This year has been a significant one for Jussie Smollett. Empire wrapped filming for its fourth season, the Lyon family returned to Fox’s primetime lineup after a lengthy mid-season break and Smollett released his long-awaited debut album, Sum of My Music.
Smollett’s 10-track release comes after his steady ascent into stardom: he received explosive success as Jamal Lyon on Empire, became a spokesperson for Pepsi and signed a deal with music powerhouse Columbia Records. But when it became clear to Smollett that his label’s vision for his sound differed greatly from his own, he walked away from the relationship—with only half of the album completed.
“It just wasn’t working,” Smollett said. “I wanted freedom and I wanted to be able to do what I wanted to do and not have a bunch of people… a bunch of old, straight, white men telling me what part of my art, that I created, should be heard by the people that it was actually created for.”
He says that there are no hard feelings, explaining that everything surrounding the departure “was ok.” But such a break-up would require him to do everything himself— a process he’s fully embraced.
Smollett, who’s been writing songs for most of his life, has invested his own money, his own resources and cultivated his own relationships to release Sum of My Music on his own. He says because of the initial interruption to the creative process, the album ended up having more of a beginning, middle and an end. It made the storytelling aspect more complete.
He’s even shot and directed videos for songs on the album, including a music video featuring Tika Sumpter and Cynthia Erivo, as a couple, for his song entitled "Freedom." We sat down for a conversation about each of the tracks on the album, putting them together and what (and occasionally who) inspired some of the love, jealousy and gratitude expressed throughout.
Smollett opens the album discussing the numerous negative things said and thought about him by those on social media, but also himself, in a song called "Insecurities."
“I was in one place completely different in the first verse than I was in the second verse, which is why the first verse is about me,” said Smollett. The second verse is more about the things he’d wished he’d seen or heard more regularly as a child. “It also is kind of tongue-in-cheek, it’s almost laughing because I’m looking back,” Smollett says smiling. “I’m singing about things that were maybe not so [long ago] but far enough back that I’m removed enough to not be hurt about it."
'Oh he’s cute, what a waste,' a comment subtly added, addresses the way he’s been discussed by straight women unhappy with the idea that they don't have a shot. Lyrics like, 'That nigga sounds like a crying lamb,' highlights those that aren’t fans of his singing style and 'Will his blackness scare white folks away,' talks about the juxtaposition of being a loud political voice and the challenge of maintaining mainstream appeal. It ends with, 'now that we got that out the way...'
"Catch Your Eye" is track two and a song about the possibilities of love.
“I was vibing real hard to Jazmine Sullivan and I stay vibing hard to [her],” he said. The song came from a simple conversation with a friend working on his album, Melodie Ray. When they came into the studio, Swizz Beatz, featured artist as well as writer and producer on the track, had started a beat that would become the sound to accompany the first lyrics written for the song “when I saw you walkin' by.”
“It’s one of my favorite songs to have recorded,” Smollett lights up, thinking about it. “It’s one of my favorite songs to perform live and... it’s one of my favorite songs to sing stripped down with no instrumentation, or with a full band, a choir, a symphony, with an orchestra, it doesn’t matter…”
“You know, you could’ve just said it was your favorite song,” I interrupted.
“Well it’s not my favorite song!” he replied just as quickly. “My songs are like my children, I love them equally, in different ways. [But] 'Catch Your Eye' is that down-ass child that you have.”
The album’s single, 'Hurt People,' is undeniably the most radio-ready song on the project. The message, coming from his mother always saying “hurt people hurt people,” taking “hurt” as first an adjective and then again as a verb.
Jim Beanz, who worked with Smollett prior on a lot of the early music for Empire co-wrote and produced the song.
“He was going through something, I was going through something completely separate and it just came,” Smollett said of the inspiration for the track. “I walked [into] the studio and he was just in pain. We just started with ‘Hurt People’ and it was like a yell.”
Smollett says the song expresses the idea of a cycle in which a good person gets hurt by someone who's hurt, leaving that initially "good and ready" individual a hurt person for the next one.
The video, which dropped in April, was directed by Smollett and filmed in South Africa. Though its release was long-delayed because he’s been busy with directing on and wrapping up Empire, along with a personal unreadiness to release it. “I ain’t hurting no more…” he declares at the end of the track, with an audible smile.
"Ha Ha (I Love You)" and "Smile" are songs about love in its polar opposite stages, making Smollett pause before discussing them, asking himself aloud, “What would Kerry Washington say?”
When speaking of love, Smollett jokingly says that he treats his romantic relationships like Kerry Washington, choosing not to discuss his love life publicly.
“I talk about me, I just don’t talk about my relationship. I even talk about the fact that I’m in one, I just don’t talk about the actual person,” Smollett says of the decision he’s made to protect his partner by not talking about him. “[He] didn’t ask to be in the light and just because these are the things that I do doesn’t mean [he does them too]. Plus, as an artist, you share a lot and I love sharing, I love being honest, hearing other people’s stories, but there are some things that... [I’m] not keeping a secret. If you see me with Baby, you see me with Baby. But it’s not something I feel right now to flaunt.”
