Calvin Richardson's debut disc, Country Boy, was the most slept-on R&B recording of the past five years. Possessing a voice that was more KC than Mr. Hailey himself, bruh sounded like he had been straight birthed from the soul of Bobby Womack (one of the last soul men). It didn't help that Richardson put his own stamp on a remake of Womack's "I Wish He Didn't Trust Me So Much". Most folks had forgotten about Richardson until he showed up two years ago in the video for Angie Stone's "Brotha" (from 2001's Mahogany Soul. Richardson even laid down vocals on "More than a Woman", a duet with Stone and arguably the best track on the disc. Primed for a J label debut (Stone's label), some drama apparently ensued and Richardson's vocals were replaced by Joe's on the single release of "More than a Woman" and the J label deal evaporated. A year and a half later, Richardson finally steps up with his follow-up disc, 2:35 PM (the time of day that his infant son was born).
2:35 PM is less moody -- less country or southern as Outkast would put it -- than Country Boy, but where Richardson trades off on some of that Joe Simon ("Drowning in a See of Love") and Johnnie Taylor ("Good Love") flow, the disc is as close to that down-home R&B that mainstream pop has seen in some time. 2:35 PM is at the forefront of a return of the down-home as witnessed by Anthony Hamilton's Where I Come From and Leela James' forthcoming A Change is Gonna Come. The down-home feel is best captured on 2:35 PM's stirring lead single, "Keep on Pushin'", which borrows its opening riff from Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come". The riff sounds a little cheesy at first (more reminiscent of Solo's remake of the Cooke classic) -- even Richardson's opening line "girl I " is a mock vocal riff of Cooke's opening line ("I was born by the river . . .) -- but then Richardson and the song come into their own. The track sounds like it came off of the Stax assembly line and, like many of those classics, the song leaves you yearning for more than the 3:47 that it gives you.
The track is one of three produced by Raphael Saddiq, who is in good form throughout, providing Richardson with some deep Bay Area soul. Richardson contributed two tracks to Saddiq's Instant Vintage (2002), so bruh Raphael is returning the favor. "Falling Out", which follows the opening track, "Keep on Pushin'", follows the same down-home game-plan as the lead single. Saddiq's other production is the breezy "She's Got the Love". Easily one of the strongest songs on the disc, the song's beauty is its simplicity, as Richardson just tap dances across the piano riff and soul-claps that Saddiq layers the joint with (kinda puts you in the mood for the J5's "I Want You Back"). Richardson's flow on the second verse alone ("Some like 'em big / Some like 'em small / Some like 'em tall / Some like 'em short / I like 'em all") is worth the ticket price.
Whereas Saddiq was brought in to soften Richardson's more countrified sensibilities (much the way Gerald Isaacs did on Country Boy), a slew of other producers like Mike City and the Underdogs were charged with making Richardson's sensibilities relevant to contemporary R&B (urban) audiences. Though City's "Cross My Heart" seems like a bit of a retread, Richardson gets more distance out of some of the lesser-known producers. On the funky "Put My Money on You" (from Young RJ) Richardson sings heartily about the hard-working 'round-the-way brother, who found sis "in the club last night / She could be my wife". The song is a nice complement to "You Got Me High", Richardson's collaboration with Detroit's Slum Village. Hopefully, the song will create the kind of buzz for Richardson that Slum's joint with Dwele ("Tainted") created for the fellow Detroit neo-soul man. Jake and Trev's "I've Got to Move" is another track that should get Richardson a hearing on less daring (and dare I say sophisticated) urban program lists.
One of the disc's more intriguing tracks is "Iwansumno", a tune that Richardson produced himself. On the track Richardson puts himself and his career into some perspective ("Now I may never be a super hero / 'Cause in this world we live in I'm just an average Negro / Trying to get a raise on this overcrowded stage"). The track's production mixes the stutter rhythm that has bottomed some of Gerald Levert's best recent work with random DJ scratches and a chopped steel drum. The track is anything but formulaic and speaks well to Richardson's own ability to adapt to different styles of black pop.
2:35 PM's best track, "More than a Woman", is also the most notorious. As the story goes, Richardson was in the studio with Eddie Ferrell and Darren Lighty working on a follow-up to Country Boy; they were laying down the tracks to "More than a Woman" when Angie Stone, who the duo was working with also, peeped the track. The song was intended to be the lead single for Richardson's second disc from Universal, but when Universal refused to support the release with a video (leading to Richardson's break with the label), Richardson gladly passed the song on to Stone, who expressed a desire to record the song with Richardson for Mahogany Soul. The song is one of the sweetest romantic duets recorded in black pop in the last five years or so. But the story gets murky as to why the single release of the song featured the vocals of R&B veteran Joe and not Richardson, who was rumored to be Stone's love interest at the time of the song's initial recording. Richardson has chosen to take the high road by suggesting that Stone and her label felt that the song would be better served by a more established singer -- this despite the fact the Stone begins the album version of the song cooing "It's your time now Calvin".
Still wanting to birth his version of the song into the world Richardson features a five-minute solo version of the song on 2:35 PM, highlighting all the things that should make Richardson a player for some time. More artful than folks like Joe and Gerald Levert (who both must be applauded at this point for their longevity), but possessing less vocal range and talent than Maxwell, Calvin Richardson belongs to the lunch-pail wing of contemporary male R&B singers -- passionate, real, thoughtful, and hardworking. There used to be a time when that was all that mattered for a Soul Man.