Many faces of Foxx
KANYE WEST’S concert at the Gibson Amphitheatre was one of the season’s hot tickets, so the backstage crowd after the show had a high celebrity quotient. But all eyes were on one man, Jamie Foxx, who fiddled with his cellphone in a corner.
Men nodded and grinned at him and a cluster of women, loitering without pretense, tilted their chins and smiled when his gaze fell on them. When you are young, rich and you have an Oscar at home, it’s pretty easy to sit back and let the world come to you. But Foxx was too focused on the future to dawdle on the distractions of the present.
“It’s going to be groundbreaking, what I have planned,” Foxx said. He turned toward the wall so he could be better heard. “Kanye and me, we’re simpatico. It’s going to be like Batman and Robin. It’s going to pump it up.” Foxx was talking breathlessly about his music career -- that’s the music career that he hopes will follow his film career, his television sitcom career and his stand-up comic career. This might seem to be the appropriate time for readers to roll their eyes, but it should be noted that Foxx last week got a Grammy nomination for his singing, and his album doesn’t even reach stores until Dec. 20. He also has a searing cameo on West’s ubiquitous hit “Gold Digger,” which is nominated for the record of the year Grammy. Foxx’s role on that song may be dismissed as a vocal stunt, but he hopes to show more.
“I’ve got so much more inside me,” the actor said as he started to look for the exit. “I’ve got so much music inside me. Tonight was one of the first great moments. It sets it all up.”
Earlier in the night, West’s show had brought down the house at the Gibson. The rapper prowled the stage with complete command and he did so with the aid of hip-hop’s most sophisticated production, and guest appearances by Patti LaBelle, Common and Adam Levine of Maroon 5. But there was no moment more electrifying than the surprise appearance of Foxx, who walked onto the darkened stage and got a roar of applause when the spotlight came up.
He and West performed three songs. But it was hard to tell how much of the crowd excitement was at the sight of Foxx as opposed to the sound of Foxx; for young America, especially young black America, Foxx’s climb through pop culture and his triumphant channeling of Ray Charles in “Ray” has made him a hero. That won’t be enough to sustain the sort of music career Foxx envisions.
“I got big plans,” he said after the show. “This was just a small part. But it was really good wasn’t it?” Foxx’s music career is no new project, really -- in fact, it was the opening act of his entire life in show business. He was classically trained in piano and sang in choirs as a child. In his youthful daydreams, he was collecting gold records, not Academy Awards.
Every time you turn a corner in Foxx’s house in Tarzana, you see Ray Charles. Portraits, photos and books -- Foxx has been handed plenty of tokens by fans of the poignant film. A well-known photograph of the blind soul man taken by Marc Sharrat hangs in the recording studio in the rear of the house, a site that gets more use than the basketball court or swimming pool.
“Coming in here, making music, that’s what I do,” Foxx said. It was hours before the West show and the relaxed hands of Foxx were gliding over the control board. A song he recorded with Snoop Dogg thumped from the speakers.
“Snoop comes over a lot, and when he does we don’t talk about the record business, we just make music,” Foxx said.
The R&B; and hip-hop scene of the past five years is defined by the guest appearance -- any album of consequence has more assists than an NBA box score -- and Foxx has an impressive array for his CD, “Unpredictable”: West, Snoop, Pharrell Williams, Mary J. Blige, Twista and Ludacris. There’s also the spirit of Ray Charles.
“Y’know what, I’m going make it do what it do baby.” It’s the high-pitched sweet talk of Charles -- or, more precisely, it’s Jamie Foxx’s version of it from the film “Ray.” It’s a sample that laces one of Foxx’s new songs. But after “Gold Digger,” isn’t Foxx worried that too much Ray will be viewed as backpedaling or, worse, a crass gimmick?
“The spirit of Ray is in my life now and it is part of this album, it’s part of the inspiration,” Foxx said. “You hear a splash of Ray but this album is about me.”
