“I felt like people were overlooking me,” PJ said when asked what inspired her debut full-length project, “Rare.”
To the uninitiated, that may come as a surprise, considering that the 26-year-old has contributed to singles from Wiz Khalifa, B.o.B and Fantasia. Her debut album, “Rare,” was released last week, and hours after the interview she would board a cross-country flight to launch her first major tour.
But the artist, who on this day was seated in the corner of a restaurant — her face almost obscured by golden-tipped dreadlocks and oversized cat-eye sunglasses — has had to conquer near-crippling self-doubt to get here.
Just a few years ago, she didn’t even want to pursue music.
“I was scared. I’ve always been shy … and not the most confident person,” she said, explaining how personal insecurities initially kept her from recording.
“I didn’t even tell people this was what I wanted,” she said, her smile dimming as she picked at her lunch.
Today, with “Rare,” the message is one of encouragement. Inspiring R&B anthems of self-love, dream chasing and resilience unfold over whimsical productions that owe as much to throwback hip-hop as they do to ‘90s-era Disney music.
It’s a work in which she conquers her biggest enemy: herself.
The Greensboro, N.C., native, whose real name is Paris Jones, decided it would be safer to study music business than pursue a solo career. So she enrolled at Middle Tennessee State University. Her plan: become a song plugger, one who pitches a songwriter’s work to producers or managers.
She wanted a piece of the action without being at the front.
She ended up finding some initial luck as a potential songwriter. Jones linked with a manager at a songwriter’s convention and was immediately put to work in Nashville studios. Attempts at publishing deals, however, went south, including one with Dr. Luke. She ultimately signed with BMG and moved to L.A. in 2013.
“Everything was all good. I’m writing, writing, writing. Six months go by and there’s no placements … then a year and a half goes by,” she remembered. “I was disappointed. I didn’t think that’s how it worked.”
Her advance dried out before she caught a break, which arrived when she penned the hook for rapper Meek Mill’s 2014 single “I Don’t Know.” She ultimately secured a deal with Atlantic and continued to write for other artists.
Last year Jones decided to shake her personal nerves and go into the studio for herself. She wanted to make music that channeled her nagging insecurities and captured her feelings of being misunderstood. The result was her 2015 EP “Walking Around Pools,” which detailed her everyday struggles over soulful, hip-hop beats.
The work, she said, “helped me figure out my sound. I hope it’s not an angry sound — but there is a little anger in there. Well, angst I should say.”
Her work takes its cues from a range of inspirations -- Lauryn Hill, Nas, teen pop and Disney soundtracks (which she credits for teaching her pop song structure). “Growing up, Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears was popping so that’s what I was listening to when it wasn’t hip-hop,” she said.
On “Rare,” Jones doles out sunny optimism and biting, street-wise grit.
Save for a few tracks where guests appear, she wrote much of the work herself. D’Mile (Justin Bieber, Ty Dolla Sign) largely produced the record alongside an array of largely up-and-coming beat makers, including Peter Lee Johnson and B. Ham.
“I wanna be the nice guy, but the nice guy always gonna get stepped on / I really wanna be gangster,” she sings on the album’s first single “Gangster,” an ode to the underdogs.
Jones hopes listeners latch on to her tales of self-acceptance.
“I feel like I lived [so many] years miserable,” she said. “It took me 26 years to be comfortable in the skin I’m in. I really wish I knew I was this cool the way that I was.”
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