It was hustle and flow, all right. Terrence Howard, the Oscar-nominated actor best known for his role as Djay, the rapping pimp protagonist of Craig Brewer’s acclaimed 2005 film, was doing everything but serving smoked Gouda to the 40 or so people gathered Thursday night for the listening party for “Shine Through It,” his Sony/BMG Records debut.
The genial Chicago native bopped from corner to corner of this cramped, rectangular room at his record company’s swank headquarters in Santa Monica, refilling the wine glasses of the journalists, executives and self-described “friends of Three Six Mafia,” who seemed slightly stunned at the prospect of accepting more Sauvignon Blanc from the costar of “Iron Man.”
The act spoke volumes about Howard’s ambition for his music career, something of a first love for the self-taught guitarist and pianist, who admits to “always having thought that I was going to be a songwriter and get a deal the moment I turned 20.”
But judging from his performance of “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” in “Hustle and Flow,” one might expect something a bit more hip-hop than the stylish retro neo-soul album he’s turned in. It makes more sense when Howard starts ticking off his main influences: Cat Stevens, Carly Simon, Karen Carpenter, Bread, the Dramatics and Richie Havens.
“We don’t have people like that anymore,” Howard said, having just rushed over from an appearance on “The Tonight Show.” “This album is trying to take it back to that sort of music. For me, one of the great moments in human history was Louis Armstrong singing ‘What a Wonderful World’ in the middle of the war and riots of 1968. That’s the impetus for me to make music.”
Those are lofty goals for anyone, let alone an actor cum musician, one of the more difficult career transitions to pull off. For every Jared Leto, whose 30 Seconds to Mars has won the allegiance of tens of thousands of alienated emo kids, more commonly actors’ bands end up as musical footnotes.
The 39-year old Howard might strive to best yet another actor turned musician, Scarlett Johansson, whose forthcoming David Sitek (TV on the Radio)-produced album of Tom Waits covers is highly anticipated, if not for mere curiosity’s sake. But judging from the smooth baritone and charisma evidenced on “Shine Through It,” due in September, Howard has a reasonable shot of topping the “Match Point” actress.
Howard’s tunes are all originals, written, produced and arranged by Howard, along with his collaborator, Miles Mosley. While the lyrics rarely expand beyond cliché, Howard and his backing outfit, the Band of Kings, conjure up a smooth blend of flamenco guitars, swooning violins, hard drums and dazzling trumpet lines that recall an eclectic combination of John Legend, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass and a dash of Cab Calloway.
Not to say that Howard has a right to hang with that sort of company just yet, but it’s within reason that to think Howard’s retro Starbucks-friendly soul could make for a pleasant pairing with Sharon Jones, opening for Feist at the Hollywood Bowl this summer.
Maybe he’d even bring the Sauvignon Blanc.