| -~-~_Frankie J._~-~-
Crossing the cultural line to earn success in both pop and urban music isn't new. 'N SYNC's Justin Timberlake broke through the barrier with ease, and Japan's Toshi Kubota is earning props for his neo-soul sound. So now, according to Columbia recording artist Frankie J, it's time for Latinos to get some love on the R&B charts, too.
"As far as my career goes, I'm hoping to cover that gap. I'm willing to go the distance and do what I need to do to fulfill my dream of performing R&B music in both languages. It's difficult, but it'll happen." the 26-year-old Mexican native says from the lobby of the Radisson Hotel on Northwest Highway. He stopped in Dallas to promote The One, his second solo release in English, which dropped last month.
From the look of things, Frankie J is well on his way. The One is No. 3 on Billboard's R&B albums chart. The first single, the earnest love jam "Obsession (No Es Amor)," featuring Latino rapper Baby Bash in the hook, is No. 5 on Billboard's Hot Latin Tracks and No. 4 on Pop 100 Airplay charts.
Popularity hasn't always come easy. His solo debut, 2003's What's a Man To Do?, ended a four-year run with the Kumbia Kings, a group led by the late singer Selena's brother, A.B. Quintanilla.
The album spawned a hit single and video for the melancholy "Don't Wanna Try." But his venture onto the urban landscape left many in the Latino community believing he was a sell-out. Frankie J acknowledges that his family embraced traditional Latin music in their San Diego home. His father sung lead in a band while his grandfather was a church violinist. But he says he always listened to pop and R&B. He explains that it was about following his heart, not flipping the script.
"It was more of a relief for me and a challenge, but it was kind of a shock to a lot of the fans that I ventured off into something totally different. They definitely were saying that I should stick to my roots, but if you know English and you know Spanish, why not do both?"
Frankie J also believes that his success can only open doors for other struggling Latin artists.
"I think there are a lot of us out there, but we haven't been fully marketed as far as the urban industry goes. It's a challenge, because in the English-speaking market, we're automatically categorized as Latin artists; the perception is we should be doing Spanish music, we shouldn't be doing anything else outside of our genre.
"But there's artists like Fat Joe, who's Puerto Rican and doing his thing, and so is Jennifer Lopez ... they just happened to be at the right place at the right time."
Frankie J is confident that The One will squash doubts about his ability to create meaningful R&B. It features production work from Mario Winans, Irv Gotti, Brian Michael Cox and Happy Perez, who also produced 2003's hit with Baby Bash, "Suga Suga."
"My first album was gold; I did a lot of production on it, which was great, but it's best to collaborate with other writers, producers and artists. I'm still very involved in the production and the writing, in singing the songs the way I want to sing them; it's all me, it's real. I'm not a puppet at all."
Outside its title track, Frankie J admits to relating most closely to its second single, "How To Deal," which details the struggle to maintain a serious relationship in the music biz, a constant dilemma for the Houston-based singer, who's a single dad with a 4-year-old son. "The song is from personal experience. I'm a studio rat, so I'm constantly on the go. It's just very hard, because as a musician, you travel so much, you're constantly on the road and don't really have time for anything else."
And he's just getting started; with a 50-city tour in the works, plus plans for going overseas, Frankie J will be working nonstop to spread his Latin-flavored R&B worldwide.
"A lot of the fans that I lost when I left the group are now starting to understand where I'm coming from and are returning to me, so my following is getting bigger and bigger." He says with a broad grin, "I can't wait to get on the road, and like they say, do the damn thing and get it out there."
Many singers claim Michael Jackson as an inspiration, and have their kid-size sparkly gloves in frames to prove it. Frankie J may be one of those artists who started his performing career in his parent's living room singing along to Thriller, but, even then, Frankie put his own spin on the proceedings. When Frankie's family got together for the holidays, they would clear the furniture out of the room so that he could get down unhampered. "I did 'Billie Jean.' That was the song that Michael Jackson used to introduce the moonwalk to the world," says Frankie J. "My family would always give me a sombrero because, on television, Michael flings a hat into the crowd, and then he starts to moonwalk. I did the same thing he did, I threw the sombrero in the air, and then I would moonwalk. I was six years old."
The odd combination of a sombrero and Michael Jackson moves was an appropriate prelude to Frankie's performing career. Years after his preteen living room MJ impersonations, Frankie J made his mark with a four year stint with the multi-platinum Mexican-American group, Kumbia Kings, before returning to his R&B roots with What's A Man To Do?, his 2003 debut solo album. Frankie's debut album spawned the bittersweet chart-topper "Don't Wanna Try," whose video was in heavy rotation on MTV's TRL.
