As someone who looks for his soul to have a bit of an offbeat flavor (what do you want? I’ve been listening to Prince for the last 30 years), I was quite excited after reading press about a new singer named Kevin Michael. Maybe I was blinded by the gargantuan ‘Fro he sports, but when I got his self-titled debut album (without hearing a solitary note), I was expecting something a little bit D’Angelo, and a tad bit Maxwell. Maybe a little Terence Trent D’Arby and Lenny Kravitz thrown in. Looking at the CD’s back cover and noticing cameos from alt-rap legends Lupe Fiasco and Q-Tip, I got even more excited in the hopes that Kevin Michael would be 2007’s boho-soul masterpiece. Besides, he’s a label mate to Gnarls Barkley and now Mos Def. Score one for black folks who go off the beaten path!
What you end up getting from Michael’s CD is significantly more mainstream-oriented than I expected. While there are a couple of moments that suggest that he’s not your everyday R&B singer, the end result is significantly more palatable than you’d expect from most neo/alt-soul. The easiest way to describe the album is Robin Thicke meets Ne-Yo. Much like Thicke, Michael uses a wet, supple falsetto and shares a sense of lyricism that veers ever-so-slightly to the left. His songs, however, are polished to a radio-ready sheen, much like Ne-Yo’s best work. He also employs the same breathless Jacksonian tenor that Ne-Yo, Usher and just about every contemporary R&B singer draws from. The comparison is goosed along by the fact that a good chunk of the album is produced by either Ne-Yo’s Compound Entertainment or one of the Swedish songwriting teams that have helped the “So Sick” guy score his biggest hits.
And now for the shocker: this album is still good! It’s certainly up there with Chrisette Michele’s debut as the best by an R&B newcomer this year (damn, their names are even similar. Take that, kismet!). With that said, one thing Michele’s album has that Michael’s doesn’t is a stylistic consistency. Kevin Michael jumps from danceable funk to big pop ballads to the shiny dance/pop/soul that everyone and their mother serves the radio waves with these days. It’s all well-produced and performed, but the drawback is that you don’t get a good sense of Michael’s personality.
This album definitely has a spiritual/positive lyrical element that’s fairly unique to contemporary R&B. “It Don’t Make Any Difference To Me” is the album’s most autobiographical track, touching lightly on Michael’s bi-racial background. Wyclef Jean is on board to provide a little levity and reggae flavor. “Too Blessed” is an upbeat jam with elements of jazz, as well as elements of the Tribe Called Quest classic “Award Tour”. Q-Tip (a guy whose cameos on R&B albums have been quite few and far between) blesses the track with a quick 16 bars.
Elsewhere, “Liquid Lava Love” is the type of falsetto-based slow jam that Prince owned back in the day. It oozes sex in a way that Michael would be wise to continue with over the course of his career. He fares almost as well with “Ain’t Got You”, an anthemia mid-tempo pop track that I can see becoming a mega-huge hit. Conversely, there are tracks that make the album’s overall quality slide from surprisingly good to just above average by virtue of being completely generic. While songs like “Can‘t Get Enuff” (whose playful Jackson 5 vibe is almost ruined by an unnecessary guest MC) and “Ha Ha Ha” (which steals the beat from Ying Yang Twinz’ played-out “Wait (The Whisper Song)” narrowly make the cut, “Hood Buzzin’” and “Weekend Jumpoff” go overboard on the ghetto imagery, which is a shame because something tells me that Michael’s too talented to rely on lame ’hood cliché.
So here’s the rub. I like Kevin Michael. A lot. It’s certainly one of the better efforts from what has turned out to be a pretty crappy year for R&B music. One thing that stops me from going absolutely crazy about this album is that there are very few hints of artistic individuality coming through. So I’m not sure whether this album’s goodness can be attributed to Michael himself, or whether it should be attributed to the small army of songwriters and producers which is utilized here. Then again, considering the state of black music in general, I guess beggars can’t be choosers.