A staple of NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon is a segment called Musical Genre Challenge. Guests perform pop songs, but in the form of unexpected genres. Jamie Foxx appeared on the May 25 episode, and his first act was to perform Baja Men’s 2000 “Who Let The Dogs Out” in the style of a Broadway musical. He followed that up by singing Rihanna’s 2015 “B—- Better Have My Money” — operatically. Foxx absolutely nails both performances, hitting long notes with genius precision while also adding comedic timing. His performance is equal parts entrancing and hilarious.
Foxx — the former Terrell, Texas, high school star quarterback who stars in this week’s already heralded Baby Driver and hosts Fox’s new hit game show Beat Shazam — is 49 years old and has been entertaining for nearly 30 years. He has an unimpeachable catalog of accomplishments. A classic, unendingly quotable 2002 stand-up special, I Might Need Security (HBO). The Jamie Foxx Show (The WB, 1996-2001), which showcased Foxx’s supernatural knack for impersonations, and his brilliant timing. He’s created five studio albums, with millions of copies sold. His 2005 Billboard-topping Unpredictable culminated in a Grammy for the infinitely catchy “Blame it,” featuring T-Pain (and sadly one of the last bastions of auto-tuned R&B radio supremacy).
Finally and most notably, in 2005, Foxx won the Academy Award for best actor for his title role in Ray, bringing Ray Charles to life in one of the most transcendent, pitch-perfect biographical performances in movie history. Along with Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker, he is one of only four black male actors to win in the lead category. To be great at one of these things — comedy, drama, singing/songwriting — would make Foxx an entertainment powerhouse. To have mastered them all makes him a once-in-a-generation talent. Foxx — not Will Smith, not Dave Chappelle, not even Beyoncé — is the supreme entertainer of our era, and it’s time to recognize him as such.
And it all started with a character called “Wanda.”
When Jamie Foxx made his television debut, on the third season of Keenan Ivory Wayans’ sketch comedy show In Living Color in 1991, it was after years of working his way through the stand-up comedy circuit, most famously at Hollywood’s The Comedy Store, a mecca for comedians such as Cedric The Entertainer and Jim Carrey, who would perform at open mics.
On Color, Foxx appeared alongside future superstars Carrey, Jennifer Lopez, Chris Rock, Kim Coles, Damon Wayans and Larry Wilmore, not to mention Anne-Marie Johnson, David Alan Grier and Tommy Davidson.
He stood out from the pack, especially in black households across the country, for playing Wanda, a homely woman with a large fake butt, humongous lips and a wonky eye. Foxx-as-Wanda would try to pick up men (most frequently played by Davidson as a well-put-together businessman) and made the faux seductive “Heyyyyy” a catchphrase. It was combined with a patented cross-eyed gaze. Foxx’s commitment to the character made Wanda a tentpole for In Living Color.
You would be forgiven for thinking the show showed off the breadth of Foxx’s talent. That is, if you hadn’t seen him on Roc.
Roc (Fox, 1991-94) was a family sitcom from the people who created Cheers and Taxi; it starred Charles Dutton, Ella Joyce and Rocky Carroll as a middle-class black family in Baltimore. The show has earned cult status for Dutton’s resonant performances and Joyce’s endearing character work, and it was where it became clear that Foxx was more than Wanda. Foxx appeared for nine episodes in the second and third seasons as a neighbor with special needs: “Crazy George.” This was a three-dimensional Foxx. He still used his over-the-top comedy, but Crazy George was so lovable and full of compassion, it became clear there was more to Foxx than impressions.
Foxx continued his growth in 1993 with the HBO stand-up special Straight From The Foxxhole. The special was full of memorable lines and his mirror-image impressions. But that was to be expected. What caught audiences off guard was when, toward the end, he took to his piano (with his grandmother’s encouragement, he studied classical piano from the age of 5) and blended his stand-up act with musical compositions — and even went into straight-up, no-laughs R&B. There was a smattering of uncomfortable laughter as Foxx sang his serious music. The segment became an entry into his musical career.
