[6 March 2011]
Few in R&B handle the details of duplicity quite like Donell Jones. The Chicago, Illinois singer excels at it, reveling in it in a way that makes R. Kelly’s tales of soap opera intrigue seem more pedestrian and oversimplified than usual (and I kind of dig R. Kelly!). He embodies the roughneck sultriness of Jodeci and Jagged Edge but balances it with the more delicate touch of Musiq Soulchild. Vocally, a comparison to Chico DeBarge wouldn’t be far-fetched. But seriously. Who in today’s R&B and soul market is delving into the psychology of betrayal and deception like Donell Jones?
Here’s the problem: I’m not convinced Donell Jones knows how truly great he is at this aspect of his songwriting. Does he think he’s great, in general? You bet he does, and he lets us know it by devoting a few of the adlibs on his 2010 LP, Lyrics, to this very subject. He’s quick to tell us how underrated he is while, on album opener “The World is Yours”, he claims, “I know I’m the best, and the fans appreciate it.”
The next track, “Your Place”, is a slinky come-hither, punctuated by Donell Jones’ thrill of the chase and love of the sensual hunt. The song begins with commentary—almost a plea, really—from Jones’ mother, reminding him of his roots and how much people are counting on him and supporting him. She acknowledges the difficulties of the industry, as only a mother can (“Baby, I know it’s been hard for you in this business/ But you can’t give up”), and then she requests that he sing the “Chicago-style R&B that I brought you up on.”
So, not only are we mindful of Donell Jones’ return since his 2006 release, Journey of a Gemini (“R&B ain’t been the same since I left it”), we are on constant alert to his underrated status, and we have to listen to words of encouragement from his mom. Now, I’m not one to talk about somebody’s mama—I’m just saying that self-congratulatory fare isn’t Jones’ strength, nor does it distinguish him from his peers. This isn’t the time to be acting like an underdog. Just put forth some strong material.
Let’s talk about where Donell Jones does his best work on Lyrics. The first instance is “Love Like This”, a snake charming track infused with light doses of sentimentality. Built around the common theme of supportive love and experiencing a relationship unlike the meager ones of the past, “Love Like This” might be troubled by trite language, but it is saved by Jones’ sincerity. It’s refreshing to hear him stripping away his pimp walking and peacock strutting, letting his guard down enough to nod to another person’s pain and then pinpoint where he can fill the void. When he seeks to inject his personality and bits of his personal narrative, he excels.
Similarly, there’s “Imagine That”, a grinding tale constructed around a second-person hypothetical. Here, Jones puts the listener (“you”) in the position of a man realizing his girlfriend is cheating. “Your” girl is pregnant while “you” are traveling. “You” sense something is wrong. But what’s so delicious about this is how this scorned man is getting his comeuppance. His own sordid past has returned with a vengeance (“Imagine if she crushed dudes like you crush chicks”), and karma isn’t concerned with niceties. The music behind the lyrics is on a continual swell, rising to a crescendo, but never settling. The song balances on the edge of its drama, teetering forward along a path of finger snaps.
“Backdoor” and “Blackmail” deal with the seedier side of life. In “Backdoor”, Jones plays sex games with someone else’s woman. The song is edgy, but not overly so, thanks to his employment of euphemism. Jones is pleased with himself here, almost gleeful, but his character knows enough to implore his lover, “When I finish, you can sneak me out the backdoor.” Her man works too much, hangs out with his friends too much, never gives the lady in his life the attention she deserves. It’s not overly done, but there’s a feeling here that Jones’ character doesn’t feel bad at all about what he’s doing. It’s almost—dare I say—altruistic. Why should such a caring person be the victim of neglect, even the benign variety? The difference between this scenario and the usual cheat-and-run scheme works in Jones’ favor.
“Blackmail”, on the other hand, is about betrayal and the specter of an ongoing lie. Over punchy, lagging drums, Jones plays the spitefully wounded lover with gusto, ready to soothe his broken heart through coercion, if necessary. Once again, he is the “other” man, but here his main squeeze commits to her main relationship, with plans for marriage, leaving Jones’ character on the outs. “Your life, I’m about to ruin,” he declares, “and I don’t feel bad.” His despair rivals that of singer Carl Thomas in “I Wish”, as both characters are emotionally burned by lovers who choose other men. Unlike Thomas’ character—who complains but remains inert—Jones’ character is all set to do “something crazy” about his hurt, diabolical though it may be (“How would you like it if I would show up on your wedding day?”). He’ll deliver evidence of their relationship to her beau unless she agrees to a pay off. Her man’s rich, so he figures an exchange of cash is the least she could do for leading him on. The background vocals, layered as they are, seem to egg him on, like mischievous angels on his shoulder supporting each moment of spite.
Unfortunately, Lyrics doesn’t always stay on target. The generic title clues us into the LP’s lyrical clichés instead of focusing us on the lyrical quality, as was probably intended. “Strip Club”, in which the strip club is used as a metaphor for the bedroom, doesn’t have the ingenuity of the tunes already discussed. Young Joc’s rap cameo doesn’t add much either. Likewise, “All About the Sex” is clever enough to plead for more than just sex, or money, but it accomplishes this through lines like, “If she was a penitentiary, I’d be a lifer,” and compares the relationship to a “dark skinned version of Brad and Angelina, but the opposite of Ike and Tina.” It’s the attempt to be clever that obscures what the lead voice is truly feeling, taking Jones farther away from his best qualities.
As a producer, Jones does a strong job, making his songs layered but crisp. Inasmuch as Lyrics fits the current landscape, it stands high on the list production-wise. But it’s nevertheless indistinguishable from the crowd. “You Can Burn” is a promising dance number, but in a weird twist, Jones doesn’t perform it. He introduces an associate, Briana Fry, in his stead, which serves its purpose well enough, but it does take our attention from the main event. Overall, you have to wonder if Donell Jones might be better served with simpler production that aims to be sparse and less crowded with synthetics. It would be great if he focused on the warmth and honesty of his vocal performances (he’s got a nice voice, really), without the mediators of Auto-Tune and other effects. That, along his ability to convey sincerity and to develop intense psychological details, is a talent he should continue to hone.