The man on the cover of Director, pulling up the collar on his coat—that’s not the same man who sang “Your Body’s Calling”, “Ignition”, and “Step in the Name of Love”, and gave us the cliffhanging dope opera “Trapped in the Closet”. The man on the cover of Director is named Avant. I promise. I won’t even mention that other guy (or I’ll at least keep it to a minimum).
That’s how it’s been for Avant since he first signed with Magic Johnson’s record label (By the way, is there anything Magic isn’t into? He’s the real life Wizard Kelly from the Proud Family cartoon). Avant’s debut, My Thoughts, eventually went platinum, as did his second album, Ecstasy. Yet, everybody—and I mean everybody—keeps comparing him to the Chocolate Factory crooner from Chicago, Illinois in the great U.S. of A.
Let’s settle this once and for all.
Are they both R&B singers?
If you have to ask, you shouldn’t be reading this. But yeah, they are, and both singers have their R&B patterns down pat, from the verse-hook-verse-hook-bridge-vamp to the verse-hook-verse-hook-guest rap-vamp, not to mention their skills on the remix tip (you’ll like Avant’s remix of Stickwitu with the Pussycat Dolls, but don’t forget the Chicago guy’s remix to “Ignition” that was “hot and fresh out the kitchen”).
Do they look alike?
Yes, and if all you get is a quick glance then they are identical.
Do they sing alike?
Do their songs cover similar lyrical ground?
Not really, unless you think two guys singing about romance, heartbreak, sex, and dancing counts as “similar”.
All right, so they’re similar. So what? Avant’s his own man, the director of his own destiny, if you will. On his fourth album, he aims to prove it. That’s all you need to know.
Ladies, look out. The Director’s in the house with 15 new scenes. Wait, make that 14 new scenes and one remix, clocking in at a healthy 57 minutes and some change. He’s back and, as he sings on the opening track, he’s got “So Many Ways” to let the ladies know what’s on his mind. “So Many Ways” is a strong start, with the eyebrow raising opening lines: “I’m your director / It’s getting deep / we don’t need a camera or a videotape / to make this ghetto love scene”. Now I know he didn’t mean that the way it sounded—in reference to you-know-who—so let’s not go there. The beat’s thumping and there’s a synth groove quivering in the background like a rubber band. Just go with the flow.
But, ladies, when Avant gets you going with the flow, he doesn’t mean for you to put up with just anything. He ain’t playin’ around. That’s why the second track, “This Is Your Night”, gets the romance groove in gear, with lines like:
Let me take this time and tell you how special you are
Called everything under the sun but “a shining star”
We forgot how to love you (but you do too much, Boo)
And ain’t no amount of apologies gon’ ever make up for it
In the wrong hands, those lines could’ve been a disaster. Avant works it well. Then he goes on to ruin us guys by disavowing our “tired” lines:
And I know you’re tired of “I’m on my way”
And uh…“She’s just a friend”
And them damn videogames
He was on a roll with the first two, but come on, man, not the videogames! He really didn’t have to call me out like that just because I love me some Final Fantasy.
Seriously, there’s not going to be much fuss about the first two songs. They’re solid jams. The problems start at track three, because that’s where listeners and reviewers will part company and disagree over which songs are strong and which are weak. Accordingly, my top picks for the album are: “So Many Ways”, “This Is Your Night”, “4 Minutes”, “Stickwitu (Urban Remix)”, “With You”, “Exclusive”, “Mr. Dream”, “G.P.S.A.(Ghetto Public Service Announcement)”.
Picking up with “4 Minutes”, we find Avant in the Cliffs Notes version of “Trapped in the Closet”, true, but it’s catchy and it’s the perfect choice for attracting attention for the album. It’s clever that the song length is exactly four minutes and the tick-tock of the clock adds a suspenseful touch in the background. As previously mentioned, The Pussycat Dolls offer a nice cameo in the Peter Mokran’s remix of “Stickwitu”, which should bring back memories of Avant’s remake of “My First Love” with Keke Wyatt from his first album.
