Too often, it’s so easy to get so worked up about the idea of something, that by the time that something actually comes to pass, there’s no avoiding disappointment—applying increased expectations to something for which there is no proof of justification for those expectations tends to have that effect. In the case of Us3’s latest album Say What!?, I thought I had my first inkling of proof in a relic of another time: Us3’s one and only hit, the once-ubiquitous “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” from way back in ‘93.
It turns out that 14 years is a long time.
Still, the 2007 incarnation of Us3 has every opportunity to sound fresh and different. For one, all three vocalists that adorn the album are either brand new (Adeline, who brings a pitch-perfect soul voice) or only around since ‘06 (rappers Gaston and Akil, who made their Us3 debus on 2006’s Schizophonic). The only holdovers from that bygone era are Geoff Wilkinson, the programmer, producer, and generally accepted “brains” behind the outfit, and saxophonist Ed Jones, who certainly plays a prominent role throughout the album. With all the young blood, it should be a mere formality that Us3 would sound fresh and strong throughout this, the sixth album from the outfit.
The problem, then, is that much of Say What!? simply sounds like it’s trying too hard. For one, it tries too hard to have a social conscience; much of it sounds like a PSA. One track rails against sexism (“Man on Top”), one track is an inner city tragedy (“I Don’t Care”), one track is an outlet for societally-inspired pressures (“Truth or Lies”), and one track expounds on the importance of family (“If You Don’t Know”). These sorts of tracks establish the team of voices out front for Us3 as “good guys”, positive influences that we can get behind without guilt. Think a jazzier Will Smith album, with a permanent diva presence. Other tracks that concentrate on clever wordplay and mild but well-executed self-aggrandizement fall well into this scheme, as they don’t necessarily contribute to the social consciousness on display, but they at least continue the trend of good-natured jams.
The problems start showing up when Us3 deviates from the formula. “Afrodisiac”, to start, is a sex jam, and not a particularly subtle or graceful one at that. “I’m like a boy / And you’re my favorite toy to play with / A joy you make it / To call your number ‘cause you work wonders under the blanket,” raps Gaston, and it never really gets any better than that. I mean, fine, I’m not a woman, but if I were, those hardly sound like the sorts of sweet nothings that would make me fall madly in lust. Similarly, after being assaulted with good vibes for an entire album, a track like “Money on My Mind” makes no sense, especially as an album closer. Like “Afrodisiac”, it’s a Geoff ‘n’ Gaston production, and it essentially negates everything you’ve heard up to that point, rendering the subject matter of the album moot with such throwaway tripe as “I got my mind on my money, money on my mind / See, my mind thinks money, money all the time.” Great. Seriously, maybe Gaston just needs to go. Even on the album’s strongest track in a musical sense, called “The Day that I Died”, his one verse can be singled out as the song’s weak point, overshadowed by Adeline and Akil’s affecting contributions.
Even despite Gaston, though, what a song it is. At seven minutes, it could easily be thought unwieldy, but the song’s length is largely due to extended but controlled instrumental breaks that showcase the straight-up jazz side of Us3. In most of these tracks, the jazz is there as a sideshow, a production choice, a backdrop for the vocalists. In “The Day that I Died”, however, the pianos, the saxophone, and even the muted trumpet all get solos alongside the vocals, and they’re all perfectly executed, fitting the mood of the song while never getting out of hand with atonal improvisation.
Songs like “The Day that I Died” suggest a possible future direction for Us3, one where the jazz that is so seamlessly integrated into the music becomes more than a stylistic backdrop for what is still, ostensibly, a hip-hop/R&B album. For now, however, Us3 circa 2007 is pleasant but disposable; reaching beyond that formula is the only thing that could put them in the public consciousness more often than the occasional spot on a VH1 special devoted to one-hit wonders.
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