PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Brian McKnight: U Turn

Maurice Bottomley

Brian Mcknight

U Turn

Label: Universal
US Release Date: 2003-03-25
UK Release Date: 2003-03-24

Odd as it might seem, for a singer who possesses one of the finest modern soul voices and has sold so many records, Brian McKnight has never been, critically or commercially, considered among the front rank of contemporary artists. Too romantically old school for the hardcore R&B fans, not quite artily self-conscious enough for neo-soulites, he seems to just miss out on the choicest accolades. Furthermore, at the moment when many were comparing his latter-day work unfavourably with his earlier efforts, he released a greatest hits package which, saleswise, was a comparative flop. All very puzzling.

U Turn sees him making more concessions to current musical styles while retaining his fondness for the sentimental balladry that is constant trademark. It too has been greeted rather half-heartedly by the reviewers, although fans have already given it the thumbs-up. I think the fans are right on this one. Mainstream and safe, certainly -- but McKnight always has been -- it is arguably as well-crafted a parcel of post-millennium soul as you could wish for. If Chico Debarge or Maxwell had produced a similarly consistent album, the response would have been far more positive, I'm sure.

OK, the lyrics aren't exactly deep (a general crisis in black popular song since about 1980) and it pushes few boundaries. Yet, in the area of sophisticated R&B, U Turn can quite easily hold its own with the likes of current faves Chocolate Factory or Body Kiss. It's not flawless, by any means. Some won't like the inclusion of rappers (Nelly and Fabolous), but they acquit themselves reasonably well. The "State of the World" gospel track with James Kirkland is too maudlin to bear the weight of its message (war/peace, etc.), while for younger listeners (and some older cynics) the bouncy title track might sound like an outdated stylist trying to wrap himself in a new, more "urban" cloak. However, for some better than average midtempo steppers and lashings of downtempo love songs, U Turn comfortably outperforms the sort of thing Joe, Carl Thomas and Tyrese (who all guest,to no great effect, on one song) have recently been attempting.

Nelly's is the first voice you hear and he does rather overwhelm McKnight on the bump'n'groover "All Night Long", which is disposable but inoffensive. On the other hand, track two, "Backseat", is a little jewel of a song. Effortlessly Marvinesque but nicely bass-heavy, this bridges the gap between old and new with some style and is one of the year's best soul songs. "Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda" and "Try Our Love Again" are excellent ballads, the former a little too self-pitying but with a winning lilt that helps render some rather trite sentiments acceptable.

"Where Do We Go From Here" is in that school of Stevie Wonder, pleading mode, that Glenn Lewis and others have been dangerously over-harvesting lately. McKnight does a better job than most with the task. "Been So Long" is a neo-thing of the type Musiq regularly turns out, although McKnight can actually sing, which helps. On this and throughout the album, there are some lovely keyboard touches, which combine with the spare arrangements to create a sense of space and loose structure that counters some of the excess syrup such a slowie-laden set tends to produce. Only the whiny "For the Rest of My Life" is beyond such redemption and should be avoided.

The most interesting track is "If It Was Cool" which comes in two parts. The first is somewhat D'Angelo-Brown Sugar-ish and is admirable enough but for the last two minutes it switches to a piece of '50s vocalese that suddenly reminds you of all those interviews with McKnight where he used to reel off formative influences from the jazz world. At the end of this unexpected treat a voice in the background says, "That's enough. Save it for the next album." Unlikely, but tantalizing nonetheless.

And that is perhaps the problem with McKnight. He's good but, if he took a few risks, you suspect that he is capable of much, much more. After 13 years of reasonably prolific output, such expectations are perhaps leading to a certain critical impatience.

Still, we can only judge the actual output. In the case of U Turn, while acknowledging that it is too obeisant to some of the more hidebound strictures of contemporary black pop, I'd judge it a success. I don't mean simply at the level of instrumental texture and vocal artistry but, despite some reservations, as a worthy addition to the stock of albums that explore the emotions associated with seduction, love and loss. Urban Quiet Storm, if you want a reductive description, and I for one, can handle some of that.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.