Jaheim: Ghetto Love

Ghetto Love
Warner Bros.

There was such a buzz around this album that the amount of bootlegs circulating caused release dates in the US and Europe to be changed. This, for a first release, is unusual but Ghetto Love is no ordinary first effort. Jaheim is going to be big and for once you can believe the hype. What we have here is the best male voice to come out of R&B since…well, since ever, actually. There may be better albums released this year but there won’t be any better vocal performances. With a bit of luck Jaheim Hoagland might set a trend for full, rich vocal stylings, the sort that have been in such short supply since the tricksy, nasal mannerisms that emerged in the days of Swingbeat pushed soulful male vocals to the margins of the urban scene. Even if he doesn’t, he has at least shown that Stevie Wonder is not the only voice from the past worth copying if you want to give your music some real class.

To get an idea of what is going on here, try and imagine the type of record Teddy Pendergrass would make if he were 21 in Y2K, came from New Jersey and had spent too many of his teenage years in Correctional Facilities. That is Jaheim — young, toughened by the perils of ghetto living and with a voice reminiscent of the old Bluenotes maestro. The resultant sound is still R&B-based but of a quality and emotional richness that has been sadly lacking in recent times. Add to that a sample-rich production overseen by the always interesting Kaygee and the end result is a satisfying mix of the rough and the smooth — a soulful ride for these troubled times.

The journey begins with the obligatory spoken interlude. This one works better than most as it portrays Jaheim leaving jail and hitting the streets once more. A half-rap exchange finds our hero loaned a car to ease his search for female company. So far, so street. However, instead of the hip-hop, gangsta anthems one might be expecting, there follows the first of a series of beautifully sung beat ballads. “Looking for Love” allows Jaheim to summon up the ghosts of vocalists past while a Willie Hutch sample works its slinky magic. The direct and explicit lyrics (a feature of the album) might trouble some older listeners but don’t be fooled — this is firmly in the tradition of sensual and sensuous soul. The idiom is contemporary, but the sound and message are both timeless.

After a bouncing, uptempo example of masculine heroics, “Let It Go” — funky but with a pointless rap, comes the first single from the album. “Could It Be” is superb, one of the tunes of the year — lustful, earthy and materialistic but so well crafted that it soars above the limitations of the cars and girls lyric. Again, it is the voice — lighter than Teddy, rougher than Luther — but worthy of comparison with either — that wins out.

From then on it is a question of picking which of the mid-tempo, head-nodders most appeals. Some, like the title track “Ghetto Love” seem to me a bit dreary, but others like “Ready, Willing and Able”, “Anything” or “Heaven In My Eyes” are as good as anything you are going to hear on the soulful side of the music scene. The most embittered purist would not be able to deny the connection between these tunes and the great soul songs of the early seventies, when sophisticated arrangements updated the raw gospel vocals of the sixties. Here the updating continues but the heart of the music lives on. If the ghetto references and the rawness of tunes like “Little Nigger” grate, just remember machismo isn’t new in soul (or rock) music and think of them as context for the more tender moments that this record offers.

In fact it is this mixture of hard-edged rhythms and attitudes and the unashamed sentiment of many of the songs which keeps this album interesting. The musical assuredness helps, as do the many guest contributions (from the likes of Terry Dexter, Next and Miss Jones). Kaygee and the other producers bring a solid hip-hop love of beats to the project, without losing sight of the strong melodic elements a voice as fine as Jaheim’s demands. The consequence of this is a pleasing tension throughout most of the album that keeps you coming back for more. Not every track works but the hits heavily outweigh the misses.

This album will not appeal to people who do not recognise the importance of the voice to urban popular forms from doo-wop, through Motown, to Philadelphia and beyond. Rock fans will not notice the difference between this and a dozen other R&B albums around at the moment. On the other hand, anyone who has felt that tingle when any great soul singer hits their stride will welcome the addition of Jaheim to a long and proud roll-call of artists. Forget the “is it R&B or Soul” arguments — the answer is yes on both counts. Just turn the bass up and let that voice sooth all your troubles away.