Once described as “the most promising R&B artist we have had since we started the company 60 years ago” by the founder of Atlantic Records, Trey Songz is undisputedly one of the most prolific and recognisable artists to emerge within the 21st century.
With feats under his belt like selling out the iconic Madison Square Garden venue in New York, duetting with Aretha Franklin, touring with Jay-Z and being nominated for several Grammy’s, Trey is as big a success on paper as he is culturally.
“Say Aah” is still a fan-favourite birthday track and several children born in the last decade and beyond can have their conception traced to a romantic night soundtracked by the sounds of the Virginia-born R&B crooner.
15 years since his debut and eight albums in, Trey is back with a new project called Back Home and Trey is reflective of his new realities on this one.
With tracks like “I Know A Love” which narrate Trey’s new journey into fatherhood and “2020 Riots: How Many Times” which is a raw depiction of America’s crude racist zeitgeist, Trey is calling for fans to see him in a new light – perhaps in the same way that 2020 has done for everything else we hold close.
I met Trey (virtually) at his home in Los Angeles, California – worlds away from his humble beginnings in Petersburg, Virginia or his durations spent in Atlanta and Miami which he openly shared with fans during his intimate Ustreams back in the early 2010s.
Off the back of his recent COVID-19 diagnosis which he shared on Instagram in an urgent message in which he asked fans to take the pandemic seriously, Trey still attended the interview and appeared warm and engaged throughout.
“I’m alright. I’m short of breath a little bit sometimes but other than that, I’m good” he said as he walked his laptop to a different location in his home in order to get more comfortable.
Fans rallied around to show their support when Trey announced the arrival of his son Noah via Instagram. A spitting image of his Dad and a boy who will one day become a man in America, Trey described his experience of fatherhood and how it has shaped him.
“Fatherhood is amazing. Being able to watch a little version of yourself grow is surreal. You’re proud at the smallest of things. Ultimately, it just makes me want to be a better person for him and be the best example I can be for him. It’s a love that I’ve never known before. You think you know love, you think you know passion, you think you know scared, you think you know all of that and then you have a child and it’s like every emotion is reborn.”
Trey adds, “As far as artistry is concerned, I think having a son has given me a different realisation of how impactful my voice is outside of music, with protesting, speaking out against police brutality and encouraging my people to understand and be knowledgeable about issues that we face.”
“I’ve often used my voice for things, but it’s different now that I have a son. I don’t want him to go through some of the things that I’ve been through, or that so many other black people go through. I want to use my voice to stop as much pain coming his way as possible.”
“You’ll see it on the album. Even with a song like “How Many Times” or “I Know a Love”, those songs are very much inspired by the need to protect him.”
Here in the UK, we’ve been traumatised and left mourning by the horrific images we’ve seen of innocent black men and women being killed in their homes and on the streets. With racism being an ever-present discussion on all corners of the globe, I ask Trey if racism in America has gotten worse or if it is just being documented more.
“I think we have a leader in America that has allowed tensions to be ignited. I think we have a leader that thrives on hate, so with that being said, I think racism is just as present as it has ever been, but now we have cameras. You also have a younger generation of white people that don’t want to be racist, and the children of some of these racist parents listen to hip-hop and black artists. So how can you tell somebody to hate people that (they) adore, that (they) admire? I think in so many ways it’s worse and in so many ways it’s better as well.”
Trey talked about the fatal shooting of teenager Michael Brown in 2014 by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. No charges were brought against the officer and the heart of black America was broken again for what seemed like the infinite time.
“If you think back to Mike Brown, it’s only now we’re starting to see bodycam footage. We’re finally starting to see police actually getting charged, even though there isn’t any sense of regularity. When you look at the numbers, it’s very minuscule in comparison to the lives that have been taken.”
The Grammy-nominated artist is hopeful though that the future may be brighter – “I think this year, the pressure has been applied in such a way that change is actually foreseeable.”
Away from his Black Lives Matter weekends or his exposés of the everyday racists he encounters via Instagram, Trey has always been a voice for the voiceless and a hero in his local community.
His short-lived BET reality series Trey Songz: My Moment which aired in 2010 showcased his philanthropic efforts across his hometown of Petersburg, Virginia.
His Angels with a Heart initiative encouraged his fans to get involved and every November, Trey’s Angels were encouraged to give back to their local communities.
Hailing from a small town himself and witnessing poverty, Trey detailed the issues he has seen from a ground-level perspective.
“You look at neighbourhoods where children are decelerating in schools, graduating class numbers are low but prison rates are high, the arrest rates are high. The prison budgets are high, the school budget is low and the medical budget is low.”
“I think if the focus was to enlighten and uplift children in the areas where they are most abandoned, I think that’s the most important thing ever. As cliché as it sounds, I believe the children are the future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.”
With tracks like “I Invented Sex”, “Neighbours Know My Name”, “Panty Droppa” and the infamous “Inside Pt. 2” which allegedly features authentic audio from a real sexual encounter, Trey has found it impossible to be disassociated with the sex symbol label since he famously cut off his braids in 2008.
I asked Trey about being labelled a sex symbol and if it is as glamorous as you’d assume.
“There’s pressure attached to everything when you’re famous for something. To be famous for making music is to make money off of being liked.”