In fact, the cameos are well done here, with one possible exception (more about that a little later). Lloyd Banks provides the guest rap on “Exclusive”, a high energy number with a distinctive chime in the background like Def Jef (the producer) is playing a set of wine glasses. It’s creative departure from the norm as is Jermaine Dupri’s appearance on the last song, “G.P.S.A. (Ghetto Public Service Announcement)”. Here, the collaboration gives us a So-So-Interesting dialogue between Avant (in the role of concerned citizen and all around “grown ass man”) and Jermaine Durpi (in the role of unconcerned citizen and all round hustler). It’s faintly reminiscent of other dialogue-laden songs like the beefs between Mr. Bigg and that other singer from Chicago, or like MTV’s Hip-Hopera Carmen, starring Mekhi Phifer, Beyonce, and Mos Def.
All in all, it’s an entertaining public service announcement, with Jermaine Dupri’s counterarguments steering the song away from becoming overly preachy. Some may say his concern for the world has no place on an album packed with romance. I, however, like the fact that he’s more than a bump-and-grinder, plus the fact that he acknowledges the odd placement of the song at the outset, singing:
Now I know some people might not understand me
It might not go number one or win a Grammy
Two songs are marvelous simply because they break away from the album’s more routine R&B staples. “With You” features longtime Avant collaborator Steve Huff on all instruments (especially those deliciously weird synth and tribal drum noises!) and additional vocals by Willie Taylor. Near the end of the set, “Mr. Dream” comes out of nowhere with its minimalist sound. It’s built out of little more than a drum track, some strings, and Avant’s ability to harmonize, as if McGyver produced it. It’s one of the hottest songs in the collection because displays a skill every director must have—knowing how and when to use silence.
It’s not that the rest of the songs are bad; actually, they’re not. However, they do tend to sound alike. “Right Place, Wrong Time”, “Grown Ass Man”, “Director”, and “Imagination” take a few listens before they can be easily identified from one another. The other possible standout, “Lie About Us”, is the one exception to the cameo success I mentioned earlier. Featuring fine vocals by Nicole Scherzinger, the song tells the story of a man and his mistress, with the man of course promising to treat his mistress right and vowing to come clean to the world about their affair. The surprise element here is that the woman isn’t going into this blindly. She has doubts. But the song itself stands in such strong contrast to the message in “This Is Your Night” and other songs on the album that you wonder how it snuck onto the track list. Yet, even this slight misstep can be explained by one simple fact: Avant didn’t write it. Another good fact: it does make for a nice duet.
Behind the music, the album lives up to its “Director” title. Thumb through the liner notes and you’ll find a smorgasbord of creative elements. There are various writers and producers (Rodney Jerkins, The Underdogs & Antonio Dixon, Jermaine Dupri, Def Jef, Steve Stone, and Avant himself, among others). There are various mixers (Peter Mokran, Jean Marie Horvat, Dexter Simmons, to name a few). Pro Tools specialists include Tal Herzberg and Colin Miller. To set the mood, Ron Fair plays keyboards, The Pussycat Dolls orchestra plays strings, and Julio Miranda, Tim Stewart and Grecco Buratto were called in for guitar work. Geographically, the recording, mixing, and engineering took place in locales such as: Los Angeles, California; Atlanta, Georgia; Chicago, Illinois; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and New York. Sometimes, a song receives a patchwork of attention, like the mixing for “With You” taking place in California, while the Pro Tools work happened in Illinois.
The diversity on this album is as much a product of technology as eclectic workmanship. These days, artists lay vocals and mix their songs on their tour buses. As always, the challenge is to stem the learning curve that accompanies new tools. Here, what holds the project together is the vision behind it, integrating the patchwork into a seamless final product. For that, Avant’s effort stands alone, without comparison.