The new album from the R&B singer Joe is named Doubleback: Evolution of R&B, which doesn’t make a lot of sense: after all, evolution, the process of moving forward towards new things, seems permanently at odds with the act of doubling back. But Joe doesn’t seem troubled with this conflict. It’s his new album, so by definition it’s the next step in his growth as an artist. And Doubleback comes filled with bits and pieces of soul and funk from the ‘70s, or ‘90s interpolations of that ‘70s sound. So Joe evolves, and he doubles back. Case closed.
Joe has been making music since 1993—he debuted around the same time as R. Kelly, and both men are still going, 20 years later, testaments to longevity in the treacherous market of popular music. The two make an interesting pair. Both are R&B singers fixated on the sensual, but R. Kelly followed a wild road, full of highs—extravagant albums, hip-hoperas, number one hits that remain ubiquitous—and lows, most notably his sex scandal. Joe took a more cautious route, not taking as many crazy risks as R. Kelly and not achieving the same levels of success and notoriety, though his albums have also sold well. Now both singers have arrived at a similar place: making music heavily skewed towards the stuff they heard on the radio when they were younger.
Doubleback relies on thick rhythm parts, while guitars carry the melody, and dashes of strings season the pot. “Mary Jane” slinks like the Isley Brothers, while “I’d Rather Have a Love” brings to mind the Stax singer William Bell’s “I Forgot to Be Your Lover”, by way of Anthony Hamilton. “Baby” works a theme that R. Kelly explored in his 1995 song “Baby, Baby, Baby”—namely, crooning the word baby over and over, using repetition for persuasion. And “Looking for Love” evokes Jaheim’s debut album, which used the same phrase on one of its grooviest songs.
On “Easy”, Joe sings “Sometimes you gotta put in work to make it work. . . but this ain’t one of them nights.” He promises to be pleasing and pledges to do the heavy lifting, smoothing out and seducing away contradictions, with croons and bass lines. You’re not riding R. Kelly’s crazy “soulacoaster,” but consistency has its own virtues.