The most interesting and respectable aspect of Joyo Velarde’s career has nothing to do with her music. Rather, it is that she is an American-born Filipino. From a population that makes up nearly 3.1 million of the American population, Velarde is a much needed (semi)-pop-culture presence for an under-represented contingency. A classically-trained vocalist who has been featured on numerous Lyrics Born/Blackalicious/Quannum-released material, Velarde — having been active since 1997 — finally gets her chance at her own LP with Love and Understanding.
The LP starts off fiery with a funky Blaxplotation-esque credit role intro with full horns, and an attitude-filled Lyrics Born who introduces Joyo. Once Velarde takes the spotlight her vocals-stylings immediately remind you of Whitney Houston circa ’85. The track as a whole recalls an updated Betty Davis with more diva and less grit. Instead of whips and chains, we get long, painted nails and herbal tea. This is followed by the much mellower “Build This World” — a mid-tempo, reverb-drenched track with awkward references to space and positive attitudes. This shit would make real cosmic funk-stars cringe. It comes off more like a second-rate “Smooth Operator” or, even worse, “Fly Like an Eagle”, than it does Parliament or even the more recently experiments of Erykah Badu.
From there Love and Understanding decides to play things predictably safe. “Strong Possibility” takes nods from Babyface-produced slow jams with its tight, if not slightly pedestrian, appearance by Lyrics Born. It’s not enough to make the charts but emits that perfect, laid-back, head-bobbing vibe that works well for late evenings or summer car rides with the top down. The following track, “Ticket to Love”, maintains the same chilled, mid-tempo vibe equipped with a funky flute line over a steady beat and more acoustic six-string. It’s in these tracks that Velarde seems most at ease, emanating late-career Janet Jackson or even the playful hits of Mariah Carey. However, following forays into this sound reveals some more missteps. The somewhat sexy, “You Got Me (In the Mood)” walks a line between old-school jams of Minnie Riperton or Roberta Flack and some long forgotten cornball, ’80s single with bad keyboards. Velarde’s voice doesn’t disappoint but the production is downright dentist waiting room while the electric piano ballad “Lower Deck”, which follows, is so saccharine that diabetics should beware.
In an era where R&B is filled with heavy, complex, and energetic production, Velarde seems to best be relegated to those nostalgic for the late ’90s. Do these people exist? I guess there’s probably some mothers shopping at Ann Taylor Loft or grabbing a frappuccino at Starbucks wishing for the days of permed-out hair and awkward leather outfits. And we all indulge in late-night slow jams dedication radio shows every now and then, right? Unfortunately though, Velarde’s music seems most fitting in the Y2K’s only in those slightly ironic aches for our high-school years. Everything here, including all the longing nods to R&B divas of the past, comes across smooth, well-structured, and in its place to a point where it’s too easy. After all, even radio-friendly divas are taking chances nowadays. (Rihanna’s bad-girl album Rated R was, if not a risk, at least a bold move.) And that’s what makes Love and Understanding ultimately so uninteresting: its choice to remain in a very safe, well-established sound that, as a formula, has worked before, but hardly maintains the appeal it once did. You can’t help but wonder how Joyo would sound with some Timbaland and some young H.O.V.A. behind her. We can all dream, right?