It’s really not much of a secret any more: R&B has spent the bulk of the last several years falling off a cliff. A lot of arguments have been offered as to where and why the genre has taken this near-fatal swan dive into systematic mediocrity, but many sources consent that R&B’s gradual merger with hip-hop has been an undeniable contributor to the disaster. The new century has seen a slew of top-shelf hip-hop producers strike Top 40 gold with both rappers and crooners alike; and as long as their paycheck has a sufficient number of zeroes, they all seem to be equally and frighteningly indiscriminate about the vocalists to whom they contract out their services.
While the boom in collaborations between the two genres has certainly resulted in a handful of genuinely enjoyable hits in recent memory (Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” immediately springs to mind), the reverse compatibility between backing R&B and rap tracks has—in the end—arguably produced more bad than good by having the unintended consequence of severely narrowing the sonic palette of R&B. Unique traits that the genre has touted for years (danceable mid-tempo jams with a strong, often interesting sense of melody) now sound exhausted and formulaic. Alternatively, even the most average of rappers benefit from this fusion greatly, as the assimilation of R&B’s inherent base for melodic progression has gone a long way toward diversifying the soundscapes of hip-hop. The days of being able to actively distinguish between hard-hitting rap anthems and the smoldering balladry of rhythm and blues on the basis of production are nearing an end.
Lloyd Harlin Polite, Jr. is one of the latest in a long line of young, fashionable, and artistically faceless R&B vocalists peddling this precise trend. Not one to break the mould, Lloyd has spent his entire career (which is now surprisingly three albums deep) reheating worn-out street love truisms and simplified innuendo; naturally, this would also mean that he has made almost no discernible strides in the direction of trying to differentiate himself from his peers.
The missteps on Lessons in Love are numerous, and with the witless kitsch of “Sex Education” leading off, it’s not very difficult to ascertain how the rest of the album will play out. Dull lines like “Give me your permission to take a trip with me / To satisfy you is my mission and a bed is all we need” are rife throughout the record, but some may shudder to hear that this instance is probably the least severe of the lyrical offenses. Not far around to corner is the synth-heavy slow jam “Year of the Lover”, which houses this nefariously laughable come-on: “Don’t make plans for dinner / I’mma put you up on the stove and take off all your clothes / Girl, watch me cook”. This admittedly wouldn’t sound as scrawny or awkward if he had half of the charismatic verve or performance flair of R. Kelly (whom he is very clearly trying to emulate) in order to properly sell the conceit.
Lloyd’s own syrupy tenor, as pleasant and innocuous as it is, presents an array of problems with each passing track as well. He has a tendency to sound tinny and childlike against the backdrop of warbling guitars and droning bass. Lloyd is able to wrench attention back from the insistent production whenever he delves into his falsetto, but his vocal frailties are even more accentuated when he’s forced to compete like this against the rest of the track. “Girls Around the World” is a crisp ‘80s groove that tries to mask Lloyd’s thin vocal presence behind a veil of multitracked harmonies, but it ends up having the reverse effect of marginalizing his presence in a muddle of over-production. Even the glimmer of opportunity for Lil Wayne to salvage this legitimately engaging track is squandered—he decides instead to rest on the laurels of his most recent commercial triumphs and sleepwalks through 16 of the most forgettable and uninspiring bars of his career.
Occasionally, even Lessons in Love‘s strongest suit, production, yields less than favorable outcomes. Most records—especially those of the hip-hop and R&B variety—would normally benefit from the fluidity and uniformity that accompanies the use of two or three likeminded producers. Instead, a bland homogeneity in the overall sound of the record emerges here, and entire tracks start running together (most notably during the four-track stretch from “Year of the Lover” through “Have My Baby”). Lloyd’s generally two-dimensional songwriting, as prevalent as it is, does little else but punctuate this distinct lack of variety.
Truth be told, however, Lessons in Love is not entirely an unlistenable affair. Where Lloyd tends to falter with absurd sexual propositions and drippy, clichéd love ballads, he tends to fare better with club-oriented material. Pulsing, mushrooming synth pangs swell over the mechanical beat-keeping of space-age snares and bass in producer James “J. Lack” Lackey’s best impersonation of The Neptunes. The focus is shifted away from Polite’s fragile vocals and placed squarely on the track’s persistent, transmissible dance groove.
From a soundboard standpoint, the agile lead guitar and its accompanying rhythm guitar flourish on “Love Making 101”, easily making it the album’s greatest production accomplishment. This is a surprisingly meticulous and layered song, and Lloyd himself even sounds in command of the entire track itself, his creamy vocals barely rising above a whisper before the chorus. “Treat U Good” picks up the dance pace slightly and also showcases how powerful an ally vocal restraint is to Lloyd; the entire song is almost bereft of him indulging in the upper registers, and he sounds noticeably more robust and melodic as a result. The strengths of his immediate vocal range go a long way toward imbuing his syncopated enunciation on both tracks with a more pronounced punch as well.
This handful of keepers is unfortunately not enough to redeem what is otherwise an entire record’s worth of vapidity. Run-of-the-mill airwave fodder is exactly what the public has been conditioned to expect and consume from R&B for the last several years, and Lloyd has done nothing but contribute to its slowly deteriorating state. But the greatest tragedy behind Lessons in Love is that the album’s sporadic moments of charm and promise make it incredibly tricky to dismiss Lloyd’s efforts altogether. Somewhere buried underneath Lloyd’s artistically fruitless four years in the mundane genre trappings of urban radio lies what could potentially be, if not a unique voice, a winsome and entertaining personality. Of course, presenting the mere possibility of being enjoyable doesn’t earn artists extra credit in the world of criticism, and that will (hopefully) be the single greatest lesson that Lloyd takes away from his third album’s imminently short shelf life.
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