Whatever happened to the R&B vocal group? For 10 years or so, you couldn’t take off your shoe without hitting a soulful harmony group. In addition to standard bearers like Boyz II Men and Jodeci, there was Silk, Shai, Dru Hill, H-Town, and Intro. At the tail end of ‘96, two groups from Atlanta, Jagged Edge and 112, hit the scene. With signage from two of the biggest hip-hop moguls around, Jermaine Dupri (Jagged Edge) and Puff Daddy (112), they signaled the new breed of R&B singer: those heavily influenced by hip-hop fashion and culture.
Fast forward to 2006, and Jagged Edge is pretty much the last group standing. While others have been more successful, Jagged Edge has weathered the storm thanks to a series of albums that appeal to their young, urban fan base. Their new, self-titled album (their fifth), finds them sticking to the same basic formula. To be professional about it, this is a frustrating listen. While the guys obviously have a fantastic amount of singing ability, Jagged Edge crumples under the weight of unnecessary guest appearances from untalented rappers, as well as dumbed-down, trite, and occasionally offensive lyrics that do a tremendous disservice to the quartet’s vocal talents.
To be unprofessional about it, this album sucks.
I’m not a prude. I have no problem with sexual lyrics or imagery, no matter how explicit. Hell, I’m a Prince fan! I just have a problem when lecherous lyrics like “It’s 3:00 in the morning / And I’m so, so horny!” and “I just wanna tap that ass!” (both from the mid-tempo “Baby Feel Me”) are delivered without an ounce of irony or wit. What might work for a club-oriented record by Lil’ Jon doesn’t work when you’re in the bedroom with your lady trying to get some action. What’s even more frustrating is that, based on previous hits like “Gotta Be” and “Let’s Get Married”, twins Brian and Brandon Casey, Kyle Norman, and Richard Wingo are capable of so much more. Add in silly songs like “Ghetto Guitar” (where they pull out every hood cliché in the book) and you have a recipe for disaster.
That’s to say nothing of the album’s closer, “Ass Hypnotic”. In a case like this, the less said the better, but the faux-military beat and the locker-room chanting reminds me of a completely humorless version of Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Do Me!” If seductive soul legends like Ron Isley and Al Green heard this record, they’d be rolling over in their graves. And neither of them is dead yet.
The piano-based “Good Luck Charm” could have been a winner, but it plays a little too close to the formula of the group’s previous hit singles. You could superimpose the melody of this song over Jagged Edge’s first hit, “Gotta Be”, and there would be almost no difference. Even the guest artists sprinkled throughout the album fail to add flavor. The previously unassailable John Legend (who has lately sounded like he’s auditioning for a PBS classical music special) is barely noticeable window dressing on the ballad “Season’s Change”, although this song does wind up being the best on the album by default (it might have been better had Legend actually contributed to the composition of the song). The guest rapper quotient is fairly low, but they also turn out to be no-names like Spanish rapper Voltio (whose guest spot on “So Amazing” brings the rap cameo to new levels of atrocity) and Big Duke of Boyz N Da Hood.
The tradition of the R&B vocal group is a grand one. It starts off with the legendary doo-wop groups, and then transitions into Motown groups like the Temptations and the Four Tops. These were followed by the Jackson 5 and, a decade later, New Edition, which begat Boyz II Men, and then the aforementioned mid-‘90s spate of groups. Who’s going to carry that tradition through to the next generation? While the Jagged Edge guys unquestionably have the pipes necessary for the task, their material is sorely lacking. Even the reappearance of their mentor Dupri on two tracks isn’t enough to make this disc even the slightest bit more listenable. Unless the same tired, ghetto buzzwords like “gangsta,” “pimpin’,’’ and the like turn your crank, Jagged Edge is best left on the record store shelf.
// Notes from the Road
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