Lately, it’s felt like R&B has been rejuvenated by young artists and audiences hungry for fun, love, sex, and soul. This summer has been particularly potent for this renaissance in R&B and its offshoots, with Usher’s explosive Las Vegas residency; releases from Janelle Monaé, Victoria Monét, and Summer Walker; SZA and Lizzo headlining Made in America; and Coco Jones making waves with viral performance bites and her debut headlining tour — Spotify is sponsoring its second stop in Toronto through its R&B First Nights series. The streamer reports that in 2023, there was a 22 percent increase in R&B streams globally from the previous year and that 62 percent of users listened to some this July.
“Coco is a student of the past, a reflection of the present, and vision into the future of R&B,” says Alaysia Sierra, who leads Spotify’s work in the genre. Jones, a 25-year-old Disney alum also known for re-creating the role of Hilary Banks on Peacock’s Bel-Air has captured the hearts of fans and industry veterans alike with “ICU,” her first certified gold single. Though it came out with her fifth EP, November’s What I Didn’t Tell You, it caught fire this spring. In a landscape where digital-sounding and emotionally unavailable alternative R&B had a chokehold on the genre, “ICU” is refreshingly analog and endearingly earnest in its yearning. On the cusp of summer, it cinched the Number One spot on Billboard’s Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart, representing its dominance on urban radio. Last month, fellow former House of Mouser Justin Timberlake joined Jones on a chill-inducing remix of the track.
As a young teen, Jones starred in the Disney Channel original movie Let It Shine alongside Abbott Elementary’s Tyler James Williams. It was a rare and popular Black coming-of-age story on the network. Disney’s music operation, Hollywood Records, signed Jones at 15 but subsequently dropped her at 16, she said. “I think creatively, I just had a lot more soul at that time, and I didn’t know what to do with it,” Jones tells Rolling Stone on Zoom from Los Angeles, seated on a plush gray couch set against a white wall with portraits of dreamy clouds above her. “I don’t think they knew what to do with it either.” Last year, though, she signed with the legendary hip-hop label Def Jam.
Last month, videos of Coco’s stirring performances of “ICU” and a cover of SWV’s “Rain” — which her own song “Double Back” samples — were widespread because she sang while being drenched onstage at D.C.’s notoriously rainy Broccoli City Music Festival. “People would say when I left the stage like, ‘That was divine,’” she says, still a bit awed. “That was just God intervening. When I literally saw it, I kind of laughed.”
Here, Jones talks touring, trusting Justin Timberlake, and taking her career to the heights queens Bey and Rih have shown her are possible.
Is this your guitar behind you?
You play guitar?
No, girl. I did try to start over the pandemic, but I just was really like, dude, I can’t have any type of nails. I would ask [the instructor], I was like, “No nails?” He was like, “No.” I was like, I don’t know about this.
What makes you want to start learning guitar? Is it still something you want to try to make time for?
Well, it was during the pandemic, and I just had time. I feel like it’s not one of my passions to learn. I do want to learn Spanish, though, and that I feel like I can implement into my current life. So it’s something I could actually possibly achieve.
Tell me more about implementing it into your current life and why you want to learn it.
Well, I just make flashcards, and I watch shows that are in Spanish. I love telenovelas, and I just think it’s such a passionate, beautiful language. I always look highly at people who can speak multiple languages. I feel like that’s just how it’s supposed to be to connect with more people in the world. And also, Latin music is fire and a huge market. So yeah, a lot of reasons.
That’s so smart. You could very much give us Beyoncé. She’s good for a Spanish language track.
If I really learn Spanish, I’m putting my foot in that Latin music community.
How are you celebrating starting the tour? Did you take a vacation somewhere where you could practice your Spanish? What are you doing to congratulate yourself and pump yourself up?
I think I’ll celebrate after the tour. In my mind, I already have a couple of ideas of things I would want to do. In America, I’d want to go here, do this. Out of America, I’d want to do this. I haven’t really taken a vacation yet. Normally I just call the holidays the vacation because everybody’s not working. So I’m like, this is fine. But I think after tour.
What’s a part of your set or your concert experience that you’re really excited about? Can you give fans an idea of what to expect?
I think one of my favorite parts that I’m excited about is definitely the aesthetic. I think going from one-offs to one-offs, you don’t really get to control the vibe, so I’m really excited to just show them what my EP would look like as a world.
I was curious about what your creative input looks like, especially with the tour. How much influence were you able to have? How hands-on were you with the direction of the experience of it?
I think the biggest, most important part to me is the music, the show lineup; if I am going to merge songs, how that would sound. I’m really big on creating transitions. Like from my SWV “Rain” cover into “Fallin’,” I’m really into the musicality — how I want it to sound when they’re hearing it. I think that’s where I’m the most hands-on, but there’s certain areas that I just feel are out of my wheelhouse, like choreography. I’m like — I know a little one-two shuffle, but that’s not my wheelhouse, so I can’t really put my hands too deep into that. I kind of let people who are in that profession do that part of their job. Styling — I know these are cute things, these are colors that I like, but I can’t make the vision come to life because I’m not a stylist. And I’m from Tennessee. We was real lagging on fashion. I think the part where I’m most hands-on is how it’s going to sound to the audience.
