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Who’s your daddy? If you need one, Des Moines soul-pop artist Madison Ray is available

Madison Ray poses outside xBk, a music venue in Des Moines, before the taping of Juneteenth: The Movement 2021, a production he co-produced with IPR, xBk and Iowa PBS.
Lindsey Moon
Madison Ray poses outside xBk, a music venue in Des Moines, before the taping of Juneteenth: The Movement 2021, a production he co-produced with IPR, xBk and Iowa PBS.

Madison Ray wants you to call him daddy. No, really, when Ray asks you to sit your ass right here and call him daddy, he means it. He even made a shirt to prove it.

In “Black Coffee,” the second single from Ray’s upcoming album, Abraham, with his soul-pop ten-piece band, The Finesse, he confidently invites the subject of his desire: “Sunrise, I know you’re near / Pull me closer, whisper ‘dirty’ in my ear / Call me daddy, I’ll call you dear / Come and sit that thing right here.” 

But the line – sexual yet not explicit – isn’t just about getting it on. It’s also a nod to being a real-life daddy, Ray’s daddy, and his daddy’s daddy. The whole album is rife with these kinds of double- and triple-meanings, but “Black Coffee” is the standout example. The title in and of itself serves as a triple-entendre for black coffee (coffee), black coffee (sex), and Black coffee (Blackness).

The song is a feel-good bop, with a subtle saxophone groove and a flamenco-esque keyboard riff that push “Black Coffee” through undulating waves of vocal harmonies. In the music video, Ray woos a barista (played by Rajaa Camp-Bey) at north end coffee shop Slow Down Coffee.

Fronted by Ray, throughout the nine tracks of Abraham, The Finesse crosses Marvin Gaye’s soft sensuality with the dynamic rhythmic sensibilities of Justin Timberlake. The chant-like chorus of “Black Coffee” – “Bold enough to steal a kiss / Hot enough to burn my lips / Just one taste to feel the lift / Come on, come on” – reminds me of “Cry Me a River” (but without the Britney-bashing), and if you’re into Lizzo’s flute playing, you’ll love how often Gabe Scheid rocks a flute solo. For the most flute action, check out second single “Rolling Stone.” The flute anchors the whole track.

The new album: Abraham

The album, which drops May 5, is titled Abraham after Ray’s grandfather, who died in 2020. Unable to have a funeral or be with his family at the time due to pandemic restrictions, Ray said he wasn’t able to process the death. Creating Abraham was his way of mourning. Abraham, though, is not the story of Ray’s grief but of Abraham’s life.

The youngest of 21 children, Ray’s grandfather was a ladies man who snuck into the army underage to fight in WWII as a way to gain social prestige.

“I couldn’t help but think of him like a Black James Bond,” said Ray. “I started to see these narrative threads I found so irresistible. You’re now talking about love and sex and murder. This is spicy.”

The penultimate song, “Soul on Fire,” calls out America’s treatment of Black people most prominently – “American soul on fire / Nothing to lose / Rhythm without the blues / American soul on fire / Rocket’s red glare / We’re gasping for air” – but the rest of the album subtly pulls through the thread of empty promises. Even the most seemingly sexual songs, like “Black Coffee” and first single “Rolling Stone,” which features burlesque and pole dancers in the music video, ride an undercurrent of societal commentary.

When he came back from the army, though, Abraham, a Black soldier, found he wasn’t able to claim the rewards he was promised. The nine tracks of Abraham take the listener through the phases of Abraham’s life and Ray’s understanding of its generational narrative. Songs like “Black Coffee” dig into Abraham’s Blackness and infatuation with women, while first track “What I Do for Love,” a slow, sensual groove with a loungey flute solo from Scheid, confronts the question of what it takes to voluntarily sign up to commit murder: “I shot him down / I confess / Oh yes, I stole his last breath.” Listening to “What I Do for Love” feels like sitting in a jazz club in Louisiana in 1952 and watching a singer remember a time before the war was over, before their youth slipped away, and before jazz was forgotten to rock n’ roll.

“In some of these songs, ‘she’ is America,” said Ray. “It’s the unrequited love of I've come and I've done all these things for you. I've laid down the sword for you. Where's the part where you're supposed to love me back? It's not there.”

“Whatever the pronoun is, sometimes that's also that smokescreen of what you're really feeling.”

Recording the record

The Finesse formed in 2018 when Ray was preparing for a Motown tribute show at Des Moines jazz club Noce. Abraham was recorded with a full band at xBk, a local venue in the Drake neighborhood where Ray moonlights as a doorperson. He decided to record this way – as opposed to in a studio – partly as an homage to how the band formed, jamming on old school soul records in his living room, and partly as an homage to how music was recorded during his grandfather’s prime.

“Us going into a room and just playing the songs is how you used to cut a record,” said Ray. “You set up some microphones, you get in a room, and you play. That’s it. That’s the tape.”

Ray went into the recording jazz-style, with some basic song charts but a lot of wiggle room. He wanted to capture the electricity and spontaneity that happens when live musicians play together. Whether he’s paying homage to his daddy’s daddy or his own band, the core of Abraham is relationships.

“Anything you might enjoy comes out of his space because there's love and friendship and trust. These are relationships come to life on record. Even the performances you see on screen are relationships that are five to ten years built,” said Ray. “Every turn, every struggle, every hurdle is informed by real friendship and love.”

Ray’s ultimate plan is to make videos for every song on Abraham with the help of his record label, Station 1 Records. The album was mastered by Steve Capp of Detroit-area’s 54 Sound. The Finesse – Ray; flutist and saxophonist Gabe Scheid; guitarist Sean Veeder; keyboardist Jason Danielson; bassist David Altemeier; drummer Scott Yoshimura; vocalist Charlie Reese; vocalist Krista Guillaume; vocalist Rebecca Davis; and trumpeter Antonio Garza – are celebrating the release of the album with a 10 shows in Japan from May 7 through May 23. If you’d like to support the band or have people call you daddy, you can purchase a tour t-shirt here. (The script underneath “call me daddy” says the band’s name in Japanese.)

To keep up with The Finesse and/or Madison Ray, follow Ray on IG at @emperormadisonray, visit The Finesse’s website, and follow The Finesse on Spotify.