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The time is now for one of the industry’s best-kept secrets: PJ Morton. The Maroon 5 keyboardist/backing vocalist makes his major label debut on May 14 with New Orleans, his first album for Young Money Entertainment/Republic Records. One listen to Morton’s anticipated project quickly reveals why the multi-talent became a favorite on the indie R&B circuit and an in-demand songwriter/producer and also why the limitless talent will be a game changer for the Lil Wayne-founded Young Money.
New Orleans marks the Cash Money imprint’s first step toward broadening its already wide appeal, thanks to a hit-making and award-winning roster that includes founder Lil Wayne, Drake and Nicki Minaj. And there’s no better ambassador to musically personify that message than Morton, whose self-described “soulful pop” seamlessly spans multiple genres from gospel and R&B/funk to pop and rock.
“I’ve always pushed boundaries,” says Morton, “but I always remain true to who I am musically. New Orleans is a natural progression of who I am. I can’t explain it except through my music. That proves it better than anything I can say.”
Building that case is “Only One” featuring Stevie Wonder. Quickly garnering strong reaction following its January premiere on Billboard.com, the song is the lead single from New Orleans. Armed with an infectious hook and a head-boppin’ groove, the up-tempo number showcases Morton’s velvety tenor, songwriting skills and musicianship, accented by Wonder’s distinctive harmonica.
“Stevie joining me on the track is the ultimate start. It’s my dream come true,” says Morton of teaming with Wonder. “I want to continue the legacy he represents: musicianship and positivity.
New Orleans itself stems from Morton’s acclaimed 2012 EP, Following My First Mind, featuring guest cameos from Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, Lil Wayne and Jazmine Sullivan. A nod to Morton’s hometown and musical roots, the forthcoming New Orleans finds Morton at the keyboard playing with a full backing band complete with horns and strings. The result is a lush, melodic yet organic 10-track set that grabs listeners right from the opening title track.
“New Orleans is where I learned how to play music,” recalls Morton. “It’s the physical and mind space I was in when I fell in love with music. It wasn’t about marketing, radio and publicity. It was just about making music because I loved it. It made me feel good. Young Money wanted me creatively as I am. That’s why I’m excited about this next chapter.”
Also featuring rapper Busta Rhymes, New Orleans comes packed with a diverse slate of musical influences. There’s the reggae-infused “Hard Enough,” which explores relationship issues. “I’m looking for a love unconditional / Not one that goes wherever the wind blows,” declares Morton as the song opens.
The self-described “Dr. Love” traverses the same landscape on the mid-tempo “Work It Out.” Set off by a touch of synth and a hypnotic drumbeat, the song once again spotlights Morton’s tantalizing tenor. Also noteworthy is “Heavy,” a song revamped from Morton’s 2012 EP and featuring Adam Levine. Sporting a funk/rock track reminiscent of Sly Stone and Prince, the song’s lyrics were inspired by Morton’s frustration at one point with his indie career.
“It was at a point where I was trying to figure out what the next step was,” says Morton, who hadn’t yet connected with pop hitmakers Maroon 5. “This was me getting those feelings out. Since that frustration, I’ve had one of the biggest years in my career. It’s crazy.”
Influenced by acts ranging from the Beatles and James Taylor to Wonder and Donny Hathaway, the New Orleans native is the son of gospel singer Paul S. Morton. His formal foray into the industry was as a member of the band Freestyle Nation, which debuted in the early 2000s. But it was as a songwriter/producer that Morton left his first indelible impression. He won a Grammy Award for his songwriting/production of India.Arie’s “Interested” from her 2002 album Voyage to India.
That opened the door to more collaborations (Jermaine Dupri, LL Cool J, Monica, Musiq Soulchild, Trinitee 5:7) and additional accolades (Dove and Stellar Awards) for his work with gospel singer DeWayne Woods. Woods’ “Let Go, Let God” spent a record 70 weeks on the gospel chart. Along the way, Morton released several acclaimed indie solo albums. He also attracted the attention of Academy Award-winning producer AR Rahman (“Slumdog Millionaire”), who asked Morton to contribute a song (“Sajna”) to the soundtrack for the Vince Vaughn comedy “Couples Retreat.”
Morton’s next big break occurred three years ago, when he was asked to audition by friend and Maroon 5 music director Adam Blackstone for a spot in the band as its keyboardist/vocalist. Soon after, childhood friend and Young Money Entertainment president Mack Maine championed Morton’s music and vision to Cash Money co-CEO’s Roland “Slim” Williams and Bryan “Birdman” Williams. With Lil Wayne co-signing his approval as well, Morton is ready to bring his journey full circle with New Orleans.
“My indie years and working with various artists, including Maroon 5, have helped me understand who I am as both an individual and an artist,” says Morton. “It has allowed me to create a fan base that will forever be with me. Now I’m being given the opportunity to do on steroids what I’ve been doing for years.”