Between 1987 and 1994, three influences dominated R&B: Teddy Riley, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, and the team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. These producers—music’s equivalent of a film director—kept R&B thriving while rap was earning its sea legs with distinct, but co-habitable musical styles.
Teddy Riley’s niche was melding traditional soul melodies and harmonies with hip-hop’s harder “bring those kick-drums right up front” style, while constantly paying tribute to his idols—‘70s funksters Roger Troutman, George Clinton and The Gap Band.
Guy, a vocal group comprised of Riley and brothers Aaron and Damion Hall, were the epitome of that sound, so dubbed “New Jack Swing.” But after their second hit album, 1990’s The Future (MCA), they split. Ten years later, they return with III. Here’s the thing: Riley made arguably his best stuff during that gap, with his most recent group BLACKstreet, and artists like Michael Jackson and SWV.
So why reassemble Guy?
Like George Lucas, Riley birthed his own genre, with Guy as its Jedi Knights, and now, a decade later, builds another “episode.” But there’s an empty feeling one gets as you realize that the work is not as good as the original, and, seeing once-adored characters resurrected, you realize that you didn’t miss then all that much.
The first tell is III‘s lead single, “Dancin’.” Trite and selfish, its storyline marks Riley’s regression from BLACKstreet (whose hits including “No Diggity,” “Joy” and “Before I Let You Go”). On that group’s three Interscope albums, Riley’s songwriting skills matured, taking him to a place he called “Heavy R&B” that was eons from the now dated “New Jack” sound.
The question is how to fairly judge III: against Guy’s crucial, but distant, legacy, or BLACKstreet’s late model excellence?
III pales by comparison to all of the CDs from BLACKstreet, a group manned by a revolving door of superior lead singers (e.g., Dave Hollister, Eric Williams and Mark Middleton)—each could teach the Hall brothers that not every verse should be punctuating with a pelvic thrust.
Plus, hey, this ain’t 1990, a time when flawed performances in R&B were status quo: then, as follow PopMatters critic Mark Anthony Neal notes, New Edition’s horde of wannabe crooners were the quality benchmark. That’s key here. Today’s singing stakes are much higher, as R&B’s talent pool brims with accomplished warblers from Maxwell and Monica to Christina Aguilera (who masquerades as pop singer).
By contrast, Guy is staffed by Riley, an anti-singer in the tradition of the B-52’s Fred Schneider, voice student Damion Hall, and Aaron Hall, who struggles to shake comparisons to The Gap band’s Charlie Wilson. His signature song on III is “Why You Wanna Keep Me From My Baby”—nothing short of a child custody deposition set to music. And worlds collide when BLACKstreet’s Eric Williams sings lead on “We’re Comin,” which (oops!) just happens to be one of the album’s best cuts.
Beyond the appeal of a comeback, there’s nothing here that can come close to the phenomenon of Guy (MCA, 1988) and the The Future, (Guy’s two other albums, each cemented at ground zero of an important breakthrough in soul music, where R&B met hip-hop.
When you think about it, comebacks and reunions of era-handcuffed pop entities are always overrated anyway. Sure, Moonlighting was a late 1980s pop phenomenon, but was it really that good a TV show? Would you want to see Cybil Shepard and Bruce Willis’ Dave and Maddie reopen the Blue Moon Detective Agency one last time? Probably not.
Another curiosity is Riley’s insistance on ignoring the value of live instruments, a lesson learned years ago by his peers Jam and Lewis and Babyface. It’s worth noting that they each have moved onto grander enterprises—Jam and Lewis have their cash cow, Janet Jackson, helmed two record labels, and dabbled in film soundtracks. And Face upgraded his collaborations to pop giants like Madonna ad Eric Clapton and wrote for just about everybody.
Oh yeah, he co-founded hugely successful LaFace Records (you know, Toni Braxton, TLC, et al).
Riley has had his successes, but as the youngest, and some would say most diversely talented, of that big three, he has remained almost strictly a producer (His Lil’ Man record label never really matured, and shut down last summer). Thankfully, it’s his talent as a producer that will keep Riley vital to soul music; that is, once he puts this ill-advised Guy reunification behind him.