“Ghetto” is the operative word when discussing the musical output of Jaheim Hoagand. Hell, each of his three albums utilize the word: Ghetto Love, Still Ghetto and now Ghetto Classics. Jaheim fancies himself the ‘hood version of Teddy Pendergrass or Luther Vandross—a crooner, blessed with an impeccable voice clearly influenced by the two aforementioned icons, but with a swagger and “realness” that appeals to the thugs and especially, the thugs’ lady friends. While Luther and Teddy seduced in a romantic, classy way, Ja hits us with song titles like “Beauty & the Thug”, “Me & My Bitch”, and my personal favorite, “Li’l Nigga Ain’t Mine”.
And there’s the problem with Jaheim summed up in one paragraph—his lyrical scope is so narrow that it’s sort of a turn off. He has the voice of an angel—he’s easily one of the five most talented R&B vocalists working today. The ‘hood references, the profanity—it would be cool if it were in moderation, but Jaheim feels so compelled to be “ghetto” and “real” that it winds up rendering a lot of his songs quite samey.
With five years in the game, a BET Award and a couple of platinum albums, one would think that now would be a good time for Ja to broaden his scope a little bit. Not a chance. Ghetto Classics sings about the same old shit for a third straight album. Let’s go left for a second and compare him to someone like Mary J. Blige. Blige began her career as sort of a ‘hood queen, but she grew with her music, and her songs were so influenced by her own maturation that she wound up transcending that label.
Yet, Ghetto Classics has some saving graces. The production is top notch for about two-thirds of the set. Most of it is provided by Ja’s mentor, Naughty By Nature’s Kay Gee. Kay blesses Ja with a series of warm samples recalling the era of Philly soul that spawned artists like Teddy Pendergrass. These samples fit Ja’s honey-roasted voice like a hand in glove. This tapers off towards the end of the album as it descends into an interchangeable set of ballads co-written and produced with one-time Blackstreet member Eric Williams.
Some of these songs work despite themselves. “Daddy Thing” finds Ja playing the role of concerned daddy figure to his girlfriend’s son-of course, the child’s father is locked up. Ja is heartbroken when mother and father reunite upon the dad’s release, and despite the subject matter, it’s a well-performed, emotional ballad. He stumbles a couple of tracks later, with “Fiend”, which lamely tries to resuscitate the overused love-as-drug metaphor, with an assist from Styles P. Strangely, for a guy who fancies himself a thug, Styles is one of only two guest rappers here—the other being Styles’ overrated bandmate Jadakiss, who appears on the first single, ‘Every Time I Think About Her”.
“Like a DJ” again overdoes the metaphor thing, this time cramming every disc jockey reference in the book into the song, which describes a girl who “only plays me when I’m requested”. It’s the most atypical track on here, as Scott Storch supplies Ja with a bangin’ club beat. But for every track that gives you a little bit of hope, there’s a track like “125th”, which finds Ja checking out a girl on 125th street in Harlem, “puffin on’ a spliff”, with “an ass like whoa” , and, well… you get the picture. More hood-related cliché follows.
Ultimately, Classics certainly doesn’t live up to it’s name. While Ja is unquestionably a gifted vocalist, he won’t be in the league of the Luthers and the Teddys (or even the Anthony Hamiltons and Maxwells) until his lyrics overcome cliché in the name of “ghetto realness”. For a guy who often complains about not getting his due as a vocalist, Jaheim sure seems to be trying to marginalize himself, to the detriment of his music and his talent.