NEW YORK — NEW YORK (AP) — Billy Porter is strutting off in an entirely new sonic direction on his fifth album. The Broadway, runway and TV star has pivoted to dance music.
“I’m a new artist. There’s a transformation that has happened,” the Tony-, Emmy- and Grammy-winner tells The Associated Press. “I’ve been offered a real second chance.”
“Black Mona Lisa” sees Porter embrace club, house and old-school disco over 12 tracks, creating a warm, welcoming space that showcases his voice and redemption story.
“It’s been fun. It’s been a healing. It’s been beyond anything that I could have dreamed,” he says. “I’m trying to bring some positivity into the world. I’m trying to heal people.”
The songs veer from the dance anthem “Broke a Sweat,” to the soulful “Stranger Things,” the four-on-the-floor of “Baby Was a Dancer” to the pop of “New Shoes.”
“I had a lot of different genres in this album and we manage to stay coherent because the cohesive energy comes from me,” he says. “It’s taken me 30 years to figure out how to do that.”
There’s a playful strut to the lyrics, with a confidence Porter says he feels now. On the song “Funk Is on the One,” he sings: “They give me Emmy from the TV like a showgirl/Gotta Grammy so big I gotta park it on the curb/Rubbing elbows with the superstars like Big Bird.”
“It’s the first time that I am singing music that feels a little bit like a flex, a little bit like a brag,” Porter says. “I would never, ever in my life have sung anything like that before now. I embrace it, but sometimes I go, ‘OK, calm down, girl. Calm down.’”
The bright album stands in stark relief to his 1997 debut, his self-titled R&B collection, which largely languished despite his Tony-winning voice (“Kinky Boots”), Emmy-winning pathos (“Pose”) and Met Gala attitude.
“I was told that it would never work out for me because my queerness would be my liability. And it was — in all areas. And then it wasn’t,” he says. “I’m grateful that I lived long enough to see the day where it wasn’t, where my liability has become my superpower.”
Porter found a soulmate in songwriter and producer Justin Tranter, who has written hits for artists such as Britney Spears, Linkin Park, Kelly Clarkson, Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga.
“No matter how fearless this person is, no matter how confident Billy is, this business burned him real bad decades ago, and so I did the best I could to make sure that he felt heard, to make sure that he felt understood,” said Tranter, who is nominated for songwriter of the year at this year’s Grammys.
Tranter said listeners who just want to dance and have fun can enjoy Porter’s album, but those who listen carefully will have a whole journey to digest. The title track, in particular, is a favorite.
“’Black Mona Lisa’ is to me Billy distilled into a song, where it is confident, it is vulnerable, it is flamboyant, it is over the top and it is serious, all at the same time. And I think that’s what is inspiring,” they said.
While dance music is often dismissed as rarely introspective, Porter fuses both huge hooks and poignant, personal lyrics to his songs. He opens “More to Learn,” with the lyrics: “I’m alive, what an accomplishment for my kind.”
“I’m 54 years old. I came out during the AIDS crisis. I am HIV positive. On paper. I’m not supposed to be here,” Porter says when asked about the lyric.
Porter is now invited to Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, helps light the National Christmas Tree and sits as a guest judge on “Dancing With the Stars.” But he spent 13 years away from the business after finding his career stalling. He returned and never looked back after winning the 2013 best leading-man Tony Award for “Kinky Boots.” He has now become a producer, backing 2022’s best musical Tony winner “A Strange Loop.”
Porter then put out three albums of Broadway and Broadway-adjacent music, including 2017’s “Billy Porter Presents the Soul of Richard Rodgers,” which gave some funk and hip-hop feel to some standards.
In some ways, he points to that last album as a bridge for some of his mainly white and over-60 fans from Broadway to follow him to where he is now. “I tried to take them by the hands and cross them over to a sound that they might not recognize,” he says.
On a deeper level, “Black Mona Lisa” is a bit like a veteran offering advice to the next generation, like on “Audacity” where Porter sings “The audacity to show up honestly/How dare I believe/That’s it’s OK be me” and on “Children,” where he counsels: “Some people criticize the way you live/But don’t you apologize, or dare submit.”
“I grew up in the church, and while I left the church for reasons beyond my control, there were wonderful and astonishing, beautiful things that I learned,” he says.
“One of those things is you help people. I’m also first generation post-Civil Rights Movement so activism is in my DNA. I’ve never known anything different as a Black man and a Black queer man on this planet.”
The importance of activism has led Porter to speak out on everything from Roe v. Wade and anti-trans legislation to Harry Styles’ 2020 Vogue cover.
“Always love first,” he says. “But my grandma used to say every so often, ‘Tough love needs to be employed.’ Love doesn’t mean rolling over. Tough love needs to be employed right now to the stuff going on in the world.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits