For Tank, it’s taken nearly 20 years to find his place in R&B — but with experience comes wisdom.
“I went through a period where I kept saying, ‘I’m not that. I’m this,'” he tells Billboard. Once known for his sultry voice and six-pack, the singer had to undergo growing pains before becoming truly comfortable in his skin. He’s now focused on helming all aspects of his career; he’s hands-on with everything from his wardrobe (he had to throw all his Zara out upon his stylist’s request) to treating his craft as a business.
His forthcoming album, Elevation (out Oct. 25 on Atlantic Records), continues a long trajectory marked with personal and professional enlightenment. “I can’t be anything other than what I am,” he says. “I can only give you the man who I am now.”
You’re releasing your ninth studio album. After all of these years, what continues to motivate you to release music?
You can settle in. You can smell the roses and celebrate too much. There can be a hangover period that I didn’t want. I look at it like, "Yeah, that’s cool." That’s great that we did that but I believe we are capable of more. Even with all of the greatness that we’ve achieved, we can go further. We can go higher. We can elevate. We wanted to use this album to prove that — push ourselves in terms of sound, imagery. We want to push for higher, whether it be love or sex or heartfelt relationships. Whatever it is, we are seeing where there were holes and tightening up.
What were those specific areas you wanted to improve upon?
There were really dope people I wanted to be creative with. I got to work with Omari Hardwick, who’s this crazy hybrid between poetry and spoken-word and rap. Just something nobody has really heard before. I wanted to be a part of that. JoJo, a person who, we were kind of trapped in the same place [Blackground Records]. A place where very few people make it out of. We both made it out. This is our time to do something.
Where can I take JoJo? Someone I’ve known since she was a little girl, and now she’s this beautiful grown woman. People see her in a way that I don’t think she even realizes. JoJo, we’re getting ready to put the sexy on you. Just letting you know right now, the DMs are gonna be different. Major., who’s uplifting and positive. Luke James, a kid who I’ve raised in this business and one of the most amazing talents on Earth. I got to put them on a song that continues to uplift. Keith Sweat, one of my OGs, I was able to pay homage to, somebody who’s teaching me a lot — not just in business, but in life.
What did Keith Sweat teach you?
Make sure you’re not just an artist. Make sure you’re not just a writer or producer. When you walk into Keith Sweat’s garage, there’s masters and masters of records that have sold millions. They’re his.
Was that a revelation for you? R&B artists aren’t known for being as entrepreneurial as, say, hip-hop artists.
R&B, you have to think where the artists come from. We come from church. The only thing we’re taught is to give the offering or to give of ourselves in service. We’re taught to sing with conviction, and that’s the finish line. You compare that to hip-hop where [a lot of] guys originally came from the streets, an entrepreneurial background. When they crossed into the music game, they wanted to know how their hustle would pay off. Like, “It’s my block. I need to own most of this block. We didn’t even know you could own!” That’s why their minds are so much further ahead than ours because we weren’t bred in that environment. I remember early in my career, I was one of the most sought-after songwriters and producers. Nobody told me at that time, “Now is the time to get your label or start a publishing company.” Nobody told me.
When did the paradigm shift into being more business-focused happen?
It wasn’t until 2016 that we made the decision to bet on ourselves. In the space we were in, nobody was gonna bet on us. In 2017, I got all of my rights back for the first time since ‘98. I got all of my rights back. I own me for the first time.
Do you own your masters?
From 2016 and onwards. Now we have to figure out how to go back and get the rest of the stuff. That’s the goal. Nobody told us!
That’s what can make you money forever, especially in the DSP era.
Absolutely. It’s crazy that in the DSP era, the people who own my original three [album] masters [on Blackground Records] are not even on the [streaming] platforms. I have to get that back or file some crazy lawsuit, in terms of me losing money. I could be generating money but you won’t allow it.
From the outside looking in, it seems Blackground Records has a treasure trove of content they could be monetizing. In your opinion, what’s the deterrent for them? Is it that they’re old school and don’t understand technology, or is it more of an ego move?
I think it’s a little bit of the last thing you said. And a lot of, I have no idea.
It’s money just sitting on the table. Don’t people like free money?
That would be a motivation factor, at least! On my Instagram and Twitter everyday, people from China and Australia ask why they can’t find my old music.
Like JoJo, have you thought about re-recording your old catalog?
I’d like to ideally purchase it back, but you know, if all else fails, we’ll re-record.
You’re working with younger artists like Luke James on this album. At this stage of your career, do you feel like an elder statesman that wants to guide the next generation?
I’ve always felt that. I just love people. I love for people to do well. I’ve been like that since day one. What you need me to do? Play keyboard? Sing backup? Sometimes the work that I’ve done, nobody really sees it. People are like, “Oh, Tank ain’t doing nothing.” One thing I had to come to the realization, most of what I do isn’t for sale. It’s for inspiration. I had to become okay with that. I had to be okay with a Chris Brown calling me like, “Bro. You’re my favorite. You inspired me,” or Trey [Songz] telling me he listens to my album every day or whoever. Finding the gold in that, like wow, I’m helping create and shape the next wave of R&B. Or Jacquees, telling me that his mother loves me.
It’s a little weird when their moms love you.
It used to be weird. But now it’s like, their moms are my age — or younger. So I’m like, “Where’s your mom?!” I had to find the gold in that. That’s really why I’m here.
At what point did you become comfortable in this position?
When I realized the money wasn’t going to make me happy. I hadn’t ascertained as much as I wanted to. But I realized that it might not have been for me — to make $100 million. But it is absolutely for me to insert $100 million worth of value and influence into this genre of music that I love.
Despite that, your singles — “Dirty,”, “I Don’t Think Your Ready” and “When We” — all hit No. 1 on the U.S. Adult R&B chart. How important is that chart success for you?
It’s important because it’s our business. When we’re having business conversations, we use that to leverage other things we need. Numbers are important to me because it’s important to them, the partners. We have to do our part to make sure everyone is happy. It’s telling on our next move, our next relationship.