Review: José James demonstrates a mastery of vibe on ‘While You Were Sleeping’ ★★

After building an underground following with a pair of sleek, electronic-edged soul-jazz albums, José James turned mainstream heads last year with his first record for the venerable Blue Note label. “No Beginning No End” presented the singer as an old soul with new ideas; it also earned countless comparisons to D'Angelo’s 2000 landmark, “Voodoo.”

His foot now in the door, James actively works against such comparisons on his second Blue Note set, which sprawls almost defiantly, from the folky title track to the psychedelic “Angel” to the behind-the-beat R&B of “U R the 1.” Guitarist Brad Allen Williams, a new addition to James’ band, pushes the music toward spiky indie rock, of all things, in “Anywhere U Go” and “EveryLittleThing,” which suggests Prince fronting Nine Inch Nails.

The result demonstrates a mastery of vibe. In his determination to establish his own lane, though, James has let his once-strong songwriting sag. For all their textural sparkle, these tunes don’t stick the way the earthier material on “No Beginning No End” did. When he finishes this album with a deep-groove rendition of Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful,” it’s a reminder of where James has been — but also of what’s missing here.



José James

“While You Were Sleeping”

(Blue Note)

Two stars