A couple of weeks ago, Chicago emcee Rich Jones dropped by The Dojo, an arguably secretive DIY spot in Pilsen. The January chill had slowly set in on that Saturday evening, and the city’s 20-somethings traveled up and down Dojo’s staircase, exploring whatever else it had to offer.
The main floor was reserved for local artists, whose paintings were hung with care on vast off-white walls, while the basement became a hub for musicians and an eager, energetic crowd.
It was a little past midnight when a cool and calm Jones, 27, stepped into a makeshift spotlight. A string of tiny twinkling Christmas lights and an occasional camera flash guided the audience’s eyes to his.
His soulful, steady voice was the perfect greeting to an early morning. You don’t have to know hip hop or R&B to understand the lines of love and loss; those only become perks for its enthusiasts. Jones’ soul is tangled up in loose crescendos, and his story is wrapped up in short pauses. Scenic illustrations of the Loop’s blues are cured with interchangeable cycles of naps, good food and the occasional soul-searching.
As his lips began to curl around the microphone, Jones breathed life into Roberta Flack’s infamous lyrics: I felt like he found my letters, then read each one out loud. I prayed that he would finish, but he just kept right on.
Face to face, Jones is cautiously sweet, sensitive and warm. He looks comfortable, as he takes swigs from his tall to-go coffee cup. His black beanie, bushy beard and big rings only adhere to his style: casually adventurous.
There is a softness in his speaking voice that is so inviting, but at the height of La Strada Café’s midday-morning rush or on the topic of his journey as a musician, he becomes assertive.
Jones is counting down the days for his new album Pink Slips, which is set for release on Feb. 16. For him, his latest work is not only personal, but it became a true test to make his music a priority.
“I got fired from my job, and my boss said, ‘Do anything else but work a job,’” Jones said.
“It set me on a path where I had to figure out what living differently looks like, [especially] when you are 23 or 24 years old and your friends are working in an office job and people are getting into that role of being a functioning person,” he added.
That struggle is the song of the dreamers, the unapologetically ambitious fueled by their passions, motivated by their persistence and plagued by their inevitable bouts of frustration.
Jones welcomed this new year by releasing his single “Devotion.” The song, itself, is classic and buried with the easiness of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Would You Mind,” the tenderness of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” and the playfulness of Michael Jackson’s “Baby Be Mine.” It’s a crucial love song fit for this generation’s “Netflix and chill” rendezvous and Tinder trysts.
Jones admitted that song has become a staple in his live performances, but it took him even longer to come around and finally make it available to his listeners.
“The question of releasing music was a real issue for me up until last year. It’s like I was kind of hoarding stuff because ‘it’s not the right time’ [or] ‘I’m not going to get the right look,'” he said, noting that is a challenge no artist can avoid.
“At a certain point, you have to understand that you have to make a move, and there has to be initial steps,” Jones added. Simply, the bottom line was: “If I don’t do it now, it’s not going to happen.”
Love Jones, especially, was a solidly vocal project, which is a departure from what the SCC member is known for. The aftermath proved to be a happy marriage of his rap and vocal skills. While he began to garner attention for his newfound talent, Jones said he further began to understand the importance of networking, how to build relationships and foster a positive, supportive environment.
For now, only time separates Jones from Pink Slips, a by-product of learned lessons and moments with mentors. Brushing over the release’s details and song features, his newest is a tribute to his growing pains and a nod to those who have helped him along the way.
According to Jones, even after all these years, there is something about him that just haven’t changed at all, and that’s his vision:
“The one thing that has carried me this whole time is that I’ve known what I wanted.”
Catch Rich Jones’ performance on Feb. 16 at Schuba’s Tavern, 3159 N. Southport Ave., for Pink Slips’ album release along with oddCouple, Qari of Hurt Everybody, Morimoto, Defcee and a DJ set from The O’My’s. Doors open at 8 p.m. The free show is for patrons 21 and over.