Jesse Boykins III Talks New Album ‘Bartholomew’
Last Friday (December 8), Jesse Boykins III introduced us to Bartholomew. Bartholomew is not only the name of the soul/R&B singer’s fourth studio album and first one released as a Def Jam signee, but it’s also his alter ego. “Usually, I speak on masculinity and femininity a lot in my music,” he tells TIDAL. “But this [identity] is particularly focused on the aspect of femininity and imagination in correlation with real-time events that happened to me.” On Bartholomew, Boykins III ventures from L.A. to Jupiter, meets “Earth Girls” and “Solar Sisters,” and invites us into his always “whimsical” world.
The LP—which features collaborations with Kehlani, SYD, Willow, Noname, Dej Loaf and more—also comes along with a visual for every song and a forthcoming documentary. The visuals, however, are no ordinary music videos. Each is a one take that acts as a vignette, focusing solely on the happenings within one still frame. “For the visual expressions, I’m really big on long shots and really cinematic things,” Boykins says. “But from a commercial sense, I like when people sell things because…the innovation and the creativity that comes behind the sale of something is so interesting to me.”
Whether in his visuals or music, Boykins’ creative, avant garde approach, one that’s as organic as it focused, is part of his appeal. Read below as the singer elaborates on Bartholomew, how the project came together and what it’s like to be in a place that helps “the rooms in [his] head get a little bigger” and makes him feel “limitless.”
Bartholomew is your alter ego or a different side of yourself that you tapped into on this album. Is that right?
Yes. I came up with four characteristics about Bartholomew that helped me conceptualize the music and the visual components as well. First thing is he’s Peter Pan’s best friend; he grew up in Never Never Land. Second thing is he was was born on the Nautilus; he’s a descendant of Captain Nemo. The third thing is that he secretly works for NASA, and the fourth thing is that he is OK with being in the friend zone.
How did this come about?
I think I needed some sort of shift creatively because I’ve been making music for a long time, so I needed to find a new source of inspiration and a new sense of self. I guess I wanted the music and what I was writing about to be whimsical in a sense, kind of like a fairytale but very real at the same time. Usually, I speak on masculinity and femininity a lot in my music, but this one particularly focused on the aspect of femininity and imagination in correlation with real time events that happened to me.
I know you moved out to LA and got a new sense of energy there. What was it about being there versus being in New York that made this shift happen?
I think the community in Los Angeles and the amount of artists that I’ve known for a long time who have lived there are a little more open in all aspects of life. I think the hippie lifestyle is kind of infused in Californian culture regardless of what someone is wearing or not. I think those perspectives on what they appreciate and what they think are important are different from the East coast where it’s just grind, grind, grind, grind, dont worry about your health, don’t worry about this, don’t worry about that. Also being appreciative about what you have going on but also drinking more water. So I think that aspect made my mind a little healthier and all the rooms in my head got a little bigger. It was limitless. That helped my creative process.
You have a lot of cool collaborations on this album, too. SYD and Willow are featured on “Vegetables.”
I actually started that when I was in a session with Dot da Genius, who co-produced it with me. He had the track already started, and he was playing it for me. And I just like to freestyle stuff, so I was freestyling ‘Vegetables,’ and I just thought it would be weird because I’m not really a fan of vegetables per se, so I was singing the words and he’s like, ‘Man, that’s dope. You should cut that.’ I was like, ‘I should cut that. No I shouldn’t.’ He was like, ‘Yes, you should.’ So I recorded a voice memo, and I sat with the track and I figured out a concept for it. Overall, it was mainly about a certain type of man having all these accolades and stepping to a certain type of woman and her being like, ‘Accolades don’t really matter. Those aren’t the things I’m interested in and those aren’t the things that will help you grow as a man, so why do you care about them so much? These are the things that are going to feed you.’
So when I was working on it, I remember being in this studio house that I had for like two weeks and Willow came through with like six or seven people, and we were all just kicking it, playing records. I was telling them about Bartholomew. I wrote a script, so they were reading the script that I wrote. Willow was like, ‘Yo, I wanna do something,’ so I was like, ‘Pull up tomorrow.’ So she pulled up the next day, and when she did, SYD called me.
SYD had just got off tour and we were supposed to work on something anyway, so she was like, ‘Where you at?’ I was like, ‘I’m at the studio,’ so she drove over and the I played them ‘Vegetables.’ I just had the first verse, the hook and the pre-hook and they were like, ‘Yo, we want to get on this.’ I remember telling Willow the concept is basically a woman telling a man to get his money up, get his finances right, get his green up. And she was like, ‘Yeah that’s cool but what about him getting his soul right, though?’ And she said that, and I was like, ‘You right. You don’t really need no money from no dude. You good.’
Just to have her be able to shape the track as well.
Definitely, yeah. That’s what I was talking about with the femininity thing as far as the project goes because there’s like 12 female features on the project. I don’t know if there has ever been a project with that many female features ever. All the women that are on the project are all powerhouses and are all knowing of self. They don’t really do things to cater to the industry. They do what they want, and the industry has to cater to them. So just to have that kind of power on one body of work, regardless of anything else, is an accomplishment in itself.
Now that you’re signed to Def Jam and have a bigger machine behind you, how does that shape what you can do creatively and where you’re headed?
I think my main sense of appreciation is in finding a major [label] to champion an artist like me. That’s a really rare thing. I don’t feel like that happens that much. A lot of my peers are like-minded like me but they have a hard time finding a home on a mainstream level that understands what it is they are trying to express and allows them to do that as artists. So when that happens I think that’s a magnificent moment in music. I just feel like that’s what’s happening. It’s like, these people who are well-seasoned and understand what it is. They are also looking for something new to champion. I sense that with the people I’m working with [at Def Jam] in the building, and I appreciate that. That’s all I can really care about is that—people acknowledging what they say they’re going to do and doing it ‘cause that’s what I do. If I don’t hold myself accountable, then it doesn’t get done so I just try to maintain that lifestyle throughout everything I’m doing.
Can you tell me about the visuals you have for this album and what your idea was behind doing the documentary?
For the visual expressions, I’m really big on long shots and really cinematic things, but from a commercial sense, I like when people sell things because I know I’m not a consumer, but the innovation and the creativity that comes behind the sale of something is so interesting to me. How people can reinvent and sell the same Ray Ban glasses for 20 years? That’s an amazing thing. So I always kind of implement that into what I’m doing on the visual side. With the visual expressions, I basically just took everything around me, things that have been a part of my life for the last three years that I have been working on the project, and I incorporated it into the music.
What I did is have a creative gathering at my apartment and text messaged my friends and told them, ‘Look, [on] Sunday 11/11, I’ve got a camera crew coming over and we’re just going to shoot these videos for my album.’ They were like, ‘What?’ I’m like, ‘Just come over.’ So I went to the store and bought some random shit: some roses, some bubbles and random veggies. And then as people came throughout the day, I would curate the shot… We would do one take, play the music through, then next shot. And so everything was kind of seamless in that sense, and I already had a vision of what I was trying to communicate with each song, so it wasn’t that hard. It’s always hard when you have other people involved that aren’t in the know of what’s going on, but they were so willing to participate that it just really flew. I think that’s something I was trying to express in it was fluidity. Just the fact that even if something feels unnatural and uncomfortable and raw, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t beautiful still.
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