Buoyed by the production of Kay Gee (he of Naughty By Nature fame), the trio Next fit nicely into a post-Jodeci black pop world, alongside the likes of Jagged Edge, Ideal, and Ruff Endz. Never ground-breaking recordings, Rated Next (1997) and Welcome to Nextacy (2000) and the singles “Too Close”, “Wifey” and “Beauty Queen”, were solid club grooves that got plenty of airplay and garnered the trio—courtesy of the sexual implications of “feeling a little poke” on the dance floor or on the subway—a reputation for being the “nasty” men of contemporary R&B. But part of Next’s appeal was RL, the group’s co-lead singer. RL first distinguished himself outside of the context of the group with his duet with Deborah Cox on the heart-wrenching “We Can’t Be Friends”. RL followed up that effort with a star-turn on “Best Man” the super-group track from the The Best Man (1999) soundtrack which also featured Ginuwine, Tyrese & Case. By the time RL’s Rev. Greenish-styled “Good Love” (The Brothers soundtrack) and his hook to ‘Pac’s “Until the End of Time” were released, it was clear that he had created and artistic persona distinct and separate from Next. RL:Ements is RL’s debut solo project for Clive Davis’ still burgeoning J Records label.
The lead single “Got Me a Model” is right out of the Next catalogue, a poppy groove-happy ditty that is produced by JD (Jermaine Dupri) and along with the Underdogs (Harvey Mason, Jr. and Damon Thomas). Label-mate Erick Sermon, in classic E-double form, makes a cameo (apparently back from the dead) on the track. As much of RL:Ements is purportedly deeply personal—RL provided lyrics on virtually every track—“Got Me a Model” comes out of RL’s apparent sex-symbol status and his ability to attract models. He admits as much is the perfunctory interview in the brand-new King Magazine (celebrating black hyper-masculinity), “I Used to be a groupie. I used to date women in the industry so when I was at the barbershop and her video or TV show came on, I could say, ‘yeah I hit that.’ But now I’m 24 and trying to be more mature.” Whatever. And therein lies the critical problem with RL:Ements: the recording vacillates between a vehicle for RL rather solid, though less than spectacular vocals and the buttressing of RL’s reputation as the sexiest man in contemporary R&B. When all is said and done, RL is simply sexier than Joe and in the current environment that is what sell records.
RL attempts to drop a nod to the “keepin’ it real” denizens on “Ghetto” (“For my people down south with gold in their mouth, for my people out east with a key (kilo) in the couch / For my people our west that be bangin’ it out . . . we ghetto”). More an effort by the Minneapolis born RL to distance himself from the very pretty-boy image he celebrates in “Got Me a Model”, it is Shaheed “The Poster Boy” who heist the song from RL with his opening cameo. RL is still in “ghetto” mode on the fun (can’t think of another word to really capture the spirit of the song) “Do U Wanna Roll” which features Snoop and Kim. The song works on some level simply because RL ain’t taking himself so damn serious. While “Do You Wanna Roll” will actually get programmed in the changer, RL’s stab at the “two-step” on “Damn” is simply dreary. Produced by Soulshock, the song is a reminder that not only were Craig David’s talents saccharine, but so is Americanized “Two-Step”.
RL comes off as much more accomplished when he is in his natural element singing ballads. The syrupy “Good Man”, produced by The Underdogs offers little challenge to RL and sounds like it should be on the soundtrack of a Julia Stiles movie. “I’ll Give You Anything” produced by Tim and Bob is reminiscent of Ginuwine’s “Differences” (Life, 2001) and will likely be a future single. RL is much more affecting on the quivering “Tempted/Temptation Island” and “Luv Led Me 2 U” which hints at the classic Kansas recording “Dust in the Wind”. Both songs along with the sugar sweet, “As Long as U Know” are the clear highlights of RL:Ements as they allow RL to navigate kind of sketch-like musical landscapes in which his natural talents for nuanced riffing comes to the surface. The barely two-minute “As Long as U Know” borders on brilliance. “Veteran” producer Chucky Thompson is behind the boards for the “power ballad as social critique” that is the striking “What I’m Lookin’ 4”.
The recording closes with the requisite nod to “Christ” on the hidden track “Thank-You”. Like many of the quality ballads on the project, the closing gospel track is a reminder that RL does have some talent and could compete with any of the folks (Usher, Joe, Avant) masquerading as quality R&B vocalists. In this regard RL:Ements is par for the course-a solid “Urban” recording by contemporary standards, but one that without the star-making power of Clive Davis, would likely get lost in the (re)shuffle.