[9 March 2008]
He calls himself an “R&B hippie” (as well as the “neo-soul rock star”), but Raheem DeVaughn’s not much different from any other male artist who has taken a ride on the neo-soul (damn it, I hate that term, let’s just say “traditional soul”) train in the past fifteen years or so. The man studies at the altar of Marvin and Curtis, and it would be pretty easy to lump him in with artists like Musiq Soulchild and Dwele.
This is not to say that Raheem is a mere clone. His 2005 debut, The Love Experience, was one of R&B’s best-kept secrets. It was an inconsistent album, but tracks like the single “Guess Who Loves You More” and the rock-etched “You” hinted that a very good album would come from this guy with a little time. A Grammy nomination for the tribute to the female, “Woman”, (released ahead of this album) set the table for Love Behind the Melody, DeVaughn’s sophomore effort. The album’s entry at the #1 spot on the R&B albums chart (and Top Five pop) earlier this year made folks take notice. One quick listen to the album, and it’s clear that DeVaughn is well on his way to satisfying his potential.
Listening to an album by a young R&B singer these days is a lot like playing “Spot the Influence”, and Raheem’s are pretty easy to figure out, with Marvin Gaye at the head of that particular line. The mellow, midterm musical suites owe a heavy debt to “I Want You”-era Marvin, and the two have vocal similarities, especially when Raheem goes into falsetto mode. You can hear Stevie Wonder and “Adore”/“International Lover”-style Prince as well. As with any twenty-something age soul singer, there’s a subtle hip-hop influence that pokes through, but first and foremost this is a soul album. Although it runs a little long (there is no excuse for an album to be 17 tracks long nowadays… even though, granted, a couple of the “tracks“ are actually interludes), Love Behind the Melody has surprisingly little filler in its 65 minutes.
The album is also very good at fusing contemporary production with classic sounds. “Empty”’s buzzing synths conjure up images of recent work from Timbaland and the Dream (which is to say they owe a stylistic debt to the Minneapolis Sound of the ‘80s), but it fits perfectly on the same album as songs like the excellent “Mo Better“, which you would swear is sampled from some old Philly Soul classic. It surprised the hell out of me to find out that this was a completely new song. Its swaying groove and crafty tempo change (not to mention the creamy vocals and sumptuous horn section) helps to make this the album’s standout track. The man is definitely a Grade-A balladeer, as evidenced by the seductive duet “Marathon” (featuring the possibly defunct duo Floetry), and current single “Customer“, which slides a bunch of fast-food references into a sexual song that’s not cheesy (pardon the unintentionally bad pun). Songs like this and “She’s Not You” combine to reveal Devaughn’s promise as a lyricist.
Unlike most folks who specialize in the slow jam, DeVaughn knows how to party as well. “Energy” is a peppy, bass-filled jam that bears more than a passing musical resemblance to Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”. Big Boi from Outkast provides an efficient 16 bars with the only guest rap on the entire album. That song is cool, but “Friday (Shut the Club Down)” is hands down the best of the album‘s up-tempo songs. Taking elements of the Temptations’ evergreen “My Girl” and spinning them into a fresh, exuberant party song, you’ve gotta give props to DeVaughn as well as the song’s producer, Kwame (yes, the late ‘80s MC most famous for the polka-dot gear). The fact that this song references both T-Pain and “Party Like a Rockstar” (two things I really don’t check for) and I still enjoy it speaks volumes.
It’s not a bad time to be a male R&B singer. You’ve got tons of exciting young talent out there, from John Legend and Robin Thicke to Ne-Yo and Musiq Soulchild. Love Behind the Melody may not get the commercial love that those artists get (DeVaughn’s image isn’t as flashy), but this is an album that certainly deserves to be mentioned alongside the best work of those artists.