I saw that you’re credited as a writer on every song on your EP. When it comes to writing, producing, and arranging, what does that look like for you?
It depends on where the motivation is stemming from. If I had an idea and I just got really inspired and I made a very beginner stage version of what a song could possibly be on my own computer, then I would bring that to a producer and be like, “Yo, please make this correct, but this is what I’m hearing in my head.” Or if I hear a concept when I’m speaking, I’ll come in and be like, This is what I want to talk about. Let’s find a song that fits.” When I heard “ICU,” just the track, I was like, OK, this is calling something out of me.
And then I think about the trajectory of your career. How old are you?
So I’m 29, so I was a little out of my Disney era when you were really killing shit over there. I’ve really come into you as an adult, with you being an adult as well. I was reading up on your path, and one of the things that you had said about your experience with Hollywood Records is that there was a formula that they wanted to try out. They were trying to push you in a certain direction.
I think creatively, I just had a lot more soul at that time, and I didn’t know what to do with it. I don’t think they knew what to do with it either, really, just because typically, an artist that comes from the channel and acts like I did would typically kind of make music similar to their character. It’s all kind of laid out. It all fits in this perfectly designed package of the show, the music, the artist. It’s all kind of one similar thing, and they market to each other. So for me, who I was as an actor was completely different than who I was as a singer. And I think it was just kind of new territory at the time.
I don’t really remember the specifics of what they wanted it to look like or anything. But sound-wise, I feel like every demo that I would get a version of would be the complete opposite [of the specifics]. I’d still sing what the lyrics were, but it would just not give the same. It would completely go to a whole different genre. I think it was kind of a new experience that we both didn’t know how to navigate. Me, if I knew myself as an artist more, I probably would’ve been able to articulate what I wanted, but I was 16. I didn’t know what I really wanted either.
And I think that now landing on Def Jam, a historic label, CEO Tunji Balogun — who is credited with building RCA’s successful R&B roster with acts like WizKid, Tems, Khalid, Goldlink, and Bryson Tiller — is so respected. What has that experience been like? What is it like to have Def Jam as your label home?
It’s night and day to have a label that, one, isn’t trying to change me in any way. They’re just trying to elevate what I naturally am, and two, that are young and look like me. They look like me. So I don’t feel like the odd one out every time I come into work. I feel like this is where I’m supposed to be.
I think in different industries, when you’re able to move through and work in Black spaces, there’s just a cultural foundation that is so special — while knowing that Black people are not a monolith. We don’t all think the same, we don’t all look the same, we don’t all have the same priorities. And in Black spaces and music, and so many different types of people cross in and out of that, including Justin Timberlake. I think it’s so fun that you covered his duet with Beyoncé, “Until the End of Time,” for Spotify and then ended up duetting with him yourself on the “ICU” remix. Was that on your vision board, especially at the time when you were covering his song? Did you see yourself working with him?
I did not specifically know who was going to be the one on the “ICU” remix, but I had very high expectations. I think my team also had very high expectations of what we wanted to do. So I didn’t get that specific, but he fits the bill of what I was praying for.
When did you know you were going to do a remix?
Probably two months ago. I’m working on my memory retention. I think it’s because of all the scripts that I’ve auditioned with and learned in crunches of time since I was a kid, but I don’t remember.
Was it at the time when it’s starting to dominate radio where y’all are like, OK, we can push this further?
I think a couple of months ago we were like, What’s another way to give this another moment in time?
There’s been a bit of tension with some fans in regards to you working with Justin in light of the treatment Janet Jackson faced and the moves he made — or didn’t — during and after the 2004 Super Bowl. Even though Janet has indicated that they’re still close friends, was there any of that consideration for you? Was there any tension, any apprehension at all?
When I met Justin as a person, I didn’t feel like he was any different than any one of us artists who are just in this industry, and things are out of our control half the time. You know what I’m saying? And the passion is really the same. We all have a love for this. And when I saw his support for me, a Black woman, and wanting me to do well, wanting my song to do well, I didn’t have any apprehensions working with him. I mean, we’re both from Tennessee, and I felt genuine support, so I wasn’t thinking of anything negative, honestly.
What more have you been working on recently? Have you been in the studio, or have you been working by yourself on any new music? What’s the texture of that like for you right now
Absolutely. I do feel like I haven’t had my chunk of time to really get into consistent recording. It’s all kind of sporadic. There’s a different level of deep in the recording process when it’s all you’re doing every day for weeks. But I do feel like I’m bringing a new version of myself to the table. I’m just more confident now. I feel like my EP was me the freshman, and now I feel like I know my way around this campus a little bit more, and I’m a little more at ease with what I’m doing here.
I think that a lot of artists have moved into mixtapes, or EPs — albums mean a lot more to them. What would you say your album would mean to you? When do you think that’ll be a thing that you’re thinking about?
