I remember first discovering Trey Songz. A young R&B singer with cornrows to the back, concealed by a navy blue skully, singing about making it out of the hood with his girl on a song titled “Gotta Make It.” The music video played incessantly on BET’s now-defunct R&B segment Midnight Love and it was Trey’s obvious attractiveness and ability to hold a note that captured my heart; along with millions of other young girls who were just discovering a then 20-year-old Tremaine Aldon Neverson and would continue to follow his career for the next 15 years.
My mother must have taken notice because for some reason, and on a rare occasion, she surprised me with a physical copy of his debut album, I Gotta Make It. Though I didn’t immediately pop the album into my portable CD player on bus rides to school, at some point I did and suddenly I Gotta Make It was all I listened to. I simply couldn’t get enough and was telling everyone I knew about Trey Songz. From “Cheat On You” to “Kinda Lovin” to “In The Middle” to my absolute favorite, “All The Ifs,” I Gotta Make It was an exceptional debut from an up-and-coming singer that stood out during a time when R&B was thriving more than it is today.
15 years later, Back Home candidly brings back those same pleasant emotions and feelings that I experienced as a young high school girl overflowing with raging hormones, hearing I Gotta Make It for the first time. It flawlessly encapsulates the best of his musical journey over the years. If there was any doubt in Trigga’s ability to keep up with his legacy, Back Home is a reassuring collection of love songs that display his growth as an artist and as a man.
“A lot of people are saying it feels like the old me, and no disrespect to that because I did want you to have that feeling, but old me couldn’t sing the way I can sing now,” Trey told Uproxx. “I feel like this is my best vocal project, I feel like it’s the most cohesive project and I feel like it’s the project where I probably didn’t think about the expectations as much as in the other projects.”
While recording Back Home, the Grammy-nominated artist spent a copious amount of time surrounded by family, friends, and protesting for social justice, in his hometown of Petersburg, Virginia — right where his humble beginnings as an aspiring singer began. He also recently became a father.
During our conversation, Trey Songz opened up about going back to Virginia to record Back Home, his 15-year long career, his special relationship with the late Aretha Franklin, and his balancing act to bring love back to R&B.
Are you still in Virginia right now?
No, actually, I couldn’t go to Virginia because I wanted to make sure I was all the way good before I went back home to my family.
How has dealing with coronavirus been for you? Are you almost through it, or what?
I’m actually at the non-contagious stage right now, I’m on my twelfth day of quarantine. They say on the tenth day, you’re not contagious. After 14 days, you’re supposed to go back and get retested, but it’s possible you could still get a positive sign because it sometimes lives within people for a while. You could be positive without being contagious. But I feel all the way better. I feel 100%. My symptoms weren’t too crazy. It did flare up for a few days and couldn’t smell, couldn’t taste, chills, fever-type stuff. I’m blessed to be feeling how I feel right now.
Good, I’m happy to hear that you’re feeling better! Congratulations on Back Home, being out. How are you feeling?
I feel good. When you’re working on something for as long as I’ve been working on that you finally release it to the world and it’s been received well, it’s always a great feeling.
What was life like for you just going through the day pre-COVID?
Man. This year has been a different year for my daily routine. My daily routine is highly impacted. Before COVID, I’m in the gym everyday, I like to bowl, I like to get out and be active. I’m a foodie so I like to go out and eat at different restaurants. That was diminished. I love to play basketball. I’m pretty simple. The thing about it is, if I wasn’t working, I’d be in the house. One of my friends made the joke, he said “You been in quarantine for about three, four years now.” If I don’t have to leave my house, I generally don’t.
No, I feel that. I’m a homebody, too. I don’t like to leave the house, so I was excited when it opened up a bit, not that I was excited but…
You was, but everybody going to be mad if you say you was excited.
They are, people get so mad.
Just say, you was excited.
