Odd as it might seem, for a singer who possesses one of the finest modern soul voices and has sold so many records, Brian McKnight has never been, critically or commercially, considered among the front rank of contemporary artists. Too romantically old school for the hardcore R&B fans, not quite artily self-conscious enough for neo-soulites, he seems to just miss out on the choicest accolades. Furthermore, at the moment when many were comparing his latter-day work unfavourably with his earlier efforts, he released a greatest hits package which, saleswise, was a comparative flop. All very puzzling.
U Turn sees him making more concessions to current musical styles while retaining his fondness for the sentimental balladry that is constant trademark. It too has been greeted rather half-heartedly by the reviewers, although fans have already given it the thumbs-up. I think the fans are right on this one. Mainstream and safe, certainly—but McKnight always has been—it is arguably as well-crafted a parcel of post-millennium soul as you could wish for. If Chico Debarge or Maxwell had produced a similarly consistent album, the response would have been far more positive, I’m sure.
OK, the lyrics aren’t exactly deep (a general crisis in black popular song since about 1980) and it pushes few boundaries. Yet, in the area of sophisticated R&B, U Turn can quite easily hold its own with the likes of current faves Chocolate Factory or Body Kiss. It’s not flawless, by any means. Some won’t like the inclusion of rappers (Nelly and Fabolous), but they acquit themselves reasonably well. The “State of the World” gospel track with James Kirkland is too maudlin to bear the weight of its message (war/peace, etc.), while for younger listeners (and some older cynics) the bouncy title track might sound like an outdated stylist trying to wrap himself in a new, more “urban” cloak. However, for some better than average midtempo steppers and lashings of downtempo love songs, U Turn comfortably outperforms the sort of thing Joe, Carl Thomas and Tyrese (who all guest,to no great effect, on one song) have recently been attempting.
Nelly’s is the first voice you hear and he does rather overwhelm McKnight on the bump’n'groover “All Night Long”, which is disposable but inoffensive. On the other hand, track two, “Backseat”, is a little jewel of a song. Effortlessly Marvinesque but nicely bass-heavy, this bridges the gap between old and new with some style and is one of the year’s best soul songs. “Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda” and “Try Our Love Again” are excellent ballads, the former a little too self-pitying but with a winning lilt that helps render some rather trite sentiments acceptable.
“Where Do We Go From Here” is in that school of Stevie Wonder, pleading mode, that Glenn Lewis and others have been dangerously over-harvesting lately. McKnight does a better job than most with the task. “Been So Long” is a neo-thing of the type Musiq regularly turns out, although McKnight can actually sing, which helps. On this and throughout the album, there are some lovely keyboard touches, which combine with the spare arrangements to create a sense of space and loose structure that counters some of the excess syrup such a slowie-laden set tends to produce. Only the whiny “For the Rest of My Life” is beyond such redemption and should be avoided.
The most interesting track is “If It Was Cool” which comes in two parts. The first is somewhat D’Angelo-Brown Sugar-ish and is admirable enough but for the last two minutes it switches to a piece of ‘50s vocalese that suddenly reminds you of all those interviews with McKnight where he used to reel off formative influences from the jazz world. At the end of this unexpected treat a voice in the background says, “That’s enough. Save it for the next album.” Unlikely, but tantalizing nonetheless.
And that is perhaps the problem with McKnight. He’s good but, if he took a few risks, you suspect that he is capable of much, much more. After 13 years of reasonably prolific output, such expectations are perhaps leading to a certain critical impatience.
Still, we can only judge the actual output. In the case of U Turn, while acknowledging that it is too obeisant to some of the more hidebound strictures of contemporary black pop, I’d judge it a success. I don’t mean simply at the level of instrumental texture and vocal artistry but, despite some reservations, as a worthy addition to the stock of albums that explore the emotions associated with seduction, love and loss. Urban Quiet Storm, if you want a reductive description, and I for one, can handle some of that.