“My whole plan was do the comedy however you do the comedy,” he said in 1994 on KPIX’s Bay Sunday. “Get your name out there. Get the HBO special and you control what’s going on. So I did 50 minutes of comedy, and then I take it into the music real smooth.”
The Bay Area interview, however, demonstrates the challenges Foxx faced with regard to being taken seriously as a musical artist. The Q&A segment is painfully awkward. Host Barbara Rodgers spends the first minutes pressing him to perform as Wanda, and Foxx, frustrated, refuses to resurrect his character.
The interview was to promote Foxx’s 1994 debut album Peep This (Fox Records), which was mostly written by Foxx in the vein of Jodeci and R. Kelly. It showed Foxx could hang with the greats vocally; however, the music itself was subpar, with lackluster production and clichéd lyrics. As a result, the album performed poorly on the charts. He didn’t release another album for 11 years.
Foxx couldn’t quite shake the idea that he was “just” Wanda, even as he entered his first prime of the mid-’90s. He had to face a derailment that redefined his career. Foxx had auditioned for the role of Jerry Maguire’s Rod Tidwell, the dynamic football star who played opposite Tom Cruise. But Foxx struggled in the audition.
“I blew it, man,” he told Playboy in 2005. “Maybe I wasn’t ready. Tom was just too famous, and I was too young. I was a stand-up comedian, and I just f—-d it up. I was reading all loud and stuff, and Tom was very quiet. So I read my lines, and then he paused for a long time. … So I said: ‘Tom, it’s your line.’ And he looked at me and said: ‘I know. I got it.’ ”
The role, of course, went to Cuba Gooding Jr., who won an Oscar for best supporting actor, launching him into the world of A-list Hollywood. Meanwhile, Foxx was making 1997’s Booty Call.
“Booty Call wasn’t exactly Oscar-worthy,” Foxx said on CBS’s Sunday Morning in 2013. “I was trying to get a check.” The movie, a raucous sex comedy about mishaps that occur as two men try to seal the deal with their dates, featured Foxx doing Martin Luther King impressions while having bubble-wrapped sex with Vivica Fox, a dog licking Tommy Davidson’s rear, and a fight over a condom. While the movie is heralded as a cult classic by some, it was lambasted as crass and vapid (“It’s not that the movie is never funny. It’s just that you don’t feel very good when it is,” is how the Los Angeles Times expertly put it). The film’s biggest critic was Bill Cosby, who at the time still commanded respect as a voice in the black community. He told Newsweek in 1997: “There is no need for a Booty Call, for the stuff that shows our young people only interested in the flesh and no other depth.” Foxx spent the next two years making movies such as 1999’s Held Up (co-starring Nia Long) that mostly failed at the box office but were better than they had any right being — off the strength of Foxx’s charisma and talent.
It’s here that we have to acknowledge The Jamie Foxx Show. If you thought calling Foxx the most talented entertainer of our generation was a “hot take,” then here’s another: if Jamie Foxx had aired on the Fox Network, along with Martin, instead of on the less popular WB, it would be just as revered and beloved. At its funniest, The Jamie Foxx Show is just as hilarious as Martin. There’s the above reimagining of D’Angelo’s “Untitled” video, the O.J. Simpson impersonation, Tupac Shakur, the dance battle. The sitcom, which also starred Garrett Morris, Ella English, Christopher B. Duncan and Garcelle Beauvais as his love interest, Fancy, and aired from 1996 to 2001, is Foxx at his comedic peak.
And he could have simply stuck to being funny. His musical career had yet to take off, and he’d failed to land that life-changing role. But that changed in 1999 when Sean Combs was excused from the set of Any Given Sunday. “Puff Daddy threw like a girl, so they put him on a plane,” said co-star Andrew Bryniarski in 2015. Foxx stepped in to portray the iconic Willie Beamen, a confident, young black quarterback who replaces a worn veteran QB — think the cinematic version of Dak Prescott replacing Tony Romo with a little extra Hollywood flair and an instantly repeatable theme song that Foxx recorded himself.
