In 2004, James toured as an opening act for The Black Eyed Peas and Macy Gray. That same year, she was featured on hip hop producer, DJ, and emcee Pete Rock‘s album Soul Survivor II, providing vocals to the track “No Tears”. In 2005, she lent her voice to the posthumously released Ray Charles album Genius & Friends, duetting with the singer on the song “Compared to What”.
James’ debut album, A Change Is Gonna Come, was released on June 21, 2005. The album was conceived as a throwback to an earlier era of American soul music, building upon the legacy of 1960s and 1970s soul singers while incorporating elements of contemporary R&B, funk, and gospel.
In the lyrics to the album’s lead single, “Music”, James laments the current state of contemporary popular music. She condemns the glorification of materialism and misogyny
James co-wrote most of the tracks on her debut album, two exceptions being her covers of the pop rock band No Doubt‘s 1996 hit “Don’t Speak” and the classic title song by Sam Cooke, for which the album is named. Notable collaborators on the album include Raphael Saadiq, Kanye West and Wyclef Jean.
After parting ways with Warner Bros., James signed with the independent label Shanachie Records and released her second studio album on March 24, 2009, an all-cover set entitled Let’s Do It Again (the title being a homage to the 1975 soundtrack album of the same name by The Staple Singers).
Speaking in May 2010 to UK soul writer Pete Lewis of Blues & Soul, she said,”With this album, I wanted to make sure that I showed all sides of me – in terms of variety in the music and in my vocal range – while at the same time making it clear that every song deeply came from my soul. Plus I also wanted to incorporate a little more hip hop this time, and infuse it with my traditional R&B – because I felt that. By making my beats edgier and harder-hitting, I’d show there was more to me than just doing ballads and things of that sort.”