My album will be the first album I’ve ever put out. And to me, it’s already a first that I haven’t done in my whole decade of being here. So to me, it’s already very meaningful. I think I just want to make something timeless that we can play 20, 30, 40 years from now. That’s the goal for me. And I think also, something for me, I’m striving for urgency as well. I want my music to be like, What is going on here?
The way you said that made me think about how funny you are on social media. Whenever I see interviews of you or just you kicking it with people, I think it brings this levity to R&B, especially when it’s such a serious genre sometimes and especially when people have stirring voices like yours. What is just the role of that levity and comedy in your life?
I really feel like it’s just who I am. I always, before I even put my first video out on YouTube that was me talking, because I never had talked on my socials. I only sang, [I thought], Don’t nobody want to hear me talk. Before I had ever done that, my friends would tell me all the time, “You need to show people this, please.” I always have them rolling laughing, but I was just like, Don’t nobody care about talking. I’m a singer. It’s always been a part of me. I just didn’t show it.
What’s your relationship with social media like? What do you enjoy about it? What are you trying to keep balanced? What’s your approach to it?
I respect social media. I know that it’s just how the world is, and it can be a huge reason that your career sparks a new chapter like it did for me. It can be marketing for a brand. I mean, it can be the news. I really do respect social media. And sometimes I think it’s hilarious. The creativity. The SpongeBob singing “ICU” has sent me for days, so —
I have not seen that.
Girl, it’s really too much. But I’m just like, there’s good and bad to everything. I think there’s power in having a following. There’s power to say something. So for me, I just try to say something meaningful.
So many people supported you as clips of your rain-soaked performances of “ICU” and “Rain” by SWV Broccoli City Festival in D.C. spread rapidly. I used to live in D.C.; it feels like it rains religiously at Broccoli City.
I heard it was a thing. So I was like, let’s not do the glue [for hair extensions]. Let’s do the little leave-out moment just in case.
When it came to incorporating SWV’s “Rain” into your set, was that thought about because of the forecast?
No, literally, people would say when I left the stage like, “That was divine.” That was just God intervening. When I literally saw it, I kind of laughed because I’m like, This is so you, God, you always show me how much you got me. And I’m just like, I’m going to just have fun and enjoy this moment.
What has the response been beyond the festival — the world gravitating to it online — been like for you?
It’s been really amazing because I feel like I’ve been doing all of these things. I’ve been singing my heart out. I don’t have any embarrassment about any of the past music I’ve ever dropped, any movies I’ve ever done because I know how much I wanted it, and I know how much I gave it everything I had every time. It’s always been what I’ve been doing. It’s just this is my moment for people to see it. It’s kind of full circle. OK, I thought I was eating this up. OK, good to know I am. Dang.
I’ve read that it looks like production for your Peacock show, Bel-Air, is on pause in alignment with the strikes. What has that been like with your peers at this moment? What is it to be in a community with other people that are all affected by this?
I think, for me, it really shows how up in the air our world can be. Being in this industry is one of the most daring things you can do because it’s not a consistent moment, it’s not a safe pattern. It’s up in the air. It’s check to check. It’s job to job. And I really do feel like because this is such a high-risk career field, we should be properly compensated and protected.
It’s just not fair because everybody loves to watch their favorite show and see their favorite movie, but there’s so many people that are involved in making these things happen. The actors get all the juice and all the hype, but there’s so many people that, down to the minor details, if a show is really done well, somebody’s handling them. I just want to see everybody that deserves their payment and deserves protection get that so we can do what we do. We’re great at what we do. And so we deserve to be paid that way. We deserve to be treated that way.
Do you think that the music industry should or could move towards a similar movement?
I think anything is possible. I feel like if enough people feel like something’s going wrong, they could stir things up. I feel like it is a different day. There are so many different ways of revenue that I’m like, how is all of this really going down? You know what I’m saying? But I do feel like at the end of the day, it’s a machine, and it’s still a business, and I feel like to run your business well, you have to have employees. To have employees, you have to do them right. That’s just the formula.
In your own life, what would you hope to have accomplished in the next decade? What would you be proud of?
I would love to have international world tours. I’m watching Beyoncé and Renaissance, and it’s just like — that is the highest level of “you’re that girl.” I look at Rihanna and Savage X Fenty and I’m like, period. You’re that girl. To have it be bigger than music, to have it be business, to have my name be respected so heavily all over the world is how I imagine these 10 years will progress. The way I’m working, that’s what I’m working towards. I’m working towards creative control because I earned it. Everything I do came with such passion, effort, and care that it’s up to me.
Do I want to score a movie now? Do I want to put a girl group together? What do I want to do? But everything that I do will come with this creative respect that I’ve earned. That’s what I’ve seen in 10 years. I also see a family. I also see my man, “thank you to my man,” whoever that person is for me. I see philanthropy. I’m really big on uplifting my Black women. I feel like we need more advocates, we need more representation, we need more options of who we can be. And I want to push that out into the world these next 10 years.