Now, two years after his solo debut and fresh off his hit collaboration with rapper Baby Bash, "Suga Suga," Frankie J builds on that momentum on The One, his eagerly-awaited second solo album, which more than delivers on the promise of What's A Man To Do? Frankie's new album is pure unadulterated R&B, perfectly patterned for slow dancing with a special someone, immaculately tailored for the dance-floors of clubland, and dreamily suited for long, late, and lonely nights. Despite the man's Latino heart-throb pedigree, do not file The One under "Latin Pop."
With The One, Frankie J emerges as a serious neo-soul/pop contender; his sensuous falsetto putting him in the same general categories as Usher and Justin Timberlake. And -though Frankie J's not wearing a sombrero these days, he still adds seamless Spanglish flourishes to his music. The album's first single, "Obsession (No Es Amor)," produced by Happy Perez, is a case in point: its serpentine guitar-laced rhythm and sensual bass line, combined with Frankie's soaring vocals, communicate the mixed emotions associated with a romance that's crossing the line into dangerous territory. The song is a deft remake of a hit by the bachata group Aventura, which while packing all the wallop of the original, translates its spirit for an English-speaking audience.
Born Francisco Javier Bautista in Tijuana, Mexico, Frankie J has spent his life moving between his Latino roots and his American surroundings. When Frankie was 2 years old, his uncle took him and his siblings north across the border dressed up to trick or treat. The family never returned to Tijuana, and Frankie grew up in San Diego listening to the ballads and boleros that his traditional Mexican family loved and the soul music to which he was drawn. There was music running through Frankie's family, his father was the lead singer of a band, and his grandfather played violin for the local church. When Frankie got a little older, he began listening to freestyle, including acts like Lisa Lisa and Brenda K. Starr, but especially dance-pop freestyle singer George Lamond, whose airborne vocal style inspired Frankie to develop his own voice and unique sound.
"Usually guys don't have high falsettos, and I admired George Lamond because I wanted to sing that way," Frankie says. "I would always practice to his songs, and my pitch would always reach up to his level or even higher." Frankie began writing songs in high school, and when he was just 15, was introduced by a friend to the CEO of an independent Canadian record label that specialized in freestyle. The CEO heard his music and offered him a deal. "I was like a little kid in a candy store," says Frankie. "I was thrilled that this guy had heard my song." He recorded a few songs under the moniker Frankie Boy, and though that early deal didn't lead to fame and fortune, it did teach Frankie J a few things. "The biggest thing I learned was," he says today, "always read the contract before you sign it."
After he finished high school, Frankie heard about an opportunity to join the Kumbia Kings, and went to Texas to audition. He was selected for the group, and spent the next four years with the massively successful Kumbia Kings, led by A.B. Quintanilla, the brother of legendary singer Selena. "Once we played a show in Monterrey, Mexico, for 100,000 people," Frankie remembers. "It was incredible."
But while Frankie enjoyed sharing in the success of the Kumbia Kings, he was always working towards a solo career, inspired by artists like Brian McKnight, K-Ci and Jo Jo, Stevie Wonder and Prince. "I got involved in the group to learn about the business, to learn about being on the road, and then to branch off with that information," he says.
Though leaving the Kumbia Kings was a risky move for Frankie J, the gamble paid off with What's A Man To Do? and is compounding maximum interest on The One. Frankie J is particularly excited about The One's title track produced by Hollis hitmaker Irv Gotti (Ja Rule, Ashanti, DMX, Murder Inc.) with its intoxicating melody and subtle touches of percussion. "The minute I heard it I knew," Frankie confesses, "it was something magical."
The One showcases Frankie as a maturing songwriter while its production highlights increasingly nuanced arrangements. "The Story of My Life," for example, is a subtle ballad, spun from a delicate guitar melody and attenuated finger-snapping, with Frankie J lamenting the inevitability, and universality, of hard times.
"Most of the time," says Frankie, "I write from personal experience. When I don't, it's like acting, taking on a role in a movie." Another of his favorite tracks on the album is the sweetly seductive "Number One Fan," which was inspired by a special someone in Frankie's life. "It talks about being in love with a girl and treating her as a star, and you're the groupie that's with the girl. Telling her that you want to get her autograph." Having spent years in the limelight, Frankie J turns the tables with "Number One Fan."
On The One, Frankie J collaborates with a variety of heavy hitters including the legendary Mario Winans who's crafted hits for Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige and Brian McKnight, among others on the striking "Just Can't Say It's Love." Hot producer Brian Michael Cox who's worked with Usher, Jagged Edge, and Nivea, to name a few worked with Frankie on three dazzling tracks on the album, including the tantalizing club jam, "On The Floor."
Frankie J is feeling confident about The One and his collaborations with heavy hitters like Irv Gotti, Happy Perez, and Brian Michael Cox. "R&B music has always been in my heart," Frankie says. "People would always doubt me and say, 'You're Mexican, you don't have the soul to make it.' But soul is just soul, whatever the ethnic background. I think the music speaks for itself."