Song You Need to Know: Leela James, 'Complicated'

Leela James applies her gale-force voice in precise, leveling blasts in “Complicated,” a bouncy, lavish love song that marks her first release since 2019. This is a track about tearing through, if not obliterating, the red-tape that’s been standing in the way of a romance. James reduces everything to the simplest of equations: “You know I really want you, and you want me too.”

The way James sings, with gruff texture and tree-splitting power, links back to a long tradition in Southern soul. And this song is packed with other forms of sustenance for R&B fans. James offers a brief spoken intro — “Love ain’t gotta be this hard; why you makin’ it so complicated?” — in the manner of grand Seventies ballads. She sings “you’re giving me joy,” evoking an Anita Baker classic from 1986. The programmed shuffle in the “Complicated” beat is a cousin of the rhythm in Zapp’s “Computer Love,” while the backing vocals are sometimes warped through a vocoder like they would be in some of the great Blackstreet love songs from the Nineties. And before the last stirring chorus, there are a couple rounds of high “ooh-oohs” that hint at the ecstatic vocal twirls in Prince’s “Do Me Baby,” another track that urged listeners to forget their hang-ups in a hurry.

“Complicated” was co-written by James along with one of her frequent collaborators, Rex Rideout, who also produced the track. The two have worked together on some of James’ most successful singles, including “Fall for You” and “Set Me Free.”

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