anyone saying, “Oh my God, Songs of Innocence is the greatest record I’ve ever heard.” The album was forced into the hands of millions of people, but is it better than The Joshua Tree? Music is supposed to be loved. It’s not supposed to be forced on people.
The problem is that the people at Apple who engineered the distribution of Songs of Innocence are just not hip. Steve Jobs would never have dropped an album into your iTunes account. He would have done something with more style and flavor because he had that fashion and design sense about him.
The one thing you can never leave out of music is to leave out the flavor – the look, the flavor, and the style of it. We chose a cool Microsoft store for our listening party, which created a mixture of two different flavors — Jagged Edge’s and Microsoft’s. Apple has no flavor.
How will you define success with J.E. Heartbreak II?
Conversation. Engagement. When I hear people talking about it. When I hear people saying, “I bought J.E. Heartbreak II, and I love it,” then I’ll know the music is going to succeed. Conversation is the currency of commerce. Everyone has so many demands on their attention now, whether they’re playing video games or texting or watching TV, or all those things at once. People just bounce from one new song to the next. So in that environment, when you can get someone to stop long enough to actually listen to new music, think about it, and then talk about it, you have accomplished something big.