[29 January 2008]
With the recent passings of Barry White, Luther Vandross and Gerald Levert, it’s now officially up to the young bucks to challenge for the crown of Great Male R&B Singer. While there are a handful of men out there who possess the entire package (Musiq Soulchild, Rahsaan Patterson and John Legend, to name a few), no young R&B singer has a better pure voice than Jaheim. The New Jersey native has a supple, full vocal tone that combines the rough edges of Teddy Pendergrass with the exquisite phrasing and control of Luther.
However, a great voice doesn’t necessarily equal a great artist. Despite possessing the voice of an angel, Jaheim has tried way too hard to go the “R&B thug” route. Of course, this is supposed to present an aura of authentic realness. However, songs about hustling and paternity disputes, which you might be willing to give a pass to on album #1, sound tired and cliché by album #4. Jaheim’s third album, 2006’s Ghetto Classics, was the bottom of the barrel, and the public agreed. Despite debuting at #1 on the album charts, it fell quickly and was barely certified gold when his previous two efforts had gone platinum. The new Makings of a Man hints at change. Jaheim is on a new label (Warner Bros.), working with new producers (Baby face & R. Kelly chief among them), and shows signs of progressing beyond the ghetto (both real-life and metaphorical) that his previous work found him mired in.
That said, the beginning of the album suggests that the transition is still very much a work in progress, with lyrics that resurrect every “hood” cliché in existence. It’s not like I can’t relate to Jaheim’s upbringing—Flatbush, Brooklyn ain’t a whole lot different from the ghettos of North Jersey—but at a certain point you grow out of your surroundings. Hearing Jaheim rehash his drug-dealing days on songs like “Life of a Thug” and “Have You Ever” gets boring quite quickly. Even worse is the fact that these two songs waste choice samples: Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “Hope That We Can Be Together Soon” on the former and the Force M.D.’s “Tender Love” on the latter. Still, there’s nothing wrong with Jaheim’s singing. As a matter of fact, these songs almost make me wish I didn’t understand English, so I could enjoy the beauty of his vocals without cringing at the lyrics.
It wouldn’t be so bad if those songs weren’t all stuck together at the album’s beginning. Hearing the aforementioned songs almost poisons you to the fact that, once you listen further, The Makings of a Man is a decent album. The songs at the middle and end are a little more mature from a lyrical standpoint, and Jaheim’s voice is as good as ever. Highlights include “Just Don’t Have a Clue”, which arrives like a beacon of light in the middle of the album. Co-composed by Babyface, it’s ‘Face’s best songwriting/production effort in ages. “I’ve Changed” underutilizes guest vocalist Keyshia Cole (why is some anonymous female singer singing the chorus and not her?), but it’s certainly the album’s best chance at a hit single. It sports a sped-up sample of Atlantic Starr’s “Let’s Get Closer” to add a little extra ear candy.
While it may immediately age him, Jaheim’s best strengths are as a balladeer, as evidenced by the stately first single “Never” and the closing track “Back Together Again”, on which he pays tribute to his parents, both now deceased. Both songs are elegant and expressive in a way that signifies some sort of artistic growth and maturity. It definitely points in the direction that Jaheim should be going in the future. After all, the man is closing in on his 30th birthday. Topics that seemed cool to sing about at 22 or 23 sound incredibly silly at age 30, an age at which folks like Stevie Wonder had already changed the sound of R&B music, and folks like Marvin and Luther were just about to create career-defining masterpieces. You can’t compare yourself to one of the greats if you’re still reminiscing about being in juvie at the same age these guys were making the best music of their careers.
It’s a shame to see good talent go to waste, and although Makings of a Man finds Jaheim still trying to impress the dudes on the block (or giving in to some suburban record exec’s convoluted idea of what black people want to hear in their music), there’s a glimmer of hope in a good chunk of this album. Since his debut, I’ve generally thought he was one album away from being one of the greats, and this album does drop a couple of solid hints that the next one might be the one in which Jaheim lives up to his considerable potential and establishes himself as, to quote the title of a song on this album, “The Voice of R&B”.