"Ha Ha," while lyrically brief, represents a revelation of something quite significant for actor-singer.
“I fell in love. I wrote it when I was in Hawaii, opening for Mariah,” he slips in, without grandeur. “It was kind of this moment where I realized that I loved… someone,” he said.
“'Smile' was lead by Jim Beanz, because Jim Beanz was going through some shit,” he says laughing. “[It] has that [Jimmy] Jam & [Terry] Lewis type of vibe to it. And it’s about that...” he pauses, “‘if you so unhappy…’” another pause, “‘BYE!’” us both erupting into laughter.
He calls the song and its tone the sort of anti-R&B crooner’s type of message, not being at all a traditional love song, but more of letting someone go without any type of apology or hesitation, it’s hook saying, “If I don’t make you smile anymore // Why can’t you just walk out the door?”
"Staycation" is a song about needing space and time. While Smollett’s troubles, stressors, frustrations may seem different than the everyday person’s, the song is about needing time to one’s self: “just need a moment to myself / Just me and no one else.”
Smollett is, however, not good at this me-time thing in real life though.
“I hate that question!” he protested, after being asked about how he unplugs. “I should but I don’t. I stay working right now. Here’s the thing, I was working jobs for so many years — even the jobs where I was doing work that I was proud of — I was doing jobs where I was lucky if I could get a few days off here and there. Now I’m actually doing what I love to do every single day, I feel like I gotta keep going. I’m enjoying it.”
Discussing "Don’t Go" got interesting. The song opens with a comment “Yo, I’m real good brutha, but I’ll go through that mother******* phone in a heartbeat.” An upbeat song very clearly about being a jealous partner, in love with someone that everyone has their eyes on. He unsuccessfully dances around the lyrics being autobiographical.
“First of all, I think this is about... the old me,” he continues laughing. “This is… about me in 2017… in the earlier parts of the year,” implying he’s not a really jealous. "You know, new year, new me!" While Smollett is a celebrated actor, this performance is… a little less than convincing. “Let’s just ignore that lyric and say I did it for sales...” he says, laughing when asked about the line, “I’m a little jealous / And I can’t even tell a lie.”
On "What Would I Do" he’s more definitive — and a lot more believable.
“This song is for the fans and also the people that you love, your family, your friends, whoever drives you to work hard,” he said, becoming more reflective again. It’s a love song that’s not exclusively romantic but is universal and inclusive, a shout-out to the nearly six million followers he’s stacked up across social media platforms.
"Freedom," written by his friend and star of Broadway’s Hamilton, Bryan Terrell Clark, is the last track that was added to the collection. Smollett and Clark were riding in the car one day after the album was already completed. When Clark played the demo of the song, Smollett repeatedly asked to hear it again, eventually recording it.
“It makes me choke up every single time I sing one particular part,” he said of the second hook’s lyrics, “Cause I know who we are to each other / Yes I know who we are / It’s like freedom.”
“I always have to make sure that I don’t crack, because I always wanna cry. I always get chills,” he said.
He went to explain that in the video — the one featuring Tika Sumpter and Cynthia Erivo — he wanted to show a couple, doing everyday couple stuff, just enjoying their lives together — Sumpter and Erivo being that couple.
“Tika and Cynthia are just a dream and every single person that came through for that video and every video that I’ve done, it’s just love,” he says gushing. He points out that if you pay close attention, his sister Jazz is in the video, but notably the only one not holding a red cup after protesting… she’s the only one with an actual wine glass.“She was like, ‘no… no,’” he laughs.
At this point, Terrence Howard interrupts the interview with a phone call, leading to a tangent on (and impression of) what it’s like to talk on the phone with the man who plays the patriarch of the Lyon family.
"I Know My Name," is the final track. Smollett says that it’s meant to be celebratory and grateful; in it he thinks about how fortunate he’s been, suggesting that he must’ve been an awesome person in a previous life.
“The amount of love and amazing people that I have in my life is overwhelming,” he said talking about his family (both biological and chosen). “You just want to be able to say ‘thank you.’” This is why he never says ‘no’ to a picture — unless he’s with his niece or nephew — because he’s grateful for the immense love shown to him.
He goes on about the appreciation for all of the support he’s gotten from the community and specifically adding what appreciates about Black women.“Black women have never made me feel less than [who] I am,” he said. “And that’s what [I Know My Name] means to me, it’s like ‘one day I’m going to turn up for my city,’ and ‘my city’ is so much more than this city, it’s my community, my people.”
Smollett kicked off his tour on April 20, 2018 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. It will span throughout Europe and the United States, ending in a performance at ESSENCE Festival 2018.