José James was already a force to be reckoned with when he released his fourth album, No Beginning No End, in 2013. For that Blue Note debut, he planted his freak flag firmly in the fertile soil of neo-soul, claiming the territory as part of the amorphously bordered realm of jazz. He’s traveled far and wide ever since then, most recently delivering Lean on Me, 2018’s worthy and well-considered tribute to Bill Withers. No Beginning No End 2 is less a sequel to the earlier album than simply another testament to neo-soul’s enduring power and appeal. Subtlety reigns, James keeps the vibe dialed into a lights-dimmed midnight croon, and the arrangements feel crisply minimalist even when a track credits eight players.
It’s not that he doesn’t break a sweat. “You Know What It Do” is a sure fire get-on-the-dance-floor anthem with supple vocal support from Japanese pop singer Rihwa. “Feels So Good” is a slinky disco number featuring rising Washington, D.C. soul singer Cecily. One sure sign of James’ savvy deployment of guest artists is that just about every collaboration begs for another round. The album opens with the delicious frisson generated by his preternaturally cool tone and Ledisi’s incandescent heat on “I Need Your Love,” which also features some medium-cool trumpet work by Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah. James channels his inner Prince on “Turn Me Up,” a wicked little funk number with Aloe Blacc powered by guitarist Marcus Machado, bassist Ben Williams, and drummer Jamire Williams. But it’s his Sunday-morning duet with Lizz Wright on the gospel-infused “Take Me Home” that leaves the most lasting impression.
The album’s only misstep is Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.” Even set to a stabbing beat, the song is irredeemably schmaltzy, one flavor of grease that James doesn’t need in his soul kitchen.