It’s been a long road to the launch of Mali Music’s mainstream album, Mali Is …
The singer seemingly turned from revered underground artist to mainstream star overnight after his single “Beautiful” shot to No. 2 on the R&B charts in the wake of his March performance on American Idol, when he was introduced by judge Jennifer Lopez. But Mali had to sort through a lot of personal matters before he could complete the album it will be on.
“It’s been five or six years since the last album,” the 26-year-old artist told The Root. Of his major-label debut, which is set to be released June 17, he said, “The album itself didn’t take long at all to be created or produced, but I took a lot of time to be developed. So the … years in between weren’t for the album—they were for me,” he said.
Mali candidly recalled how he had to unlearn his insecurities and become more confident—something he has struggled with, largely because of his treatment at the hands of some in his religious community.
“I believe that’s what God was doing with me … what I had to deal with in the religious and church community … what I had to deal with in the South. No [one] wanted the special individual to compete with the glory of God,” he said, recalling how negative he used to be about himself and how intimidated he was during photo shoots, not wanting to seem puffed up. He eventually learned to shrug off those conflicted feelings through his faith. “Those things can’t collide anyway because of how astronomically phenomenal [God] is.”
Mali, who was born in Phoenix and whose birth name is Kortney Jamaal Pollard, grew up singing and playing the keyboard at his local church in Savannah, Ga., before a packed house. His talent was apparent, and aided by the digital audio workstation Pro Tools and computer that he got for his 15th birthday, the aspiring singer started recording songs. In 2008 he created a MySpace page and blossomed as a performer. He also gained an intense online following and was soon being booked across the country.
That year he released his first independent album, The Coming.
Mali continued to hone his art, releasing another album, The 2econd Coming, in 2009. By 2011 the cat was out of the bag, so to speak, and Mali had become a true sensation, performing at the BET Music Awards on the Music Matters Stage.
Of his rise to mainstream fame, the singer said, “I guess I can honestly say right now it still has not registered. But I believe that’s a beautiful thing because I have no idea when or if it will.
“I’m … doing this for something greater, and that’s my story. I don’t know if it’ll register because the goal still isn’t done,” he continued. “[The acclaim is] not why I’m doing this, but it’s so very, very beautiful to be acknowledged and recognized, especially on an elite level. … It definitely keeps your tank full.”
Mali has described the new album—made up of 12 “bangers,” in his words—as a mix between “the times of Stevie Wonder and the age of Aretha Franklin.” How did it end up being so old school?
“I think it subconsciously happened,” Mali said. “I believe this is going to be a musical journey for everyone.
“We have so many great new artists, but more than 80 percent of the generation goes back on Spotify or Pandora and listens to old music,” he added. “Whenever you want to hear something real, you have to listen to something from Motown, and I thought that was so unfortunate.”
Mali’s goal is to be a more contemporary alternative for this generation. “I wanted to create a genre that was very new so that people can cling to something new that was reminiscent [of] the things of old. I just wanted to give my generation something within their time frame. Someone who looked like them, knew and understood their culture, someone who knows what Twitter is,” he joked.
“Mali Is … comes from so many things,” he continued. “The [genres] I like the most go from rock to pop to country to neo-soul. … Everybody has their own definition. Mali Is … is going to be the definition of what I truly am, from top to bottom.”
For Mali, getting signed to a label like Bystorm Entertainment at RCA Records—home to artists like J. Cole and Miguel—will only help him realize his artistic vision.
“It’s one of the labels in black music where I can just be free,” he said. Mali makes it clear, however, that he’s not changing anything up; he’s not becoming less gospel-based in favor of R&B.
“None of my inspirations or foundations will ever go. At the end of the song, I’d want to make sure my listener is encouraged, is enlightened, has knowledge about themselves that they didn’t have before they listened to the song.”
Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.