The new soul movement goes from strength to strength and nowhere more so than in Philadelphia. This city currently boasts the considerable talents of The Roots, Jill Scott, Jazzyfatnastees, Victor Duplaix and (soon) Bilal Oliver. From that city and top of the pile, for at least this this month, is the already hotly-tipped Musiq Soulchild with a debut album that is firmly in the post-D’Angelo mould but distinctive enough to merit the praise that is being heaped upon him by most commentators.
All the ingredients we have come to expect from the male wing of the “organic” end of R&B are present—strong ‘70s flavours, a Stevie Wonder-based vocal style, loosely structured songs, a deliberate distancing from the cliches of pop-R&B and a dab of jazz. What sets this album apart is its consistency and the ease with which a very contemporary sensibilty combines with a strong appreciation of the tradition of African-American song. This is no retro feast but a good example of Baraka’s concept of the “changing same”. If there is a better soul album than this in the next 12 months it will be a good year for black music.
After the obligatory short intro (yawn) the opening track is the excellent “Girl Next Door” — good song, delightful acoustic bass, neat sample and fine female vocals from Ayana and Ayinke. Their contribution to the album’s success is considerable and will, I hope, not be overlooked. Among the plethora of song credits is J.Scott (Jill, I presume) and the link makes perfect sense. In fact, a good way of considering Musiq (Talib Johnson in real life) is as someone exploring the masculine take on terrain that Ms. Scott has mapped out so well. Less poetic with a capital P, less political with or without the capital, these songs of growing-up, relationships, love and sex have a sincerity and a conviction that are light years away from the bragging and boasting that have come to dominate the male R&B repertoire.
On the rest of album can be found some fine ballads (“Settle For My Love” and “You Be Alright”), a witty cautionary tale (“Seventeen”) and some fine mid-tempo pieces (“My Girl Is Outstanding”). The complaints one may have all concern Musiq’s singing voice. At times he does strain to sound like Stevie a little too much, and his voice seems to waver at such moments. The music will please anyone who likes post 1970 urban music and each track has that little touch — a stab of organ here, a clever drum kick there — that lifts it from the ordinary.
There is nothing revolutionary here. Nothing that will change the way you think about soulful R&B. What Aijuswannasing does is simply confirm all the things you already like about black music and place them firmly in the here and now. This album has groove etched deeply into it but varies the tone just enough to keep it fresh after numerous listenings. For a first album that is a considerable achievment, especially in a field that was already beginning to give a sense of running out of ideas. It is good to be able to report that the city that gave us the Heath Brothers, John Coltrane, Gamble and Huff et al. is moving into the new millenium in fine musical shape.