After a four-year hiatus, the ‘American Idol’ champ has joined forces with Blake on ‘1990 Forever,’ a new EP steeped in the traditions of vintage R&B.
On paper, a collaboration between Jordin Sparks and Elijah Blake doesn't make sense. The former remains the youngest winner in American Idol history, who entered the cultural zeitgeist more than a decade ago as a hopeful 17-year-old and followed up her reality TV coronation with a string of earnestly emotive top 10 pop hits like “Tattoo,” “No Air” and “Battlefield.” The latter is a Dominican-born maestro of alternative R&B, whose experimental approach has led to a body of avant-garde solo work and writing credits for the likes of Rihanna, Keyshia Cole and Usher.
And yet, even on a bicoastal three-way call, the close friendship between the two stars is palpable. After meeting years ago in a writing session for another artist, Jordin and Elijah hit it off, bonding over their life experiences and what they love about music (“Our souls were in sync, is the only way I can put it,” says Sparks). Soon enough, that bond led to creative harmony, with Blake serving as a songwriter and vocal producer on Sparks’ third album, 2015’s Right Here, Right Now, in addition to providing guest vocals on deep cut “Unhappy.”
Following that album’s release, however, Sparks’ music career gave way to personal milestones: in November 2017, she revealed that she had eloped with fitness model Dana Isaiah while vacationing in Hawaii the previous summer, and welcomed the couple’s first son, Dana “DJ” Isaiah Thomas Jr., just ten months after the impromptu ceremony. Plans for a fourth album came and went as Sparks embraced the major changes in her life and shifted her focus to full-time mommy mode. “After baby, it's been really crazy because your whole world just becomes about them, you know?” she says cheerfully as she wrangles a cooing DJ in the background. “But after three years — is it three or four? Oh my gosh, it's been four years! — I realized that I really wanted him to see me do what I love because when I get to do what I love, it fulfills me and that makes me happy. And when I'm happy, I'm a better mom.”
Ultimately, Blake was the one to coax the dormant star, whom he affectionately refers to as “Speez,” back into the studio with the idea to collaborate. While the alt-R&B singer describes his solo work as “very cerebral” and “eclectic,” his goal during the initial sessions was to meld his left-of-center style with Sparks’ mainstream pop sensibilities.
“This project, I specifically wanted to be a straight-down-the-middle conversation between two people,” he says. “I wanted this conversation to be a love language, which I feel like we accomplished 'cause Jordin comes from a pop background and she's had huge pop success, which I haven't, so it's just two different spectrums. I wanted us to kind of meet in the middle and have a conversation of love that the whole world will understand.”
That self-described “conversation of love” led to the creation of 1990 Forever, a tightly layered joint EP out now on Rkeytek Music/DFMedia Records, whose four tracks pay reverential homage to the sound of ‘90s R&B (lead single “Real Love” was released separately due to a clerical snafu.) When considered together, the songs take listeners on a journey through some of the genre’s most well-trod emotional terrain, from the sensual jealousy of “Ego” and distrust-laden “Liar Liar” to the baby-making groove of “Vibez” and the slice of giddy nostalgia found on the conspicuously titled “90s R&B.”
Crafted in Blake’s L.A. home studio in little more than a week — “I literally had people building the booth on the morning [Jordin] showed up for the first session,” he says with a laugh — the recording process turned out to be a homegrown family affair. The two singers mined the music of their childhood for inspiration, with baby DJ toddling around the studio and the elder Dana often tagging along for moral support and daddy duty.
“Both Elijah and I grew up in the ‘90s — we were ‘90s babies,” Sparks explains. “We wanted to do something that made us remember that feeling growing up, and also the feeling that ‘90s music gives us all, you know? Like those ‘90s R&B love songs just make you feel something. The beats of those old ‘90s songs make you want to dance, they make you want to groove. We wanted to show what we could do without bringing anybody else in… and explore all the different facets of love that ‘90s R&B songs dealt with.”
Packed with harmonies, stacked vocals and ad-libs, each song on the EP is layered with hidden gems sure to delight vocal geeks who were raised on the same R&B classics as the two artists. When it comes to their vocal influences on the EP, they excitedly rattle off a laundry list of ‘90s icons: Jordin cites the holy trinity of Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Celine Dion, while Elijah lists off male R&B mainstays such as Brian McKnight, Jesse Powell and Boyz II Men’s Wanya Morris. However, the one vocalist the two self-professed Lambs can definitively agree on (other than Carey) is Brandy, whose legacy and impact on the sound of modern R&B both regard as criminally under-recognized.
“It’s crazy, because if you think about it, she was like the first African-American pop princess,” says Blake of the mononymous star, whose pioneering vocal style influenced generations of superstar vocalists who came after her — from Beyoncé and Ariana Grande to Jessie J, Jojo, Tori Kelly and beyond.
“She started so young,” Blake continues. “She had her own black Barbie doll, she was the first black Cinderella. [Yet] with all that she does vocally, and how futuristic and incredible her runs are, it does seem like she's underrated a lot.”
“I agree,” Sparks concurs. “I don't know why either. Like, my dad can still turn on [1999’s] ‘Angel in Disquise’ and we just get taken back. She's just so incredible.”
As for what comes next, the pair have discussed the possibility of touring together — after their performance at the intimate 1990 Forever listening party at The Hotel Cafe in downtown Hollywood, Sparks is envisioning a laid-back tour of small clubs and theaters — but nothing is set in stone. The project has also spurred the Idol winner to start working on new solo material again, which she’s planning to roll out later this year with the full support of Blake.
“I'm just happy that Jordin's in this space,” says Blake, who likens their creative partnership to a next-generation Toni Braxton and Babyface. “Even now, I look at her and am like, ‘Wow, everything you prayed for, you got.’ The most important thing about this project was that I wanted her to see it's a whole 'nother game and you can really just do things yourself. People will come to you because you're Jordin Sparks and no one can do what you do. They can't go to nobody else. So if I can help, I’ll be any part of it that she wants."