Foxx had done it: a leading role in a film opposite Al Pacino, with superstar director Oliver Stone at the helm. The movie is sort of a mess, overproduced and melodramatic, but Foxx’s star turn was widely praised. “In a broken-field role,” said movie critic Roger Ebert, “that requires him to be unsure and vulnerable, then cocky and insufferable, then political, then repentant, Foxx doesn’t step wrong.”
Foxx followed Beamen up by portraying trainer Drew Bundini Brown in 2001’s Ali. The role was pivotal. Foxx displayed his ability to transform into an entirely unrecognizable character. And he was beginning to truly combine his talents. In Any Given Sunday, he’d mixed in his musical talents with serious acting, and in Ali he used his uncanny ability as an impersonator to make his roles pop. What allowed him to play Brown is from the skill set that allowed him to “be” Mike Tyson on stage in so many of his stand-up performances. All of this, of course, culminated in Ray.
Foxx’s portrayal of Charles is a three-hour acting masterpiece. Foxx was a one-man Golden State Warriors team putting his multiple talents together for one legendary performance. He used his ability for imitation, which he perfected on the comedy circuit, to bring Charles to life on the screen. He used his dramatic acting to translate that imitation into a serious and emotionally resonant performance. And finally, Foxx performed the music himself, truly channeling Charles’ soul. “It demeans Foxx to say he was born to play this role,” said Ken Tucker in The New Yorker. “Rather, he invented a Ray Charles that anyone, from a nostalgic baby boomer to a skeptical Jay Z fan, can understand and respect.”
In winning his best actor Oscar, becoming just the third African-American to do so, he beat out Don Cheadle’s electric Hotel Rwanda performance, Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator and Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby. Foxx had arrived. But he wouldn’t dwell on his successes. He had a musical career to revitalize.
A chance meeting with Kanye West at one of Foxx’s infamous house parties led to Foxx being featured on a 20o4 Twista single featuring Kanye entitled “Slow Jamz.” It became a No. 1 pop single, with Foxx singing the hook. “Young people who hadn’t seen me on In Living Color or the The Jamie Foxx Show thought I had just come on with Kanye West, so that gave me new life,” he said in a 2015 radio interview. He followed that collaboration by singing the hook on West’s 2004 “Gold Digger,” and on Dec. 27, 2005, 10 months after winning his Oscar, Foxx released his own Unpredictable album (J Records). It debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard album charts and went to No. 1 the very next week. It’s double platinum.
Yet all of the success was affecting his personal life, and not in good ways. An intervention by black celebrity royalty set him on a different path.
“ ‘You’re blowing it, Jamie Foxx,’ ” Oprah Winfrey told Foxx in 2004, as he explained in an interview with Howard Stern earlier this year. “ ‘All of this gallivanting and all this kind of s—, that’s not what you want to do. … I want to take you somewhere. Make you understand the significance of what you’re doing.’ Foxx recounts going into a house filled with black actors from the ’60s and ’70s. “[They] look like they just want to say … Don’t blow it.” Foxx was introduced to Sidney Poitier, the first African-American to win an Oscar, who told him, “ ‘I want to give you responsibility. … When I saw your performance, it made me grow 2 inches.’ To this day, it’s the most significant time in my life where it was, like, a chance to grow up.”
Today, Foxx seems as comfortable in his own skin as ever. When he wants to be serious, he’s the titular character in 2012’s Django Unchained, stone-faced, stoic and out for vengeance. Or he is a villain in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. He’s released three albums since Unpredictable, with a Grammy to boot for 2010’s “Blame It.” And when he wants to make people laugh, Foxx still pops up at places such as The Comedy Store.
Two years ago, this time on Fallon’s “The Wheel Of Musical Impressions,” he did Mick Jagger singing “Hakuna Matata,” Jennifer Hudson singing “On Top Of Spaghetti” and John Legend singing the Toys R Us theme song, complete with a full-on re-enactment of Legend’s on-stage posture. And he somehow managed to mix in a Doc Rivers impersonation. The video for this fantastical and amazing series of performances has amassed 40 million views on YouTube. It’s classic Foxx, mixing his flair for the dramatic with his unparalleled voice and mastery of comedy. His is an unpredictable blend of musicianship, comedy and acting. He’s a powerhouse. A master of all trades. And we may never see anything like him again.