Five years ago, a newly signed Trey Songz couldn’t afford to hire a traveling barber to braid his hair. Instead, he had to resort to locals to keep up his tresses — a circumstance he wasn’t exactly pleased with.
“I couldn’t maintain one person to do it all the time,” Songz recalls. “I had to find people around town and most of the time I wouldn’t even like them.”
Today, not only is his long hair gone, but Songz’ budget allows for a groomer and a personal stylist to hit the road with him, among other perks. This is in large part due to his sexually charged 2009 album, “Ready,” which has sold 778,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan; spawned five hit singles; and drew favorable comparisons to the past decade’s two most enduring and influential R&B stars, Usher and R. Kelly.
Now, with the release of new album “Passion, Pain and Pleasure,” due Sept. 14 on Songbook/Atlantic Records, the 25-year-old Songz has positioned himself to not only make a run for the crown of King of R&B, but to enjoy the sort of crossover success that consistently and frustratingly eludes so many male R&B singers.
I WANNA SEX YOU UP
Before Songz became an arena-touring, multiple-hits-tallying, tossed-panty-attracting star, he was working hard just to get noticed by consumers. The Virginia Beach, Va.-born singer’s debut album, 2005’s “Gotta Make It,” has sold 395,000 U.S. copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and 2007’s “Trey Day,” which gave him his first No. 1 hit, “Can’t Help but Wait,” has moved only 344,000 units.
The success of “Ready” came about in part because of the groundwork Songz laid down by steadily touring the country. “By the time he wrote for ‘Ready,’ ” Atlantic Records Group chairman/COO Julie Greenwald says, “he was an accomplished touring artist who knew what audiences wanted from him. His confidence was way up.”
Moreover, Songz was willing to submit himself to the kind of wholesale reinvention that’s usually the provenance of single-named female pop stars: He changed his look from head to toe — lopping off those braids, for starters — put crooning about love on the back burner and started singing about sex. Lots and lots of sex.
“The public likes generic more than they like to admit, so that’s what I gave them — I gave them sexual singles and they ate it up,” Songz says about the string of blatantly sexed-up hits from “Ready.” “I gave them two whole albums before this one — on one I talked about a mother’s love for her son and a father not being there, and on the other I made a song about safe sex. They were well accepted but not as much as the records on ‘Ready.’ The singles were purposely very sexual to capture people’s attention.”
“Trey directed his lyrics,” Greenwald says. “No one gave them to him or said, ‘This is what you should do.’ We can’t take any credit for that. We helped expose him, but he wrote what he wanted to write.”
Songz didn’t find it compromising to peddle sex to become a bigger star. In fact, he feels “Ready” wasn’t any more sexual than his previous albums.
“People say this album was highly sexual, but the first two albums were just as sexual,” he says. “If you listen to the ‘Ready’ album, there’s ‘Love Lost,’ ‘Black Roses,’ ‘Yo Side of the Bed’ — all songs that had nothing to do with sex, but were overlooked because they weren’t the first few singles.”
Songz’ world’s-greatest-lover persona didn’t catch on until the summer 2009 leak of the hilariously boastful “I Invented Sex,” on which he sang, “Girl when I get you to the crib, upstairs to the bed . . . when I pull back them sheets, and you climb on top of me/Girl you gonna think I invented sex.” And to think the track wasn’t even supposed to be a single.
“We wrote the song and sent it over to [Songz] because I thought the song was a hit and a good fit,” songwriter Carlos “Los DaMystro” McKinney says. “He demoed it, but because of politics and bullshit, [the song wasn’t going to be released]. It actually leaked, and after they saw the reception it got, that’s when they decided to add it.”
“Certain people at the label didn’t believe in the record,” Songz explains. “It was said the chorus was complicated and wouldn’t do well in research at radio. We were asked to change the chorus so that the line ‘I invented sex’ came earlier. I wanted it to be a single and the label wasn’t onboard with that until after the record began to move on its own.”
And that’s when the strategic array of singles began. In March 2009 the heartfelt “I Need a Girl,” which reached No. 6 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and sold 247,000 downloads, was released. The playful and catchy “LOL Smiley,” featuring Gucci Mane and Soulja Boy Tell’Em, followed, charting at No. 12 and selling 260,000 digital copies. Then came the string of “Cinemax After Dark” singles: “I Invented Sex,” which peaked at No. 1 with 46,000, followed by “Neighbors Know My Name,” about Songz’ partners’ screams during their love-making (“While I’m banging on your body they be banging on our wall/While they dreaming you be screaming, now they banging on our door”). “Neighbors” reached No. 4 and sold 256,000 copies.
In between, Songz released the club banger “Say Aah,” which hit No. 3 and has sold 1.5 million downloads.
“I knew ‘I Invented Sex’ was career-defining. After that leaked, the rough mix started playing on radio,” Songz says. “I prepared for ‘Say Aah’ to be a big record — I knew it would be huge. So when it came to shooting the video for ‘I Invented Sex’ I split the budget for ‘Say Aah.’ I think those steps were imperative to the success of this album.”
Other factors played roles as well. Between albums, Songz went through a fairly dramatic physical makeover. He chopped his braids down to a low cut and traded his baggy jeans, white-on-white Nike Air Force Ones and tank tops for custom-fitted suit pants, button-ups and hard-bottom shoes. He also began hitting the gym and bulking up, building definition in his arms and torso, which he decorated with tattoos. When “Ready” came out, he looked less like a high school boy and more like a man.