Okay, I was! Let’s talk about a quarantine favorite right now: Lovecraft Country; because I’m not into that show but I saw you tweet “If you’re not into Lovecraft Country, there’s something wrong with you” or something like that. You didn’t say that, but it was something like that. Why should I watch Lovecraft Country? What makes it so good?
I think I said it’s the best show on TV, don’t at me. I said it’s too good. It’s very introspective. If Jordan Peele is involved, it’s going to have an angle of introspect on Black people and what we go through. It’s everything. It’s raw emotion, it’s great acting, it’s science fiction, it’s Black history, it’s outlandish. It’s like every episode is a movie. Every episode is like an hour film. It might be hard for you to get into, because it does take a few wild turns, but I want you to watch it.
Lovecraft Country too good. Don’t @ me
— Trey Songz (@TreySongz) October 12, 2020
I’m going to check it out. It’s just too gory for me.
Yeah, it’s a lot of that, but it definitely takes a few different turns. Just turn your head on the gory parts.
You’ve been in the game for about 15 years. I want to revisit I Gotta Make It and talk about that journey to Back Home, because I feel like one of the unique things about your career is you’ve been here through physical CD’s, DatPiff, MySpace, UStream to Instagram Lives and instant access to music with Apple Music. When you go back and look at the album cover for I Gotta Make It and you listen to the music on there, what type of feelings and emotions do you get?
It’s almost as if I go back to that very specific moment. I can see everything, because you can only do that thing for the first time, one time. When I go back and I listen to that music, I remember the studio session, I remember the excitement, I remember how passionate I was about it. I remember just how special it was. You kind of get used to doing things. You get used to putting an album out, you get used to the recording process, you get used to the magazine covers. I went back and I looked at all those things — the covers, the newspaper clippings — and it kind of just brought me to a place of “wow” again. When you’ve been doing it a while and you go through these cycles, you just get used to it like anything else. Taking that journey and really going back to those moments for me was kind of like reliving them.
Being that you’ve put out so many projects, including mixtapes, how do you feel about your own legacy as an R&B artist of right now?
I’m proud. I would be proud of myself if I never put out nothing but my first album. To be who I am and to mean what I mean to R&B music and to have people who sing like me, to have a voice of my own. I get demos with people singing with that growl in their voice. I’ve never wanted to be anything but myself. But then again, in the music industry, a lot of times people will push you this way or that way to compete with this person or make a sound like this person; because once something comes successful, everybody does it.
Right, we hear about those stories that all the time.
I remember when the four count was very successful and everybody was using it. I remember when auto-tune first came on, everybody was using it. I remember, even now, the melodies that everybody uses, you can swap out the artist and keep the same song. It makes me very proud 15 years later to have an album that is relevant and culture-shifting.
With I Gotta Make It, you worked with Troy Taylor and you guys reconnected on this one. What was that like for you?
There’s not been an album that Troy has not been a part of.
But he’s been with you from the beginning to now, so what was that like for you guys to come together for this particular project?
On this project, even though we weren’t in the same room in the making of a lot of these songs, we just connected differently. Troy, knowing me since I was 14 years old, has watched me become a man. At this point, he’s like the ying to my yang, basically. We worked very much hand-in-hand on everything, from song selections to sequencing. We would write songs and produce songs together on FaceTime. We would take songs off of the album, put it back on the album. It was less stress involved. Throughout my career, he and I have worked very closely, but as you excel into the game and you try to make a name for yourself, you often have to make sacrifices musically and artistically because you got a label involved. As I mentioned earlier, they like, “You in competition with this guy. They’ve done this. We want to see you do the same. Let’s use this writer because he’s successful right now.”
But, when you’ve been able to accomplish what we’ve been able to accomplish with this amount of time in the game, there’s more trust involved. There’s no A&R, it’s just him and I making music. When we turn a project in, that’s what the project is. That was a big difference in this album from the other ones.
For the projects in between, do you feel like the label was trying to pressure you in a different direction?
