[9 September 2009]
Trey Songz is the most frustrating R&B star to emerge this decade.
He possesses a piercing tenor and an instantly recognizable vocal presence, something his contemporaries (from Mario to Chris Brown to Ne-Yo) probably wish they had. And when he has material to match his voice, he is peerless. “Gotta Go”, from his debut album, was the most effortlessly soulful pop song to emerge from the recent crop of millennial R&B new jacks. “We Should Be”, from his sophomore album, Trey Day, was every bit its equal.
And yet, for as talented and gifted as he is, Songz’ albums are always a mixed bag. In fact, he seems strikingly unconcerned with how silly some of his work actually is. Since his artistic reference point is R. Kelly, this isn’t entirely surprising, but three albums into his career it is disappointing. Like many artists of his generation, he easily captures the superficial elements of his artistic forebears (in this case, R. Kelly’s penchant for needlessly crass and silly lyricism when singing about sex), but misses entirely what made that artist an icon (Songz has none of R. Kelly’s ability to explore physical pleasure’s relationship to religious ecstasy).
In other words, he embodies R. Kelly’s excesses, but none of his nuances.
“Ready” is a smartly produced album that continues Songz’ habit of wildly inconsistent albums. There is some genuinely brilliant work here, but there is also some of the silliest stuff I have ever heard (The less said about “LOL :)”, the better), which makes for a frustrating listening experience.
The best songs are the songs that are complete departures from the R. Kelly template (“Black Roses”, “Yo Side of the Bed”, and “Be Where You Are”). All three are about as brilliant as black pop gets and showcase just how versatile and expressive a vocalist Trey can be. “Black Roses” is the album standout and was co-written and produced by young wunderkind Bei Maejor, who helmed “Long Gone Missing” from Trey Day and wrote one of the better songs on Ginuwine’s latest. It’s a lament (“Black roses, for this dying love. Now we’re breaking up”) set to quasi-electronica production, buoyed by a soulful vocal arrangement. The effect is positively thrilling. “Be Where You Are” is reminiscent of Jordan Knight’s “Give It To You”, and it is every bit as fun as that song was. This is the purest pop song Songz has done and it really works. “Yo Side of the Bed” is pop rock, and he does it better than Beyoncé did on I Am…Sasha Fierce and Brandy did on Human.
There are a few other really good songs. Lead single “I Need a Girl” and “Neighbors Hear My Name” thump as they should and ballads “Holla If You Need Me” and “Love Lost” are emotional and affecting due to Trey’s stunning lead vocal. But the album completely falls apart in the middle. At 17 tracks, a sagging middle feels positively interminable. There are also two inexplicable, incoherent appearances by Jimmy from Degrassi (otherwise known as Drake, the latest mediocre rapper to win legions of fans for no discernible reason).
What’s maddening and frustrating is that Trey has put out enough great material this year to make a truly brilliant album. In June, he released a mixtape, Anticipation, that is overall a better album than Ready, even though it’s more standard R&B fare. In fact five songs from that release—“Does She Know”, “Infidelity”, “You Belong to Me”, “More Than That”, and “It Would Be”—could have been included with the seven good songs on Ready to make a leaner, more consistently excellent official studio release. One that could have been the black pop record of the year.
Clearly then, what Songz needs is a surer guiding hand. Someone at Atlantic or in Songz’ camp should have helped him do a better job of choosing songs for his official release. There had to be someone who was thinking that an album with “Black Roses” on it, shouldn’t have “LOL : )” on it as well.
Next time, they should speak up.