With more than 20 years of experience, R&B singer Joe has had a front-row seat to watch the genre evolve.
And in 2014, the 41-year-old singer born Joseph Thomas believes R&B needs to remember romance — and being in love with more than only yourself — still matters. To him, the influence of rap's street bravado has chilled a genre that has long identified with warmth.
"I just want it to be a little bit more about love and more about respect, and to talk about things that's going on right now, as opposed to bigging yourself up and making yourself look real smooth and fly," Joe said on the phone earlier this week from New Jersey. (He was calling from a waiting room at Six Flags Great Adventure, where he was spending the day with his daughter on her birthday.) "I'm trying to get back to the essence of it."
On Friday, Baltimore will receive a double dose of traditional-minded R&B when Joe and "American Idol" alum Fantasia bring their Heaven Meets Earth tour to Pier Six Pavilion. The two singers — who collaborated on "Love & Sex," from his 2013 album "Doubleback: Evolution of R&B" — make natural touring partners, according to Joe.
"It's soul on soul," he said. "It's been a pleasure and a joy to work with someone such as her, who vocally understands where to go and how to connect with an audience. She brings the magic."
Joe's own connection with his audience has led to a long career. He released his first album, "Everything," in 1993, and hit a commercial and critical stride at the turn of the century. The triple-platinum "My Name Is Joe," which was released in 2000, remains his most successful album to date.
Although the seven-time Grammy nominee is best known for that album's popular ballad "I Wanna Know" and for providing the hook for rapper Big Pun's "Still Not a Player," Joe has built a consistent, larger-than-you-think catalog over the years.
Released in June, "Bridges" is his 11th album, and features two other veterans: Destiny's Child alum Kelly Rowland and rapper 50 Cent. For Rowland, Joe said he was attracted to the harmony he imagined between his and her voices. Collaborating with 50, a longtime friend, continued Joe's tradition of working with rappers. Despite his desire of R&B to return to its more romantic roots, Joe said staying connected to hip-hop has always been important.
"I've always been a fan of hip-hop, and have somewhat kept my ears to the street," he said. "I feel like you still have to be a part of it in some kind of way, to know how it's moving."
Joe keeps an eye on trends because he's also looking to sign young artists to his new independent label, Plaid Take-Over. He has yet to sign anyone, but said he is most interested in finding "musically inclined" artists who can write songs and, preferably, play instruments. (Joe plays piano and guitar.) He's looking for artists "willing to put in the hard work."
"Some kids, these days, feel that [success] should be granted to them, and it doesn't take much to get them where they need to be," Joe said. "That's not necessarily true."
Joe does not appear to be in a rush to build Plaid Take-Over's roster, and perhaps it's because he's still focused on his own music career. He said he plans to tour with New Edition in October, and then with Charlie Wilson early next year. He does not want to wait long before releasing the follow-up to "Bridges."
Like so many others, the days of triple platinum plaques could be behind Joe, but that does not mean he has any intention to slow down.
"I want to continue just not letting time slip by," Joe said. "I'm one of the artists that cares enough about music to want to keep R&B as strong as it was back in the day,"