I would say that’s just what a label does. A label sees chart success and sees a formula they think can work. They will implement that wherever possible. That is business, so that’s understood. With that being said, I’ve never been cool with that. That’s why I put out projects like Anticipation and Anticipation 2. They weren’t considered albums because that’s what I wanted my music to be. Whereas when you’re working with a record label, you’ve got to have a single and you’ve got to have a record that can be positioned.
Even with those mixtapes, Anticipation and Anticipation 2, a lot of people feel like those are classics from you. Then you also had#LemmeHolDatBeat, with you rapping and singing, which I was a really big fan of. I want to talk to you about that because there are a lot of singers that rap and rappers that sing nowadays.
Everybody do both now, it’s crazy.
I’ve just rebranded every artist that low key sings and is a “rapper,” as just melodic rap. That’s going to be a new category. I don’t know.
Yeah, rap didn’t used to have many melodies. Used to be about your bars. Right now, as respectfully as I can say this, because I love a lot of the new music that’s coming out and I love that if they want to sing. But I do feel as though hip-hop is one sound, if that makes any sense. You get you a trap beat, a catchy melody and you might have you a hit record if you’ve got the right branding and money behind you. I do feel like some people are more talented at it than others, but auto-tune and a good melody helps a lot. In R&B, it’s still a challenge. You’ve still got to sing. You’ve still got to be able to sing to make real R&B music. I think that’s the difference in what I do and what a lot of other people do.
A lot of things have changed for you as well. You’re a dad now. Congrats.
How old is Noah?
A year and a half.
You seem to be enjoying fatherhood. What is your favorite thing about being a dad?
I could go on and on and on, but just watching my boy just grow and become his own person. Of course he has traits of his mother and I within him, but seeing him develop his own personality, watching him learn, seeing what he likes, seeing how sweet and innocent and` pure he is. It’s just amazing, day to day to watch a life mold. Knowing that I’m responsible for him and the kind of person he’ll be makes me want to be the best version of myself that I can be. Not just as Trey Songz the entertainer. More so, me the man. The person I am is far more important than the artist I am.
Also, the social justice stuff that you’ve been doing and how you’ve been using your Instagram as a platform to amplify voices has been so incredible. What made you decide, “I’m going to use my Instagram to call out racists” and get involved that way?
It wasn’t like this thing that I was like, “Oh, I’m going to do this.” The crazy thing about it, calling out the racism, was kind of just me getting sick of people finding a reason for any injustice. You post something with someone who is treated inhumane, and then you see people comment “Well, we didn’t see what happened before this” or “We don’t know the full story.” That’s inhumane, and if you finding excuses for people to be murdered then you probably racist. So for me having the platform I have, when I was blatantly pointing out racists, it was to show people “Look, this really exists out here. Y’all making excuses for something that’s real.”
Mike Pence said during the debate that he don’t know if it’s true, that the police system is corrupt in any way, shape, or form. You have corruption in all jobs. You have people that abuse power in every walk of life. So, when you have something like the police, who have the most power to be abused, [and] you can’t even say that you see power of abuse? You racist. For me, it was more so bringing attention to people and in a time where, especially now, in 2020, even if you not really riding for this or if you’re saying Black Lives Matter as a company and you don’t even really believe it, you’ve got to say it, because otherwise you’re going to be looked at crazy. In a time where white people will lose their job for being racist, in a time where you will be made an example of for the same thing. I’m going to use my platform to point that out.
Davido is on your album and I appreciate what he’s doing right now with what’s going on in Nigeria and using his platform similarly to how you’ve been doing here in America. Have you two connected on that at all?
I’ve actually reached out to him and every day it’s feet on the ground. I had no idea about SARS before the album came out. I’ve been to Nigeria. I made songs with WizKid, I’ve made songs with Davido. I’ve actually spent time in Lagos and I have many fans there. Me being active here in America allows me the insight and I got to speak out on these too. It’s actually worse over there because people that look just like you committing crimes against you. Here, it is often police brutality and abuse of power driven by race and a feeling of superiority.
