Chicago rapper and producer Caleb James is only 22, but he’s already been on a gold record—the thing is, it came out when he was 12. His father, Steve “Stone” Huff, who’s now a pastor at Safe House Church in Evanston, used to be a full-time musician and producer, and as a kid James would hang out during sessions at his dad’s West Town studio, Stone Recording. “Bump J used to be there, and I used to sit on his lap,” James says, obviously enjoying the image of a hard-ass Chicago street-rap icon getting chummy with a kid. That was how he ended up on a song with Bump and Cleveland R&B singer Avant—James was ten years old when he sang the chorus of “Flickin’,” a bonus track on the 2003 Avant albumPrivate Room, which peaked at number 18 on theBillboard200and went gold in 2004.
That’s not to say James had a career at that point. He didn’t start recording his own music till summer 2011—a couple years earlier, he’d become a member of the Save Money crew, alongsideChance the RapperandVic Mensa, and his first song was “Pay Back Is a Dog,” which featured a verse from Mensa and production from James and ThemPeople. He released it on his first mixtape,Ground Up, in summer 2012, and then solidified his identity as an MC in July 2013 with the follow-up,The Jones. That second mixtape is stacked with euphoric party tunes perfect for soundtracking summer days that don’t end till the wee hours, and it borrows liberally from 90s hip-hop and R&B. The slow-burning, squealing synth melody on “6 AM" is one of several elements James nicks from Snoop’s "Gin & Juice," and when he half-sings the chorus on "No Go" over a fonky, jagged synth line, he sounds like Puff Daddy on "Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down."
Andrew Barber, founder of Chicago hip-hop blog Fake Shore Drive, points out that Puff Daddy (aka Sean Combs, aka Diddy) did the same sort of thing when he ruled the charts, incorporating bits of popular songs that were old enough for people to feel nostalgic about—on “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” he combines bits of Matthew Wilder’s “Break My Stride” and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message.”
"That’s exactly what Caleb is doing," Barber says. "He’s taking sounds that were popular 15 or 20 years ago." James makes them his own, fusing them into his shimmering, feel-good hip-hop.The Joneshas lots of entry points—I got drawn in by James’s easygoing, likeable personality and cool confidence, the melting wah-wah guitar and sweet singing on “24’s,” and the unidentifiable croaking, stuttering sample on “Flexin’.”