The idea of a five-piece contemporary rhythm and blues band that stays true to the current-day formula for crooning while actually playing live instruments and worrying more about technical chops than synchronized choreography seems so novel, doesn’t it? The vocal groups have always been around—from the Temptations to 112, such outfits have become a staple in popular music history’s lore—but it’s a rare if not almost-extinct practice to both write and subsequently perform the type of smooth songs synonymous with today’s version of R&B.
Maybe even more uncommon is coming across a group who has withstood the test of time and kept most of its original lineup in tact. Every ‘N Sync has a Justin Timberlake waiting to break out, every Destiny’s Child has a Beyonce salivating at the opportunity to rule the world, and every Jackson 5 has a Michael effortlessly eclipsing the status of not only his former group, but also the rest of popular culture as a whole. Rarely do R&B-leaning pop groups not have at least one member who has a larger picture in mind, knowing full well that the first time he or she gets the chance to embark on a solo venture, he or she will split faster than anyone could utter the chorus to “I want you back”.
With that in mind, one could make the argument that St. Paul, Minnesota’s Mint Condition have defied the odds, at least a little bit. Sure, they may have lost their former leader, Keri Lewis, to a career in producing, but it’s hard to find any group that originated in the 1980s still going strong in the R&B world, let alone one that has remained mostly in tact through the decades. That type of persistence and maturity can go a long way and it does with their latest, Music @ The Speed of Life, a 13-track collection that doesn’t reinvent the wheel anymore than it ensures listeners that if nothing else, the tire won’t ever go flat.
The exceptional moments come when members of the group expand their technical abilities, however brief those moments may be. Single “Believe in Us”, for instance, glides through a typical modern day rhythm and blues ballad before launching into a fit of fusion-like jazz that criminally is edited out of the promotional version of the song. It may last only half a minute, but the spot reminds listeners that these guys aren’t just a collection of pretty faces and smooth voices. The same goes for the DJ Jazzy Jeff collaboration “Girl of My Life”, an otherwise pedestrian track that takes off as the song winds down and an inspired dose of funk comes alive with singer Stokley Williams’ live drum work.
From there, the rest of the set showcases Mint Condition’s reliable blend of contemporary rhythm and blues in a way that should surprise nobody, especially longtime fans. “In the Moment” might be the most complete track of the bunch, a powerful way to kick off the record. “Slow Woman” bleeds sex appeal with its hushed verses before releasing into an inescapable hook that is hard to forget. And “Blessed” keeps the tempo up while falling into the obligatory thankfulness that most R&B acts go for at least twice an album these days. Its steady backbeat is enough to get fans out of seats, though the predictable tone stifles any source of inspiration it could offer.
Speaking of inevitability, “Completely” sees the group shoot for the stars with a soaring ballad that falls in line with any rhythm-based adult contemporary mainstay on Top 40 radio today. Despite the prettiness of the harmonies, there is no escaping what might be the single most disturbing lyric of the year: “Girl what I’m saying it’s true,” Williams sings before adding, “If I cut my face, I’d bleed your name.” The sentiment is romantic, the execution, however, is disturbingly flawed. It’s a misstep on a record seemingly intent on doing its best to avoid even the slightest bit of risk.
But it’s also that type of concentration on consistency that makes Music @ The Speed of Life pretty good. Mint Condition have taken a lot of pride in playing it straight, all the way from 1991’s Meant to Be Mint up until this, another solid yet foreseeable collection of contemporary R&B music, and for that, these five guys should be commended. There’s something to be said for always being pretty good instead of only sometimes being great. Music @ The Speed of Life proves that Mint Condition are pretty good at being pretty good. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.