It took four tries, but Trey Songz has finally made an album worthy of his talent.
Trey Songz became a bonafide star last year. He released no less than six singles that turned his third album, Ready, into his commercial breakthrough and, due to their sexual nature, solidified his position as the pre-eminent sex symbol of his generation.
But it was clear by the end of that run of singles that Songz was at a crossroads: either continue in the lane that he had created for himself as a young horndog or try something else. Ready’s singles were huge, but they also threatened to obscure Songz's vocal gifts and turn him into a one-dimensional pinup boy who throws a good party.
For many of us who had been following him since 2005's I Gotta Make It, it wasn't clear which choice he would make. Clearly staying in that horndog lane would make him money and satisfy his base of fans who like Party Trey, at least for a while. And doing something else entirely, particularly something more melodic and thoughtful, is a real risk for a young man who, let's remember, broke through on his third album at a time when the industry isn't investing in artist development the way it used to. If you're Trey Songz, you might be thinking you have to prove that Ready wasn't a fluke.
So give Songz credit for making an album that is still very much a Trey Songz album, but deepens, expands, and complicates what it means to be a Trey Songz album. Passion, Pain & Pleasure finds Songz as horny as ever, but expressing that horniness with a batch of songs that is supremely well-crafted and well-written. Nearly every song here is beautifully arranged and is built around his increasingly effective voice. "Love Faces", "Massage", "Red Lipstick", and "Doorbell" are as notable for Songz's newfound attention to the pleasure of his woman (rather than his own) as they are for a newfound strength in his singing. Each song has a beautiful melody and Songz rides the tonal and rhythmic shifts with impressive agility, particularly on "Massage".
But what is most astonishing is how complete an emotional experience Passion, Pain & Pleasure truly is. Gone, for the most part, are the sing-songy party songs that rely on catchy hooks instead of great melodies, and in their place is a series of songs that are, in total, as emotionally complex as Songz has yet been. Credit must be given to a clearly rejuvenated songwriting team of Troy Taylor, Edrick Miles, Tony Scales, and Songz himself, who in various combinations wrote the lyrics and melodies to nearly every song here.
With Mario Winans, who seems to specialize in a very specific kind of aching R&B lament, Songz creates "Can't Be Friends", which gives him the opportunity to display a deep vulnerability that we've never heard from him before. His phrasing alternates between a delicate touch that causes the words to hit like the soft plucking of piano keys on the verses -- "Look what this girl done did to me / She done cut me off from a good good love" -- and a ferocity on the hook that makes the sadness and regret palpable.
"Please Return My Call" shows just how well Songz can convey tremendous longing, while "Unfortunate" is achingly sad. "You Just Need Me" shows again that he can do a straight-ahead pop song better than any artist of his generation, and "Love Me Better" ends the album on a hopeful note.
And then there is "Blind", another unconventional, brilliant collaboration with the great Bei Maejor. It's a somber tale about a man so in love that he's blind to just how thoroughly his woman tears his heart out. A beautiful guitar ballad that really shows how beautiful Trey's tone can be when he has the opportunity to sing with more fluidity, it's probably the best written song on the album. Bei Maejor has collaborated with Songz on every one of his albums and, at this point, I'd love to hear a Trey Songz album that is entirely produced by Maejor. They not only make magic together, but they seem to push each other to make songs that sound like nothing else out there right now.
There are one or two duds -- "Unusual", the limp collabo with the maddeningly overrated rapper Drake, and "Made to Be Together", which sounds like a R. Kelly castoff -- and, for some reason, he includes the full version of Ready's "Panty Droppa". But these missteps ultimately don't really matter at all or change the fact that Passion, Pain & Pleasure is this year's finest release by a major-label male R&B artist.
Trey Songz has proven here that he can do more than make a great party jam. In fact, the album shows that he can make the kind of songs he wants to make -- about love, about sex, about passion -- and do it in such a way that you can see a little bit of who is behind the pretty face and the muscular body. In its own way, it's as definitive a statement as we have gotten from the millennial generation of R&B performers and definitely solidifies Trey Songz's status as the premier male R&B singer of his generation.