In Nigeria, they dealing with that with people who supposed to protect them. They supposed to be a special anti-robbery unit and they more scared of the police than people robbing you. It’s happening to young people that want to dress a certain way, that have iPhones and are influenced by American culture. They’re being murdered, they’re being extorted, they’re having money taken from them, and people are just turning a blind eye. When you know better, you do better and my thing is, I’ve made a career and I’ve made a living for myself and a better life for my family because of the people who enjoy my music. Not to take anything away from my fans that are not Black, but I know that I’m in the position that I am because of Black people. When I see injustice and I can bring attention to it and at the very least inform people. That’s my duty as a man right now. I can’t look at myself the same if I don’t.
I know you were in Virginia as things in America as racial tensions intensified. What was that like for you, being home and doing the work there?
Virginia is known as the place where slaves were first sold and where the slave trade was the strongest. The city I’m from, Petersburg, is actually the Blackest city in Virginia. Having seen systemic oppression, having seen police brutality first-hand and second-hand, for me, that was one of my greatest achievements just to be able to bring so many people together for the same cause. Seeing the pride in my grandmothers’ face and my fans that’s been following me forever, it was a special thing. I was out there protesting, we did a food drive out there. We was able to feed 3,000 families. It was just a blessing and really surreal. You start out doing one thing, singing “Panty Dropper” and “Neighbors Know My Name” on stage and then you out there with those same people who supported you and you put your fist up and say Black Lives Matter. We matter. You matter. It’s really humbling.
You were making the album during this time too, and you made “2020 Riots,” as well. You became a father. I know you also lost your grandfather. How did all of those elements shape Back Home?
Everything that has happened in my life has been a part of the process of making music and a part of the process that this album sounding the way it sounds and becoming what it is, now. I felt most in making this album that we as a people, we as a culture, need love back in the music. Not to say that there’s not people making music with love in it, but it’s not the focus. There was a time where R&B and hip-hop were parallel and they existed in the same world. It was okay for LL Cool J to say he need love and for Naughty By Nature to say what they said. There was a place in superstardom for every avenue of the genre, and I feel like the toxicity and the don’t give a fuck-ness is really dominating music right now.
The love and the soul that used to balance is out is not really there, and when it is there it’s not getting the light and attention that it deserves. With this album, because you know I have always had one foot in, one foot out throughout my whole career with, like you said, #LemmeHolDatBeat. If you think about it, “Bottoms Up” was on the same album as “Can’t Be Friends” and “Say Aah” was on the same album “One Love.” There was always a balance. With this album I wanted to lay down even more heavy the R&B presence of love.
Which song means the most you and how do you feel about the way the project came out?
The song that means the most to me without question is “I Know A Love.” I feel this is my best project to date. A lot of people are saying it feels like the old me, and no disrespect to that because I did want you to have that feeling, but old me couldn’t sing the way I can sing now. I feel like this is my best vocal project, I feel like it’s the most cohesive project and I feel like it’s the project where I probably didn’t think about the expectations as much as in the other projects. I don’t know why, because this is probably the project where the expectations were probably where they meant the most, being that I hadn’t put an album out in so long. This is the one where I felt the least pressure, although, I probably was the most nervous before it came out.
I’m always nervous before an album comes out, there’s no way around that.
What were you scared of?
Not even scared, just nerves. It’s like as if you wrote some of your most intimate feelings in a journal about someone and then you had to give it to them. You would definitely be a little bit nervous. The times where I haven’t been that nervous is the times where I need that feeling, because that feeling of discomfort is what makes it all worth it.
Do you feel like maybe you being back home in Virginia had something to do with you being a little bit more relaxed with the process?
