A Long Time Comin'
R&B prodigy CJ earned his first Grammy nomination before he could buy liquor, but he's just getting started
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CJ Hilton is a hard guy to get a hold of. After more than a year, on and off, of failed attempts at an interview, he finally got around to a telephone conversation from his studio in Philadelphia. The 21-year-old R&B singer is a down-to-earth, approachable person, he just hasn't been home in Baltimore much lately, as he readies his debut album for release on J Records later this year. But then, it seems like he's already spent half his life diligently working toward this moment. "I got into the music industry when I was 13," the soft-spoken musician says, "when I signed a production deal with a company in [Washington] D.C."
Born Charles Hilton Jr.--though he's been called "CJ" for as long as he can remember and adopted the nickname as his performing handle--he began singing and playing several instruments from a young age. "I was around music my whole life--my dad was a gospel singer," he recalls. After growing up going to school around Baltimore City and Baltimore County, he got his first record deal, with Capitol Records, as a teenager: "I finished out high school being home schooled."
At the time, Hilton was a prodigy with an uncommonly mature sound, and an ear for capturing the classic '70s soul sound of Marvin Gaye in his vocals and songwriting. "With Capitol," Hilton says, "I wanted my music to sound organic, soulful." And though the album he recorded for the label was never released, it proved to be an essential step in his musical growth. "It was just a good development period."
It was also Capitol that put him in a room with Raphael Saadiq, the respected R&B veteran and former Tony! Toni! Toné! frontman who became something of a mentor for Hilton. At the time, Saadiq himself was working on a project influenced heavily by the same classic soul sounds, and he found a spot for Hilton on his 2008 album, The Way I See It.
Their collaboration, "Never Give You Up," began with a few of Hilton's ideas. "I brought that song to him, my verse and the music, and we worked on the chorus and his verse together," he says. But it was Saadiq's decision to call one of the biggest names in his Rolodex that took the song to a whole other level. "He called Stevie [Wonder] on speakerphone," Hilton says, "and Stevie actually picked up and came through in, like, 15 or 20 minutes."
"Never Give You Up," complete with a harmonica solo by Wonder, became The Way I See It's biggest radio hit, peaking at No. 26 on the R&B charts in 2009 and landing a Grammy nomination for the Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. Having a living legend on the track no doubt helped its profile, but still, it was an impressive feat for a song that featured a relative unknown like CJ on lead vocals for much of the song.
In the meantime, Hilton was already moving to reboot his solo career, starting his debut album anew with J Records. There, he began updating his sound with more modern influences, and taking pains not to be pigeonholed as a retro act. "I just wanted to put different sorts of music on there, because I like all different kinds of music," he says. And given that R&B is currently flush with male stars such as John Legend and Robin Thicke, who've found success with both classic soul sounds featuring live instruments and with more contemporary collaborations with hip-hop producers and guest rappers, it seems like the perfect time for Hilton to establish his versatility.
CJ's new sound is on full display on The Package Mixtape, a half-hour sampler of unreleased material recently released online to build buzz for the official album. Salaam Remi, best known for his work with Nas and the Fugees, assembled the mixtape and produced several tracks, while other hip-hop producers such as Bink and Don Cannon also contribute beats. Hilton credits Remi with helping him make that musical transition by not simply handing him beats to sing over. "Salaam actually brought a lot out of me," he says. "He's a different producer. He doesn't really do tracks, he makes songs, so he helped me out a lot with my songwriting."
And Hilton got a famous friend, actor Idris Elba (The Wire), to host the mixtape under his musical alias, DJ Driis. There's no better way to establish your Baltimore bona fides than to have Stringer Bell introduce your songs.
As Hilton waits for J to roll out his official lead single, the Bangladesh-produced "Slow It Down," he's wasting no time promoting himself, going straight to YouTube with the video for The Package highlight, "It Ain't Easy," filmed in Baltimore. The self-produced track serves Hilton well as a bridge between his early old-fashioned sound and his current direction, with a thumping beat accompanying a soulful melody and socially conscious lyrics.
While Saadiq, Wonder, and Elba have gotten Hilton's career off to a good start, it's another young Baltimore singer that he's been taking the most tips from lately. Mario, who's only a couple years older but has been scoring hit singles since 2002, recently took Hilton under his wing and asked the newcomer to write songs for his next album. "I learn a lot from him," Hilton says. And as he eyes his big shot at success, there's no doubt that he's looking to grab a bit of the spotlight his friend has enjoyed for so long.