Lyor Cohen, Warner Music Group vice chairman and chairman/CEO of recorded music for the Americas and the United Kingdom, “would call and say, ‘Do you want a rapper or an R&B singer? Tell him to cut his fucking braids off!’ ” Atlantic executive VP/head of urban music Mike Kyser recalls with a laugh. “We never told him to cut them off, it just so happened that Trey reached that point on his own.”
Songz’ R&B peers were also going through some rough career patches at the time. Both Chris Brown and Usher were facing sticky personal issues — a domestic violence charge and a public divorce, respectively — that translated into declining album sales and a decrease in their popularity, leaving an opening for Songz to step in and take the lead.
“There was a lot of traffic in the highway when I first came in. There were a lot of cars on the road, and if I would’ve stepped in then, I might’ve caused an accident,” Songz says about the competition. “Everyone has their time — it just wasn’t my time with the first few albums. It’s just a testament to believing in yourself and never giving up, working hard and knowing what you want. The fact that I had the lane to myself for a while definitely plays a major part in where I am now.”
In addition, Songz opened for Jay-Z during the second leg of his Blueprint 3 tour earlier this year, which he considers a major co-sign. “Jay-Z tells people what car to drive, what clothes to wear, even what champagne to drink. Bringing me on tour is him telling you what R&B artist to listen to. It was definitely a validation at such a pivotal point in my career,” he says.
To top things off, Songz enlisted music mogul Kevin Liles as his manager and signed on to his recently launched KWL Enterprises at the top of the year. He parted ways with former manager Delante Murphy from D2 Management late last year and managed himself for a handful of months before settling on Liles.
“Kevin comes from a record background and knows the ins and outs of the record business,” Kyser says. “Most of us started with Kevin at Def Jam — myself, Julie, Lyor — and then we all came to Warner. Kevin’s been around for Trey since album two, which he executive-produced. He knows the grind Trey’s been on — he didn’t just jump in and grab on to the momentum. He was part of the momentum prior to Trey blowing up.”
PATIENCE AND PERSISTENCE
In the current singles-dominated paradigm of the music business, it’s rare for an artist to break through on his third album. Labels no longer have the patience or commitment to nurture and develop artists the way they once did, especially in the fickle worlds of R&B and pop. But five years after Songz’ debut, Atlantic’s determination has paid off, and the artist is ready to become the face — and abs — of male R&B.
“Trey did it the old-fashioned way — one fan at a time,” Kyser says. “If you’re a real artist, people will wait for you. He put so much work into that it’s now paying off.”
With “Passion, Pain and Pleasure,” common sense would dictate that Songz double up on crooning winking pick-up lines. (“I Perfected Sex”?) Instead, Songz has opted to tone down the material and work in a less prurient vein — a ladies man, sure, but one who might still be there the following morning.
While the new album’s lead single, “Bottoms Up” featuring rap starlet Nicki Minaj — No. 23 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs — is good-natured club fun, most of the other songs recorded thus far for the album are more heart-pounding than arousing. “Love Faces” is a piano-based ballad produced by Troy Taylor and written by Tremaine & ChefTone (with whom he’s collaborated on “I Invented Sex” and “Say Aah”). The nostalgic “Please Return My Call” finds Songz longing for a lost love, as does second single “Can’t Be Friends,” produced by Mario Winans.
“I do feel I can give people what they enjoy while still building what I want to build,” Songz says. “Because, the truth is, as much as I’m a business man and as much success as I had with the last album and as much as I’d love to duplicate and surpass that, I am an artist, and creativity is what’s most important to me. As artists, we sometimes have to sacrifice success for creativity.”
KWL Enterprises senior manager JoJo Brim agrees. “Nothing serves you greater than your own truth,” he says. “It’s this honesty about Trey that’s kept him steadily going this entire time.”
Before “Passion, Pain and Pleasure,” Songz released a new album every two years. But part of the plan behind keeping the momentum going this time around is to release “Passion, Pain and Pleasure” only one year after the release of the still-active “Ready.” “I couldn’t release it before because I still have records in rotation on radio from ‘Ready’ that won’t go nowhere anytime soon,” Songz says. “But I didn’t ever want to wait two years in between any album. I don’t want to do this at a slow pace. You only have a window, one moment, and someone else can take my moment. I’m not about to allow that.”
Timing is of the essence, says Dionne Harper, Songz’ product manager at Atlantic. “In this new climate, you can’t be too dormant,” she says. “You worry about oversaturating, but we felt, timing-wise, this made sense with all the things he’s got going on, from tours to TV shows and hit singles.”
At press time, the album still wasn’t finished — “He’s one of those guys who records up to the minute you start manufacturing,” Greenwald says — but Songz has already begun promoting “Passion, Pain and Pleasure” through his BET docu-series “My Moment,” which will air on the network until week of release. He’s also embarking on a short arena tour, kicking off in August and running through release week. R&B singers Monica and Dondria will be joining him on the road.
“I want to keep performing and making my stage show better,” Songz says. “These days, if you can pack a venue, then you’re considered successful. So I want to keep a strong touring base by becoming a strong touring artist.”
Songz is also launching Trey’s Angels Fan Club in September, Harper adds, “which will reactivate the whole ultimate fan experience, offering members exclusive access to Trey.”
In addition, Songz, along with Melanie Fiona, are the new faces of Jay-Z’s Rocawear “Next” campaign. And, in conjunction with the “Bottoms Up” track, “Bottoms Up” shorts will be made available to fans through his official site, TreySongz.com, along with other merchandise.
Cliché or not, Songz has proved that slow and steady wins the race and that good things come to those who wait.
“I’m having a very special moment — I’m at the best point of my career now and it’s only going to get better,” Songz says. “I have people’s attention now. This is the fun part for me.” – BILLBOARD
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