PJ Morton is likely your favorite artist’s favorite artist. Along with being a Grammy-winning solo act and member of Maroon 5, the singer, songwriter and producer has worked with musicians like Solange, India Arie and Jermaine Dupri. He has even found success in gospel music. However, Morton is adamant about not letting his individuality get lost in translation, which is a common theme in his latest album, aptly-titled PAUL. The record is nominated for Best R&B Album at the 2020 Grammy Awards, making it the third consecutive year Morton has been nominated for the category, after Gumbo's nomination in 2018 and Gumbo Unplugged's nod in 2019.
“I mean, honestly it feels amazing,” Morton told Blavity about the honor. “It’s crazy. I think what makes me most proud about it though, is that I’ve done it as an independent [artist]. My label, Morton Records, has been the label for all three of those R&B album nominations, so it makes me proud that I’ve been able to do it my way.”
On PAUL, Morton is deeply introspective. While the album adheres to Morton’s traditional R&B sound, PAUL mainly centers on self-reflection. The playful “KID AGAIN” finds Morton reminiscing about the simpler times of his childhood, as he wishes to go back to that period in his life. “BUY BACK THE BLOCK,” which also makes reference to Nipsey Hussle’s death, is a pleasant groovy vibe on which Morton sermonizes about the importance of building wealth in his community in the same ways that Hussle did. On “MAGA,” the album’s final track, Morton forces listeners to reflect on their lives as he challenges our nation’s unjust political system.
By PJ Morton via Spotify
Aside from its political messages, PAUL illuminates Morton’s sonorous artistry. Songs like “READY” and “SAY SO,” the JoJo-featured hit that’s nominated for Best R&B Song at this year’s Grammy Awards, employ deep passionate lyrics and strong vocals that effortlessly display Morton’s innate connection to soul music. However, this doesn’t come as a surprise, considering Morton’s a preacher’s kid whose father is gospel singer Bishop Paul S. Morton. In fact, PJ Morton started his career writing gospel songs when he was 15.
“R&B music was just an expression of people wanting to talk about different things outside of the church, but they still had that soul foundation [from gospel music], and I think that’s probably why I reflect traditional R&B more because of my background,” Morton said. “I also think gospel music influenced the way in which I write songs and the way I communicate. I think it influences the way I perform live because the church has such a call-and-response atmosphere. When you’re doing something right or when something is feeling right, [the audience] tells you, and I think that’s how I energize my audience.”
Morton was introduced to more mainstream music when he attended Morehouse College in Atlanta. During this time, he also became acquainted with India Arie and later worked with her on the 2002 Grammy-winning album Voyage to India.
Mainly focused on production and songwriting, Morton honed his craft before branching off into his work as a solo artist. The New Orleans-native credits his hometown as being instrumental in driving his dedication to create quality music.
“I think what I’ve always taken with me and what’s always instilled in me is the integrity of music,” Morton said. “Growing up in New Orleans, being a musician is like being a doctor or lawyer. In our community. It’s like a badge of honor, so you really don’t play with that. If you’re a musician, you take your work seriously, and I think I’ve definitely taken that with me. What I love now is that New Orleans still has that integrity, but artists are saying it in their own [way] stylistically. That’s me, that’s Lucky Daye, that’s Ambré, that’s Tank and the Bangas. There’s a new wave of R&B artists who are from New Orleans that have that thing, but we’re from another generation, and we’re saying it in a different way.”
Morton said working with Solange as a music director for her hit 2016 album, A Seat at the Table, inspired him to work on his critically-acclaimed 2017 record Gumbo.
“I was actually just moving home when A Seat at the Table was coming out, and she wanted to use a bunch of New Orleans musicians, so she asked me to put the band together,” Morton said. “What I love about Solange is that she has the full vision, and then she gets soldiers together to delegate things, so my job was basically to get her ideas out of her head and onto the stage. It was refreshing for me because that was right before I started to make Gumbo. So it kind of got me out of a bump and allowed me to just create in another way.”
Although Gumbo is Morton’s fourth solo album, it certainly sounds like a strong debut as its success re-introduced the world to Morton’s expressive style and artistry. Being a perfect blend of traditional and modern R&B, Gumbo was a breakout release for Morton and earned him three Grammy nominations the following year. Despite the album’s success, Morton revealed that he was adamant about Gumbo being his final solo record because he was afraid of the momentum it had created.
“As far as being a solo artist, I was planning on focusing on production and writing music, but it kind of taught me that when I’m not thinking and when I’m not being strategic and making music simply because I love it, that’s what connects more than anything,” Morton said. “But then Gumbo kind of blew up and got the Grammy nomination, then I did the live version of the album and that got more nominations than the first one, and I started to get nervous because it was becoming something that was going to be considered sacred and untouchable. I didn’t want it to become that.”
By PJ Morton via Spotify
However, Morton learned to not overthink and focused on creating instead, which was the impetus for PAUL. Surprisingly, Morton said being a part of Maroon 5, which he joined as a keyboardist in 2010, has helped him focus on his work as a solo artist.
“It’s crazy and surreal because my grind as a solo artist has been crazy and a long trajectory. Sometimes I forget I’m in this huge pop band,” Morton said. “I think it just speaks to my mindset. I don’t look at it as a ticket out of anything. What it allowed me to do, and what I love the most about it because of my success and because of how supportive they are with me, was to make Gumbo and eliminate the pressure of needing to sell a record and have a radio spin. I just had the freedom to create without any pressure because I’m already in this successful group.”
Although Morton has many creative outlets, he hopes that his persistence while doing things his own way inspires others to do the same.
“I’d like for it to be perceived as it celebrates being an individual; that you look at me and say that he was OK with being himself," Morton said. "Even though he was a serious R&B musician, he wasn’t scared to be in a big pop band. And even though he was in a serious pop band, he wasn’t scared to stick to his roots and write gospel songs for people. It was just my own path, and I want to celebrate people being themselves, and I hope that what I do makes people more comfortable with wanting to forge their own path and individual ideas. That would make me proud.”