It certainly doesn’t sound like a Charles album. It’s a thoroughly modern R&B; offering with hip-hop beats and shimmering layers. It doesn’t have the bombast of R. Kelly’s singing style but it does share that singer’s penchant for bedroom coaxing with “Can I Take You Home.” The Foxx here is closer to the R&B; smolder he showed on the Twista hit song “Slow Jamz” than he is the jumping soul of “Gold Digger.”
“I’ve had a style for a long time, but it’s always been stuck into a TV show here or flashed in an interview there,” Foxx said. “It may be new to you, but not to me.”
Foxx just finished filming Michael Mann’s theatrical revisiting to “Miami Vice,” which, for the record, Foxx describes as an arduous and demanding experience, but not the ugly and bickering scene that has been described in some reports. The old television show had a star who tried his hand in the music business. If you remember Don Johnson’s regrettable “Heartbeat” recording in 1986, you’re one up on Foxx. “It sounds like a bad idea,” Foxx said. “This isn’t that. I hope.”
Foxx did have an earlier, less ambitious foray in recording with the 1994 album, “Peeps.” It didn’t do well, but music impresario Clive Davis, an instrumental figure in the careers of Alicia Keys, Whitney Houston and Santana, has guided this new project and it made it a priority for his label, J Records.
“I signed Jamie before I saw the Ray Charles movie and this new album,” Davis said, dismissing the notion that this project is anything less than an organic music venture. “The music speaks for itself.”
Geoff Mayfield, director of charts for Billboard magazine, the music industry trade, said Foxx’s single is at No. 66 on the Hot 100, which is the magazine’s premiere tally.
“ ‘Unpredictable’ has had a slower start than I think some people had expected and it definitely hasn’t had the quick start he enjoyed on his songs with other people, so we’ll have to wait and see how it does when the album comes out.”
There is more Foxx music on the horizon too. He plans to tour and create mini-movies that play out behind the stage and feature well-known actors and music stars. He wants to become a sort of new Sammy Davis Jr., someone who can do acting, comedy, music, dance and anything that presents itself.
He’s also now filming an adaptation of the musical “Dreamgirls,” due in theaters in late 2006, with Beyonce Knowles, Eddie Murphy and Danny Glover. “People are going to see now what he can really do,” said Mathew Knowles, manager for his daughter. “The film and soundtrack will show Jamie is a real artist.”
Asked if the “Ray” role has earned him a special affection from the music industry, he nodded quickly.
“Yes, it was kind of an earth-shaking thing for everybody,” he said. “ ‘Ray’ was so successful and then Kanye took that energy ... " here he stops and launches into the smooth squawk of the “money” line from “I Got a Woman” that West used as the hook for “Gold Digger” -- “and it’s helped me. But this is a real thing, this is no novelty.”
Last week he got his first solo Grammy nomination -- it was for “Creepin,” a song he contributed to “So Amazing,” a tribute album for Luther Vandross, who died last year. Not only does the surprise nomination help with his new career course (“Oh yes,” Davis said Monday, “that was a nice piece of news”) it put the first-time nominee in the same male R&B; vocal category as Stevie Wonder, Usher, John Legend and Mario.
“Luther was a legend,” Foxx said, “it was an honor to be part of his celebration.” As awkward as it sounds, Foxx’s career keeps dovetailing with history and death.
Foxx did appear in February on the Grammy Awards to sing the Charles hit “Georgia on My Mind” with Keys, and by all accounts he acquitted himself very well. “Ray” found life in theaters and on critics’ lists in the months after Charles died and that sad synchronicity burnished his performance even more. He also portrayed the title character in “Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story,” the 2004 television movie about the life of the convicted murderer and anti-gang activist, who as of Calendar press time was scheduled for execution today.
The role as Williams was an intimidating one for Foxx; to play the founder of the Crips and live in Los Angeles is a tricky task. In delving into the character, Foxx became a champion for the cause of clemency. That today is also Foxx’s 38th birthday will make the date a strange and emotional one for the actor.
“The fact I’ve had these roles and moments in my life, it’s not just the success of them. It’s the lessons I’ve gotten from them, if that makes sense,” Foxx said. “I’ve gotten a chance to do some great things and now I’m trying to do some new ones. With the music, you know, it’s part of what I want to be.”