“The pressures are heightened today with social networks, social media, blogs and all the prying. To be a sex symbol as a man is to have to always look the part and sound the part. It used to bother me at times because as a musician, I make all types of music. There’s so much more to me as a person but you kind of understand consumer relationships and marketing…I’d rather be a sex symbol than not if I had to choose.”
Entitled Back Home, Trey’s eighth album follows the release of Tremaine the Album in 2014.
Recorded at his home studio in Los Angeles, Trey beams with pride as he details its conception.
“I recorded most of it by myself, just me in a room with a computer and a microphone it came out pretty good.”
On the title, Trey says, “Home is where my family is, where I can get a home-cooked meal that tastes just like it tasted when I was a little boy, where I might turn a corner and somebody calls me ‘Tremaine’ very loudly, or where I can drive down the back roads and don’t need GPS. You know just familiarity. Home is definitely Virginia for me.”
“That’s why the album being entitled Back Home is so precious to me because, within the last couple of years, I’ve been back home more than I ever have. Having lost my Grandfather, my Grandmother got sick a few years ago, having my son last year and making sure that he has a strong relationship with my family. Being back home is a different sense of love, a different sense of reality for me.”
“Back Home means two different things to me. It’s the physical/literal sense of being back home and there’s the metaphoric sense in the music where it feels like my first album. It feels like that even with the packaging, and if you go to the production, I’m working a lot with Troy (Taylor) and it feels very Songbook, it feels very nostalgic. All of the music feels like I’m home.”
Troy Taylor’s name can be found in the credits of every Trey Songz project known to exist. On his working relationship with the musician, Trey says:
“Musically, we could close our eyes and make music like he’s the yin to my yang, he knows what I’m thinking, we finish each other’s sentences, we might do the same run in the same spot. We’ll sing the same background note, we live in harmony and unison whilst making music.”
Reflecting on his debut album I Gotta Make It which turned 15 in June and was commemorated with the reissue of some of his classic visual debuts in HD, Trey said, “a lot of people don’t know this, we finished my first album at (Troy Taylor’s) home in Dallas. I stayed out there for a few weeks. We did the whole album in Jersey and I came to Dallas after he had moved and we ended up recording “Gotta Make It”.
After working with Chip and Estelle and touring with Angel and Sway, Trey remains open and enthusiastic about working with more UK artists in the future.
“I feel like the UK is very inclusive right now. I feel like, for a long time, there was a lot of music being made to kind of cross genres and be accepted worldwide. I feel like the music now is very much centred around what it is to be a UK artist. It’s so dope that artists are thriving and being representatives of their homeland. I would love to get down, you already know I love working!”
Back Home is noticeably feature light. Afrobeats star Davido is one of the artists that does make an appearance though, and their collaboration was a long time in the making.
“The dope thing about him actually is we met years ago and we did a record for his album which I loved. I’ve always wanted him on my project as well, I just hadn’t done an album since then. I found the perfect record and I sent it to him and he was excited and he sent it right back to me within 24 hours. He got it done so fast and it’s fire.”
When asked what his favourite tracks on the project are, Trey seemed stumped by his range of choice: “I have a few favourites. “I Know a Love” is definitely a favourite of mine. It’s about having a son and what that is and looking in my son’s eyes and knowing the love that I’ve never known before and his name being Noah.”
“There’s a song, “All This Love”- I’ve never had what I felt was a great wedding song. I’ve had great love songs but this song is about eternal love, foreverness and when you look at somebody and you really want to be with them for the rest of your life.”
“Tug Of War” is a very ‘Trey Songz-ey’ song I would say. It reminds me of some of the songs that I had on my demo actually. It’s just me and Troy on the backgrounds. There are so many favourites I’ve got… I could keep going and talk about each song.”
Making headlines recently due to a poorly taken post which trolled women born after 1993 and criticised their cooking skills and more, Trey addressed the controversy concisely.
“I didn’t make that statement, I just laughed at it. It’s funny how the internet works. I never validated that statement nor said I believed it. I just laughed at it. You can’t take the internet too seriously.”
Trey added, “I would never make a statement generalising anyone. I’ll say ‘fuck da police’, I don’t mean all of em. I say this, that and the other, I would never be as ignorant as to generalise one group of people as to be one thing. That’s dumb.”
Trey’s 2009 release Ready is often hailed on social media as a “classic” album. 11 years after its release, I asked the artist if he agreed with that consensus.
“It was a breakthrough album for me. I don’t think people really understand what they’re saying when they say they want an album like Ready, it’s just something that’s cool to say. The classic album for me is Gotta Make It.”
Anticipation 1 and 2, two of Trey’s most adorned mixtapes, were recently added to streaming services but fans noticed a track missing on A2, “Me 4 U”, which was left off due to sampling clearance issues.
“That’s one of my favourite songs I’ve ever written. I’m still trying to get it cleared, I want it cleared so bad.”
When asked how he wants listeners to react to Back Home, Trey says:
“I want their hearts to be full. I want their soul to be full. I want them to play it one more time right after that. I’m not chasing no accolades or awards or anything of that nature. I just want people to know that listening to my music, I’m going to give you my all every time until I’m done with it.”
Listen to Back Home below.