[5 June 2007]
When you run down the list of durable current R&B singers, the name that most likely comes to mind is that of R. Kelly, who arrived back in 1992. Brian McKnight arrived that same year. Usher arrived a year later. Other than those three, you’d be hard pressed to think of any male R&B singers who arrived during the New Jack Swing era and have managed to maintain their popularity up till now.
Even some hardcore R&B fans would likely forget about Joe, whose musical personality and career have been as unassuming as his stage name. His first album, Everything, arrived in 1993, and each of the four albums he‘s recorded since has been certified Gold or Platinum. Not bad for a dude who’s not a song and dance man like Usher, or is perennially involved in controversy like Kelly. The Georgia-born, NYC-based Joe (last name Thomas) has never really had a breakout hit, although he’s kept busy singing as well as writing and producing for/with everyone from Hi-Five and SWV to the Backstreet Boys and Mariah Carey. He’s kept his head above water all these years, even though he seems to regress musically with each progressive album, catering more and more to current trends as opposed to the sweet, well-written ballads that have become his trademark. He hit bottom a couple years back with And Then…, an album on which the typical R&B ballads sounded stale, the hip-hop collaborations sounded forced, and the two best songs were taken literally off of R. Kelly’s reject pile, having been written and recorded by Kells for his aborted Loveland project.
Ain’t Nothin’ Like Me is a slight improvement over that previous album. The rap cameos fit a little better, and the ballads aren’t as lazy and uninspired. Joe only embarrasses himself on an occasional basis, preferring instead to (for the most part) musically comport himself in the way a man in his mid-thirties should.
Joe fares best with mid-tempos and ballads, songs that bring his buttery voice and gift for melody to the forefront. Lead single “If I Was Your Man” is a perfect example. A hypnotic drumbeat, pillowy keys and a measured yet insistent vocal from Joe make this track one of the album’s best tracks. Along with the similar-sounding “It’s Me”, these songs mark yet another feather in the cap of production team Stargate, who have racked up hits in the past year for everyone from Beyonce to Lionel Richie to Elliott Yamin.
The slow jams are definitely where it’s at on Ain’t Nothin’ Like Me. The piano ballad “Feel For You” is an well-constructed soul anthem. Joe proclaims that his woman makes him feel like “Ali when he shook up the world” or “like Prince when he wrote ‘The Most Beautiful Girl’”, and I can imagine any amount of tongue-tied dudes playing this song for the woman in their lives. Meanwhile, “You Should Know Me” hints at why Joe has remained a constant over the years. This solid ballad could have come out at any point over Joe’s 15-year career and sounded right at home on the radio.
The album stumbles when Joe tries to make nice with current trends, dropping in guest rappers and “ghetto” themes to portray a character that he’s really not. Hearing him refer to himself as a “real G” on the track “Go Hard” takes nothing away from his vocal skills, but makes the song itself sound like a desperate grab for relevance. While newcomer Papoose shines brightly on the gently bumping “Where You At” and Nas adds a typically efficient 16 bars to album opener “Get To Know Me”, Joe goes to the guest rapper well a few too many times. Fabolous turns the uptempo “Let’s Just Do It” into a wreck with an extraordinarily lazy rhyme (which might be the third or fourth in recent times to rhyme “Beyonce & Jay-Z” with “Janet & JD”), and the less said about the appearance of G-Unit lieutenants Young Buck and Tony Yayo on the album’s title track, the better. On “Relax Yourself Girl”, Joe takes the classic Tribe “Electric Relaxation” beat and almost ruins it TWICE—first with abominably silly lyrics about getting enough money to make it out of the streets (something good-boy preacher’s son Joe doesn’t pull off well), and second with an atrocious guest verse from producer (not Dr. or 3000) Dre.
The most frustrating thing about this album is that Joe can do better. While the good narrowly outweighs the bad here, Ain’t Nothin’ Like Me sounds too desperate and immature at times for me to give a wholehearted recommendation. Joe, there’s a huge market of folks your age looking for music that’s appropriate for people their age. You’d be wise to turn your next musical venture completely in that direction.