Twenty-six years after Billy Porter's debut album Untitled hit stores, the multihyphenate artist is releasing a second album of original music — but this time, he's doing it entirely his way. It's a point of pride for Porter, whose 1997 debut forced him to submerge his Broadway career success — and sexuality — to appeal to mainstream R&B audiences.
For four years, Porter's then-label, DV8 Records, worked on crafting the perfect persona for the singer. And after making many difficult compromises, Untitled was released in 1997 with minimal promotion. This led the "Show Me" singer to a heart-wrenching realization: It was time to walk away from his deal and take his career into his own hands.
Decades of hard work and seized opportunities later, Porter has amassed a trove of professional milestones while blazing trails for emerging LGBTQ performers of color. He became the first Black gay man to win a lead acting Emmy for his performance in the acclaimed drama "Pose," earned a GRAMMY and a Tony for his role in "Kinky Boots," wrote an off-Broadway play and a best-selling memoir before stepping behind the lens to direct the 2022 trans coming-of-age rom-com, "Anything's Possible."
Along the way, music was always on Porter's mind — though he had released three cover albums in that time, his sights were set on developing an original project when he signed with Republic Records in 2021. Working with prolific singer-songwriter Justin Tranter — who's written hits for Britney Spears, Selena Gomez, Linkin Park, Justin Bieber and more — Porter has ensured that his fifth studio album reflects his journey and how far he's come since walking away from DV8 Records nearly 30 years ago.
Now, Porter is kicking off his return with the infectiously catchy, dance-club single "Baby Was a Dancer," which recounts his journey to empowerment and showcases the real Billy — unlike his 1997 debut and its broader themes of love and desire. As Porter puts the finishing touches on his new album, he's already hard at work putting together a production for his forthcoming summer tour — the first solo outing of his musical career — and he's leaving no stone unturned.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Porter to chat about his new single, upcoming album, and how you can never put baby in a corner.
The past decade has been such a whirlwind for you. You've conquered TV, film and red carpets, won an Emmy, a Tony and a GRAMMY, wrote a memoir and directed a rom-com. Was there a standout moment for you among all these huge milestones?
That's a really interesting question. I think it's more about the culmination of being able to vibrate in all of these spaces that I've had the dream of doing all at the same time. And feeling redeemed in doing. There were so many naysayers at the beginning of my career telling me that I couldn't do everything — that I had to choose one thing. I stand before you as proof positive that that isn't true.
What stands out is that I get to do all of them, at the same time. All of the hyphens, all at the same time. That's really not something that happens very often.
I've been playing your new single "Baby Was a Dancer" on a loop and can't wait for it to drop so I can add it to my "going out" playlist. How did that song come together?
I signed with Republic Records, and they hooked me up with Justin Tranter and his camp. We really had a great time just learning about each other. The team focused on learning about me and what I wanted to say to the world. All of the songs that emerged from my working sessions on this album. My writing sessions on this album really were very, very personal.
If you listen to the lyrics of "Baby Was a Dancer," it tells the story of my journey in this business — and in the world. What I was told that I could and couldn't be — and how you can't keep baby in a corner.
It's such an upbeat song with an empowering personal message. A total 180 from your debut album.
What I love about this time around for me in the music industry — and the mainstream music industry, in particular — is that the material is actually coming from me. The stories, the message, the point, all of it is coming specifically from me out of my own mouth, which is really nice. All of the songs on the album, it's all my story, in one form or another, and that is really exciting.
Are there any plans to release a music video? Because the bootleg choreography I came up with is not going to cut it.
Well, that's an interesting conversation because everything is reduced to an algorithm these days, particularly in the music industry via TikTok. They do not support music videos anymore. Apparently, the attention span is too short, and people are more interested in content associated with a particular single, and that's what pushes the single and downloads, and that's what drives sales.
So unfortunately, with this one, we are trying to set it up so that we can push it out. This time around, it's gonna be more about expanding my social media presence, particularly on TikTok.
I came up during the golden age of music videos in the '90s, so I'm bummed about this pivot to shorter dance clips on social media.
Me, too! I'm not happy about it, but I'm trying to do what's best. [Laughs.]
Will the new album be as danceable and high-energy as the new single? Or are you going to mix it up?
Because I've been in the business for so long, I have vibrated in so many different kinds of spaces, particularly musically. I have sung all types of music in my life. I've recorded all types of music in my life. So this album has a real eclectic energy to it.
In terms of the sound, I think there is something for everybody. What makes it cohesive is me. What makes it cohesive is my musical history. It's vast. It's deep. I'm not new. I'm true to this. I've been doing it since the early '80s. When I listen to the record, it really does hit all types of genres.
I'm excited about that because it's not just a singles thing, you know. We've grown into this space where it's about the single. And there are many, many singles. And it can be about the single; it can exist in that space as well. But I think people will be pleasantly surprised when they press play on track one, and they don't want to stop listening to it for 14 tracks. You're not gonna want to stop listening.
Albums with 14 tracks are incredibly rare nowadays.
Well, I had some s— to say! [Laughs.]
Did the album come together quickly, or did the process take a while?
Because of my schedule, it wasn't too long. It probably took me a year or so, from when I started earnestly working on it. I did some stuff in my studio in Pittsburgh while I was directing my movie. Then I did some in LA and New York. I sort of recorded wherever I was traveling and working.
Last November you released a song called "Stranger Things," after an overwhelmingly positive response to your performance at the Global Citizens Festival. You've described the track as a "call to action," and I personally took it as a much-needed reminder that there's work to do and no time to dwell. What made you realize that the world needed to hear this particular message right now?
I wrote that song with the late-great Andrea Martin, a couple of months before her untimely death. This space that we're in is challenging, and there's work to be done. And yes, when they go low, we go high. And what does going high look like in this new world order?
One of the things that I've been leaning into is, with age comes wisdom. I wear my age like a badge of honor. I've earned it. I'm 53 years old and not embarrassed about it. And one of the things that was really striking to me and re-traumatizing to me during COVID was that it felt very eerily similar to what we queer people went through during the AIDS crisis. What I wanted to say with the song — and what I want people to remember — is that none of this is new. And the fact that we don't know our history is, I think, one of the reasons why there's so much panic surrounding it.
Exactly. As they say, the past teaches us about the present.
Yes. And it does us a disservice. Our news outlets, and the way it's covered very often, pisses me off because it's covered as if it's new. And what I wanted to say with the song is that stranger things have already happened to us. We are resilient, and we will get through this with love. Don't be afraid. Don't be terrified. Stop claiming that and stand up for what is right. Stand up for what we know is right and get out in these streets and fight for it.
There's no time to be fatigued. There's no time to be terrified. We have work to do. And that song is a call to action. And music is a universal language. It's always been the way that I have communicated my views to the world.
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