Bobby Womack. Bill Withers. Luther Ingram. Joe Simon. All stellar Soul Men indeed, but in a Soul World defined by the likes of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Donny Hathaway, and Curtis Mayfield, they were forever consigned to the second tier. Though contemporary R&B holds no claims on anybody of the scope of any of the aforementioned Soul Men (save Mr. Kelly and possibly Mr. Maxwell), Gerald LeVert suffers the fate of remaining in that second tier. With none of the style or glam of figures like Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds and Maxwell, or the thuggish-ruggishness (and criminality) of Jaheim, R. Kelly, and Dave Hollister, LeVert has simply put in the work—seven solo albums in all and four in the last four years—rarely taking creative or stylistic risks, and easily becoming, if not the greatest, at least the most consistent male R&B artist of his generation. Stroke of Genius is Gerald LeVert’s latest.
Virtually all of the songs on Stroke of Genius were written and produced by LeVert and his long-time collaborator Edwin Nichols. Though LeVert gets deserved props for his often over-the-top (and greasy) ballads, his strength has always been the up-tempo numbers like last year’s “Funny” or Love and Consequences’ “Thinkin’ ‘Bout It” (1998). In this regard, the lead single, “U Got That Love (Call It a Night)”, is classic Gerald LeVert, full of the kind of “crushed” vocal runs (think Beyoncé) that make him, at times, a very special vocalist. Such is the case on one of the song’s choruses, where LeVert “crushes” the lyrics “Dim the blue light in the basement love / Ooh girl, I wanna slap your mama kind of love / That funky dope kinda love . . .”
One of the reasons that LeVert has been so consistent is that he borrows a bit from the styles of the moment, without ever letting those styles overwhelm his basic sound. So on a track like “Keep It Warm” he gives a nod to mid-west hip-hop, and on “Didn’t We” he gives shout to R. Kelly (“Like Rob said, ‘Step in the Name of Love’”) with a Cleveland-styled “stepper step” groove. Though the dance step is generally associated with Chicago and Detroit, LeVert’s spin on the “stepper step” is a simple reminder that black social dance—think the “Bus Stop” and the “Electric Slide”—is still alive and well. If anything, LeVert’s “Didn’t We” helps alleviate the guilt of those folks who really can’t get down with some of Mr. Kelly’s gender politics, but have fallen prey to the Piper’s song (and damn if that ain’t the case for a bunch of us).
Some of LeVert’s best material over the last few years has dealt with the funkier side of relationships, and such is the case on tracks like “To My Grave” and “Eyes and Ears”. “To My Grave” finds LeVert singing about the serial creeper, who ain’t really figured out what he’s “doin’ in this house with no clothes on at 6am in the morning” but realizing “I’m in trouble”. Referencing the code of the playa and would-be-playas, he’s “taking this one to my grave”, giving a shout to his fellow travelers (“if you a true playa, you can say me prayer”). What makes the song so compelling is his admission that “the creep” ain’t really got much to do with the woman he loves. In the song’s breakdown, LeVert sings, “I swear to God, I love my woman / Since she made that hot water cornbread, collard greens, that make you wanna s-c-r-e-a-m . . .”, (this is Gerald LeVert we talking about—president of the “Pretty-Ass Big Man” club) finally issuing a threat to anybody in his business (“and I’ll cut ‘cha if you tell her now”).
Looking at “the creep” from another perspective, LeVert is joined by his father Eddie and his brother Sean on the track “Eyes and Ears”. The song is a troubling glimpse (seriously) at the responses of a group of men when one of them suspects that his woman is creeping. The song is straight out of the Mr. Biggs school of relationship management (see “Contagious” and “Busted”). The song begins with homie rolling up to the house, wondering, “What do my father and brother want? You know I’m a grown ass man and they just want to get all up in my business.” Daddy and Baby Bruh are there for an intervention, and while Daddy tries to be responsible (“I told you, boy, don’t go moving in no chick”), Baby Bruh trying to get gothic (“G, just say the word just let me whip that ass”). When they find out that G been letting sis drive his car (“Oh you let her drive your car? / You really let her drive your car? / The bitch?”) the conversation quickly deteriorates, with Baby Bruh asking if he could “freak her out”, G hitting back “She’s still my woman and I’ll knock your black ass out”, and Daddy trying to mediate (“Hold it boys, you’re brothers, this ain’t what it’s all about”). For those who’ve decried that R&B has been too fixated with “love songs”, the sudden turn towards threats of violence against creeping women should seem more than troubling. At the end of the song we’re left with the trio bantering back and forth, with Sean singing lines like “we don’t love them hoes” and “Let me freak her out, let me freak her out / G, don’t knock me out / We gonna freak her out” (what’s that? a threat of a gang rape?), and Daddy chiming in, “Ever since you were boys, I told you to pay your taxes and leave them bitches alone”.
LeVert is joined by the enigmatic Tamia on a credible remake of the Carpenters’ classic, “Close to You”. There are echoes of Marvin Gaye and Barry White on the title track, “Stroke of Genius”, including a reference to White’s “I’m Gonna Love You” on the song’s breakdown. “Won’t Get Up” features a chopped riff from Gaye’s “Gotta Give It Up”. Both songs suggest that LeVert sees Stroke of Genius, in part, as a tribute to the “Love Men” who’ve influenced him. The closing song, “Last Stroke”, in fact, serves as a eulogy of sorts for White, who died earlier this year. In the song, LeVert admits, “You taught me the stroke”. With Stroke of Genius, Gerald LeVert once again shows that he’s learned his lessons well.