Gerald Levert is arguably the most consistent R&B vocalist of this generation. One of the few who can claim affinity with the shouters tradition — Joe Tex, Otis Redding, Dennis Edwards, Teddy Pendergrass — Levert earned his honest from his daddy Eddie Levert. Levert, along with them big-boys Heavy D and Fred Hammond, has also been a poster boy the “pretty-ass” Big Man club, as his regular award show appearances are of note as much for the “Levert hop” (can’t nobody jump-up and down, like G can) as they are for his tight cuts (haircuts, not body cuts) and phat-ass gear. In a world where so many R&B men are trying way too hard to be sensitive recovering thugs (quick shout to Yvonne Bynoe) or hip-hop smooth Marvin Gayes, Gerald Levert is a throw-back to an era when Soul Men weren’t afraid to get a little sweat on their back, some gravy on their shirt and some dirt on their knees. On his recent releases, Love and Consequences (1998) and G (2000) Levert has managed to stay connected to the “tradition” with nods to Bobby Womack, Latimore (he of the classic “Let’s Straighten It Out”), and his daddy’s group The O’Jays, while remaining more relevant than his former LSG partners Keith Sweat and Johnny Gill and host of equally talented, if not more talented, vocalists such as Kenny Lattimore, Eric Benet (whose despite his skills has been reduced to singing hooks for Buick), and Billy (who?) Porter (who?). Gerald’s World is standard Levert fare-comfortable 21st century Soul, for a world coming apart at the seams.
In the aftermath of 11 September 2001, Gerald’s World was one of the great commercial surprises, moving over 100,000 in its opening weeks, outpacing Macy Gray’s eagerly awaited The Id. The project’s initial commercial success was buoyed by the lead single “Made to Love You”, the kind of syrupy ballad that Levert consistently includes on his recordings as part of a perfunctory effort to “cross-over”. Produced by Warren “Baby Dubb” Campbell, who has recently laced the likes of Luther Vandross and Bebe Winans, “Made to Love Ya” is one of the many ballads, including Enrique Iglesias’s “Hero”, Five for Fighting’s “Superman”, and Brian McKnight’s “Love of My Life”, that have soothed a grieving nation. The single is one of two version of the song as a distinctly “Mr. Biggs-ish” version of the song is included as the proverbial “hidden track”. Just a small reminder, that even as bruh tries to up his game to the mainstream, he ain’t above getting his “bump-n-grind” on.
Like so many of the current standard-bearers and new jacks in R&B, Levert enlisted the services of Mike City on the opening track “Soul Mate” and “Same Ol'”. City, who has recently laced the likes of Dave Hollister, Babyface and Bilal, with uneven, though generally pleasing results, seems to have emerged as the R&B producer of the moment, no doubt making Michael Jackson wish he never heard of Rodney Jerkins. In a field increasingly encroached upon by producers with roots in the hip-hop world, like Dre’s recent work on Mary’s “Family Affair”, City is a “classic” R&B producer-bouncy rhythms, catchy singable hooks, and references to the old-school (“da-wikita”). Arguably none of his production efforts have been as inspired as Sunshine Anderson’s “Heard It All Before” or Hollister’s “Keep on Lovin'” and such is the case with “Soul Mate” and “Same Ol”.
Missing from Levert’s cadre of producers is Darrell “Delite” Allamby, whose stuttering, sputtering production style marked the bitter “Taking Everything” and “Thinkin’ Bout It” from Love and Consequences and last year’s “Nothin’ to Somethin'”. Edwin “Tony” Nichols, a veteran of Levert’s recent projects, is behind the boards for the clichéd “What Make It Good to You (No Premature Lovin’) or rather Levert’s midnight-ode to premature ejaculation. Given the general sad state of quality balladry in R&B — meaning anything sung slow by 112 or Jagged Edge — a Gerald Levert cliché is actually a pleasurable experience. Levert drops a nod to T.P., in his prime known as “Teddy Pender, the Female Bender”, with “Can’t Win”, which features a clipped bass-line inspired by Pendergrass’s “Love TKO”. Levert is more effective on his own composition “Got Love” and the inspired “Make My Day”, replete with blaxploitation strings (think Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man for a reference) and cameos by baby bruh Sean and Joe Little III. Little is in fact behind the boards for four of the tracks, most notably “Just Us” which recalls “She Been Done” from G.
On the project’s best track, “Forever You & Me”, Levert is joined by guitarist Randy Browland, for a classic breakdown, a practice made into fine art by Isaac Hayes, David Porter (see “Can’t See You When I Want To”) and of course Lenny Williams, whose “oh, oh, oh” breakdown from “‘Cause I Love You” has been immortalized by Steve Harvey and R. Kelly. In one of the song’s striking features Levert throws some shade to Rick James, whose phrasing Levert mimics on the track. It is a much needed reminder that before he started hitting the pipe, Rick James was arguably the most creative force in mainstream R&B during the 1980s (anybody remember Process and the Doo-Rags?). In a less racialized and apartheid-like pop music industry it would have been Rick James — best known these days for his Behind the Music special — and not Prince or Michael Jackson who would have become MTV’s prime black mascot.
Gerald Levert will never have to worry about such exposure. Barely 35, Levert is literarily the last of a generation with any connection to the “classic” Soul tradition. Unlike “first born 2nds” like Bilal, D’Angelo and even Musiq Soulchild, Levert really is the product of a previous era as opposed to being part of a generation looking back to that era for inspiration. In that regard, Gerald’s World finds Gerald Levert at a crossroads, pondering how to keep pace with contemporary R&B (which ironically is standing still) and still remain connected to the traditions that birthed him.