When Frankie Js hit single Dont Wanna Try hit the airwaves in 2003, R&B fans at large didnt know much about the soft-spoken young musician. The former lead singer of popular Latin group Kumbia Kings, Frankie J had already been working with some of the best in the industry before the mainstream heard his name, including veteran producer Jellybean Benitez. He brought a wealth of performance, writing and recording expertise to the table, however his introduction to the world of American R&B was tedious at best.
While his debut album, Whats A Man To Do, did decent numbers for an R&B newcomer (its sold over 300,000 to date), it was his collaboration on Baby Bashs breakout pop-crossover song Suga Suga that peaked interest in Frankies music and instilled confidence within his label. The duo reunited for Frankies sophomore album The One, which flew to platinum status in 2005, and he promptly dropped a Spanish-language collection of his R&B ballads in 2006 entitled Un Nuevo Dia.
Frankie Js new album, Priceless, drops this month, and will bring a new flair to his normally laid-back acoustic sound. The project includes production from the likes of Mannie Fresh, Play N Skillz, Happy Perez, Brian Michael Cox and Mike Caren, while Bone Thugs & Harmony, Slim of 112 and Chamillionaire all step up for guest appearances. We took some time with Frankie J in New York to address his career decisions, his thoughts on being under the radar for so long – and, of course, the rumors about Vida Guerra.
AllHipHop.com Alternatives: With your initial deal in the mid-90s, Jellybean Benitez aspired to sign you, and that didn’t go through. Have you heard back from him?
Frankie J: Well, actually it’s funny that you mention that, because I’m still working with Jellybean – he’s my publisher. I know that it didn’t go through back then, it was more of a single type of deal with Jellybean when he had his record label going, but never an album type of thing. But yeah, we still keep in contact, he’s my publisher and still working with me in one way or another at the same time in my career.
AHHA: Was there ever a point where he said, I’d kick myself for not signing
Frankie J: [laughs] No I don’t think so because he knows that he still has me in that corner, as far as writing and publishing. It’s all good.
AHHA: With Kumbia Kings, it was a boy band kind of situation, and then coming into your solo career there was some kind of expressed doubt [about whether you would make it]. You came out with such an R&B flavor after being the Latin pop king. What was that transition like for you?
Frankie J: It was difficult. I mean it was hard leaving the band first of all, we did so much traveling and recorded about four albums together as a band. It was very difficult to get away, because you’ve been with somebody for so long, and of course it’s hard for them to see you leave. But I always had this one thing in my mind – that I wanna definitely do my solo thing, venture off and produce my own records, write my own songs and not have to be under control and surveillance everywhere I go. I just didn’t really feel so good about that type of vibe, so I just wanted to do this R&B thing.
Yeah, it was kinda hard jumping into the R&B world coming from the Latin market, where people would see me like, What is this Latin kid tryna sing R&B? Is it really him? Can he really do it? Can he really sing that way? Really R&B is more about soul, it’s about feeling in the song and writing great lyrics. At the time I had a song called “Don’t Wanna Try” which was my very first single coming out of Columbia. The album was called What’s A Man To Do? and it was difficult for them to market me as an R&B singer, to try and seek and find what I was really about. But the record went Top 10 which was great for me, I really didn’t expect the success. It was more like trying something different and it worked, so now I’m very happy with everything that’s been happening. Of course I believe everything happens for a reason.
AHHA: How much did your first album sell?
Frankie J: It went over 300,000 copies over a period of time. It was a growing process for me which was great though. At 300,000 copies the first time around, a new artist with just one record out, for me it was incredible. But then after that “Suga Suga” came out, which was a big record for myself and for Baby Bash at the same time. It was Number Two on the Billboard, and with that record we went to Europe, Austria and Germany. It was just a different rise for me at the same time, I think with “Don’t Wanna Try” and “Suga Suga” coming out being strong records, I think it definitely helped me out into getting that second album with Columbia; because [selling] 300,000 copies the first time with a record label usually you’ll get dropped.
AHHA: In the beginning, [Baby Bash] was on your album and you were a feature on his album as well, but his career seemed to skyrocket, and you didn’t really get the recognition. How did that make you feel as someone who was struggling to find an image?
Frankie J: It kind of did bug me out as far as the whole thing with the record itself, because it was me featured on the song. Being that we both wrote the song together, it could have been on my album at the same time, but it was a decision between myself, management and the record label. Of course, when you write songs and you’re doing this music thing, you really don’t know what songs are gonna explode. You have a feeling [that they’re] great songs, but you don’t know if it’s gonna go that route. So “Suga Suga” could have been on the [Whats A Man To Do] but it ended up being Baby Bash’s single.
When it came out to radio, people thought it was my second single after “Don’t Wanna Try,” so they were relating the song to me more than to him. But I went with the ride, like I said, I believe everything happens for a reason. When you come out as a new artist and all of a sudden you sell all these millions of records, the second time around is more of a challenge for you. For me I think it was perfect, it was great because it was a stepping stone, and it definitely developed me more as an artist as I went more in my career. It’s a process. If I would have sold a million or two million records the first time around, it would have been different thing for me.
AHHA: When you’re comparatively doing shows in the U.S. versus doing shows in South America or overseas where you’re received differently because of your image, was there a certain kind of a stress to it?
Frankie J: Yeah there was. As an artist you want the world to see you for who you really are and what you can do. You can do so much in a song, but when you do it live acoustically and sing with that feel, vibe, soul and emotion, it just takes it to another level. So I think with the live show, what I wanted to do was show the world that I’m not just a recording artist or an artist who records songs and just makes them sound great in the studio. I think [that’s the best feeling], when people can really see the other side of the artist that performs live, and see that he can really play. So yeah people did really kind of sleep on my live performances and shows, but again it’s a growing process.
AHHA: You redid “More Than Words” which is one of the most classic acoustical rock songs of our generation. Was there any point where anyone at the rock section of the label said Frankie you may not want to redo this song?
Frankie J: Actually the idea came from the label – it came from Charlie Walk. At the time he was with Columbia, now he’s the president of Epic. It was actually an idea [where] he said, Maybe by you remaking this record, I think you would sound great. The whole concept came from me performing in Boston. I did a show down there with Gwen Stefani, Will Smith, Akon Baby Bash was also there. I was second to last, Will Smith was closing the show and he was [running] late. I had already done my set, and I was ready to get off stage. They said, He’s not there yet, can you do one more song? I didn’t know what to do, and “More Than Words” was a song that me and my guitar player Andy were always used to singing and performing all the time in talent shows and high school. We just said, You know what, lets do that and we sang the song, not knowing that Extreme was from Boston. It was crazy, the crowd started singing the song. I guess from there the news came to the record label from the radio station in Boston, and that’s how Charlie Walk said re-do the record.