Oh, yeah. Just being around so much real, genuine love. As an artist, when you’re moving city-to-city, state-to-state, you’re often around what can be described as fake love. Even if it is genuine, it’s not the people that know you. Fans love me to death, but they love the perception of me unless you really dove into who I am. No matter how comfortable you are as a celebrity, you’re always on guard. I was at home for almost three months straight. I probably don’t spend that much time at home within a year, accumulated. That continuous time to just be Trey from The Heights, Trey from Petersburg and be perceived that way every day and get so comfortable. When I was making my first album, that was who I was. I wasn’t Trey Songz yet. I was trying to be Trey Songz.
You going back home and getting those old feelings back, and you being able to relax and put out what you feel like is some of your best work is dope. With that being said, do you feel like you have a classic project?
Anticipation 2. It is one of my truest bodies of work because it was what I wanted to do. In every album, at the end, it was a process where we met with the label, and I would say it was a joint decision that these are the best songs, but those albums wouldn’t be those albums had it been up to me. They would have been different. I feel like the truest albums you’ve gotten from me are albums where there wasn’t any input from anybody else but me and Troy. That’s what happened with this album.
I also want to talk about Aretha Franklin because I know she was on the intro to I Gotta Make It and she has passed away since. What is something that you will always remember about your relationship with her?
It’s actually amazing. The relationship I had with her is through Troy. Before I got my record deal, I would go everywhere with Troy and he was a vocal producer. He was a producer of course but he was a specialist in vocally producing. I would go with him and I would sit in the back and I would be his vocal production assistant. When he got gigs or opportunities, he would tell me that they were coming and I would write songs. I wrote a song and Patti LaBelle actually ended up cutting the song. I don’t think it made the album. That’s crazy, like 18 years ago.
It was also written for Aretha, and Aretha had heard the song. She loved the song and one of the things I remember — and this isn’t even a thing anymore — she was like, “Honey, I loved the song but I can’t cut it because it’ll be over my cap.” What that means is if you have a cap of 12 songs, then any songs you put over that will diminish your mechanical rate — your funds. The money you get per song is less. I knew nothing about that until she told me.
Troy went out to her in Detroit but I didn’t go on this trip with him. He recorded it with her and he played her my new album. She talked on the phone with me and everything she said on the intro, she said that and more. She was impressed because although my album came out when I was 20, the majority of those songs I wrote and sang was from when I was 17 and 18. If you listen to I Gotta Make It, you’re listening to 17, 18, and 19-year-old Trey Songz. Troy asked her to do something for the album and what she did was speak to me after knowing the title of my album was I Gotta Make It. Right now, to this day, if I’m having a bad day I can listen to the intro. I got it acapella on my phone, too. I can just listen to Aretha Franklin telling me, “Don’t worry what nobody else got to say. Believe in your dreams.” That’s the most special thing ever.
The last time I saw her, I performed at Essence the day before her and I got to watch her set. The next day me and my mom we went back and we got to kick it with Aretha and her family. We was in there joking and chopping it up. It was one of the most beautiful moments. The crazy thing is it’s before Instagram and all that so I don’t even believe I have no real footage of it but it’s a memory etched in my brain. Shout out to Aretha for what she means to music and what she means to me. Her telling me I can do this was very much a battery in my back, you better believe.
How often do you find yourself going back and listening to it?
I haven’t listened to it in a while, but I used to listen to it all the time. When she passed, it was heavy on my mind. In the beginning of my career when everything is new, you’re learning how to deal with the pressures, the scrutiny, the criticism, the anxiety, everything that comes with becoming a star. Once you commit yourself to this, a portion of you belongs to the world. What artists like her, and her in particular, had to deal with to become who they were, they were laying the groundwork down for artists like us to be able to perform freely. To be able to perform everywhere and to be able to sleep in the same hotel as white people. There was a time when if you were an artist, you could not, not be conscious. You had to make these songs because it was so much of your existence.
You think about James Brown, you think about Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Teddy Pendergrass, Aretha Franklin, and Chaka Khan. All these people, they had to make these songs because it was their livelihood. Aretha and any artist that came before me had to deal with these social injustices on a whole other level than we do.
Back Home is out now via Atlantic Records. Get it here.
Trey Songz is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.