[17 April 2007]
While never exactly becoming a household name, Marques Houston has earned the title that adorns the cover of his third solo album: Veteran. As the album’s intro spells out for you, he’s had a moderately successful career as a singer, both solo and with the teen trio Immature. He’s also had a bit of success on both the big screen (You Got Served, House Party 3) and the small screen (Sister, Sister and Cuts). However, Veteran also serves as a textbook example of why he’s languished in relative mediocrity for so long. The album is merely adequate. It’s pleasantly enjoyable, but not the type of album that knocks your socks off like, say, Confessions. I can imagine Marques looking at Usher’s career trajectory and wondering “Where did I go wrong?” After all, they are close in age and their careers have many surface similarities. But while Usher has had the benefit of killer production, great songs, and a strong personality, Veteran just sounds like… faux-Usher, with a little bit of R. Kelly thrown in.
Throughout the album, there are constant reminders that Houston has yet to establish himself as a personality. So many of the songs on this album just follow formula, and his voice isn’t strong enough to overcome the songs’ anonymity. He breaks through a couple of times, like with the piano beat ballad “Circle”, but even that song sounds like Mary J. Blige’s “Be Without You” with a little bit of Usher’s “Burn” thrown in (the fact that all three songs were co-written by Bryan-Michael Cox might be a factor there). Anyone could have taken this song and scored with it. It’s one of those tracks you’ll hear on the radio and say “Wow, this song is good. The singer sounds familiar, but I can’t place exactly who it is.”
With that said, he fares better on mid-tempo, melodic tracks in that vein. The embarrassing “Like That” is a club track by-the-numbers that sounds like a Lil’ Jon ripoff. Featuring a rap by the supremely untalented Yung Joc, its placement as the album’s second track is almost enough to make you want to turn off the rest of the album. Further excursions into the hip-hop era are not as embarrassing, but they’re skip-worthy just the same. Ludacris associate Shawnna shows up on “Hold ‘N Back”, a duet with Mya (wow-three completely personality-free artists on one track!) that generates none of the intended sexual heat. Marques himself even drops 16 bars on “How You Just Gonna”, derailing what was an otherwise pleasant song. For someone who claimed in an XXL interview a while back not to be a huge fan of hip-hop, moves like these seem somewhat hypocritical—like he’s more focused on the charts instead of his musical integrity… no wonder the dude hasn’t had a breakout record yet.
Take out those offending tracks and you have a fairly decent contemporary R&B album. Houston doesn’t have a particularly exciting voice, and the songwriting and production (mostly provided by B-level team the Underdogs) follows suit. It’s decent, but not exceptional. Lyrically, Houston does a good job of not embarrassing himself. Songs like the summery “So Right For Me” (which manages to borrow melodic ideas from both soul icon Sam Cooke and ‘90s girl group Total) are indicative of this album’s sound. Marques even manages to scare up a little bit of sensual heat on “Kimberly”, which would not sound out of place on a Prince album (complete with guitar solo). However, all this name-dropping again highlights the problem that has plagued Houston throughout his career. The moments you notice on Veteran are the ones that remind you of other artists. Now in his mid-twenties, it’s hard to say whether Houston will ever develop the singular personality that will elevate his career to the next level of hitmaker status. It must be frustrating to see contemporaries like Usher and (rumored ex-girlfriend) Beyonce become icons while he languishes in mediocrity, but Veteran doesn’t give me any indication that he will move to that “next level” anytime soon, if ever.