Howard's road from the acting world to the musical arena results in plenty of ideas but minimal cohesion.
I can think of a few reasons why members of the music industry would want to take part in movies. Film industry contracts are structured differently, for one thing. Then, on a more general level, it's understandable that even someone who has already achieved a degree of fame would want to star in a film. Who wouldn't want a shot at being a movie star?
What isn't as clear is why movie stars would want to make music albums. Maybe the thespian-turned-vocalist truly has a solid singing voice and he or she wants to share it. But when I think about the actors and actresses who've ventured into musical terrain, I often wonder about their motivations, among other things. Like, what possessed Eddie Murphy to make an album in which he cut a duet with Rick James? Why did either one of Star Trek's marquee names, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) or Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), ever think it was a good idea to be in a recording studio? Who expected Scarlett Johansson to record an album of Tom Waits covers? Sometimes, I imagine Jeremy Pivens's Ari Gold character from Entourage having a fit over his actor-client's decision to record an album of jazz standards.
Personally, I think some actors and actresses turn to singing because they get a chance to be themselves. Instead of taking on roles, getting into character, and dramatizing the director's or screenwriter's vision, a singer might be seen as emoting "from the heart". Not that an actor can't deliver a "heartfelt" performance or dig just as deep as a singer-songwriter, but I'd imagine there's a certain freedom to be found in the world of song, not least of which is the ability to craft material that makes a personal statement.
There are times when the result of the thespian-turned-singer's effort transcends internal motivation and becomes a pleasant surprise. One example is Minnie Driver's Seastories (2007). I kind of got into her moody, bluesy, easy listening vibe, especially when I was still intrigued by the first season of The Riches. And, by the way, there's another reason for film stars to hit the recording booth and music stars to hit the screen: the possibilities of cross-marketing and wider promotion. In the case of Seastories, it was fun watching the light bulb of comprehension flicker in people's faces when they realized Minner Driver was the singer.
And here we've got Terrence Howard with another surprise. His 2008 release, Shine Through It, isn't his first venture into music. You might recall his work in Hustle & Flow (2005), a film about a struggling pimp ("D-jay") whose desire to make something worthwhile of his life moves him to take a shot as a rapper. Howard earned an Oscar nomination as well as a little bit of controversy about whether Howard would, or really should, perform the Three 6 Mafia soundtrack song It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp on Oscar night. According to the rumor mill, a few of his Hollywood buddies supposedly banded together to stop him from doing such a thing. He had, however, performed some of the raps that appeared in the film and on the soundtrack and, quite frankly, I found him rather convincing as a rap artist. Based on the hardcore nature of the material, though, I can see why Howard would shy away from rapping when it came time for him to try a musical outing of his own.
Most likely, movie fans would have expected Terrence Howard to follow the example of his character Quentin from Malcolm Lee's The Best Man (1999). Quentin was a ladies man who liked to play guitar. In the film, he reminded me a bit of R&B crooner Donell Jones, mostly in the way Jones exudes confidence and appeal while executing his songs within the familiar framework of the R&B and soul canon. But, on Shine Through It, Howard didn't try to emulate his Best Man performance either. He didn't chose a different path, choosing to write and produce the album's 11 tracks. The result is an amalgam of styles, topics, and instrumentation.
Shine Though It is an ambitious LP when you consider its scope and breadth. No two songs sound alike, although strings, guitars, and tempo changes seem to be staples in Terrence Howard's bag of music tricks. Otherwise, your first impression might be to wonder how these songs are supposed to fit together as a true collection.
If there's any thematic unity, it's in the feeling that these songs were composed for a musical or, better still, should form the basis of a musical. I just haven't figured out what the storyline is yet. Each number ebbs and flows like a stage production, and in my mind's eye I'm picturing silence, then the opening set of instruments (soft guitar strumming, solitary piano stabs), and then a spotlight shines, illuminating a lone singer who swells with the requisite emotion to propel the song and the overarching drama.
Whether the song mines the hopefulness and redemptive power of love ("Love Makes You Beautiful"), examines the emotional tug of war in a relationship ("No. 1 Fan"), or strolls through childhood memories ("I Remember When"), the sense of melodrama is inescapable. And while the songs would probably work in the context of a play -- embellished by acting, set design, choreography, and plot -- Terrence Howard's effort is appreciated but ultimately of limited enjoyment. I find myself wanting to know the back-story of "Mr. Johnson's Lawn", to know and see the Mr. Johnson of the song, to witness the relationship between Terrence Howard's "I" and the "you" in the lyrics. I want the actor when I'm supposed to be enjoying the singer.
It must be acknowledged, as much as I hate to mention it, that Terrence Howard's vocals are the album's least compelling aspect. His delivery ranges from a near-whisper ("Shine Through It") to a full on growl (album closer "War"). It's his middle range that hurts him, though, as his voice, which is sometimes scratchy, shakes and sounds distractingly unsteady. A singer's vocals need not be pitch perfect to connect with the audience, and I'm sure we could compile a long list of engaging artists who don't have voices like Luther Vandross or Rachelle Ferrell. These artists nevertheless grab attention and deliver commanding performances. I tried, unsuccessfully I believe, to make this point about Ben Harper's 2006 double disc Both Sides of the Gun when I said Harper didn't have the best vocal chops in the business. Does he sound like Luther Vandross? Of course not. Does he use his voice in ways that wrench reactions from his listeners and cut to the bone of human existence? Absolutely.
The problem for Terrence Howard is that there's another melodramatic, genre-hopping, big production maker who's already made headway in the music business and is named Terence. Okay, well, maybe he's also known as Sananda Maitreya, but the guy we used to call Terence Trent D'arby could probably take Shine Through It and make it at least somewhat believable. D'arby would use his singular rasp in place of Howard's unsettling vocals to add some grit and rawness to those crescendos, thunderous cymbal crashes, and tear jerking strings. This is what Terence Trent D'arby loves to do anyway, and he's great at it. Think of the show tune-y "O Divina" from D'arby's Wildcard! (2001) LP or the fabulously dramatic "Holding on to You" from TTD's Vibrator (1995). Shine Through It's frequent tempo changes are also right up the D'arby alley. Unfortunately, Terrence Howard ends up sounding like a less convincing version of a guy who's famous for doing what he's trying to do now.
Shine Through It's two jazz cuts, "It's All Game" and "Brazilian Love Affair", are basically instrumentals that, as the album's brightest spots, underscore the hurdle Howard must overcome. Should he have expanded his jazz repertoire, working more as a host and collaborator than as a singer-songwriter? It's a tough call, and I hate to be such a downer about this because I genuinely dig Terrence Howard's acting. You know, he seems like a real cool dude. Nonetheless, it's a lot like Howard himself says at the start of "It's All Game": "You see, in every relationship, there's this factor of 'least interest' involved. Meaning the person least interested in maintaining it will dominate it because they won't compromise." Maybe a little compromising (an outside producer, another songwriter, a guest vocalist, etc.) might have been helpful here.