"Dedication: to my wife and kids . . . and to Christopher Wallace (The Notorious B.I.G.) for bringing me back."
-- Darius Rucker
According to Darius Rucker, Back to Then, his debut solo disc, was the record he wanted to record before he joined Hootie and the Blowfish in 1986. Hootie et al of course went on to sell 10 million copies of their debut recording Cracked Rear View (1994) with Rucker standing in as one of the most conspicuous lead singers in contemporary pop, courtesy of his brown skin and the white skin of his bandmates. For this Rucker never needed to apologize -- his richly textured baritone, one of the most distinctive voices in mid-1990 American pop. But with Back to Then, Rucker, perhaps, tries too hard to apologize for feeling more comfortable with what was essentially a college bar band (the band met as students at the University of South Carolina) and presumably not "keeping it real" with the folks.
When Rucker thanks Biggie for bringing him back, one is compelled to ask "back from where"? And thus Rucker unconsciously (hopefully) trades in some notion that his recording of an R&B album is a return to some mythical blackness as if his years with Hootie somehow constituted a breach with that blackness (Rucker even breaks bread with a kinder, gentler Snoop). But as James Hannaham writes in his oh so smart piece "The Rise of the Black Nerd" (Village Voice, 8.6.02), this is a different moment and "since both Martha Stewart-brand whiteness and ghetto-fabulous negritude are in remission, the culture is now given mad props to black nerds." Perhaps no one is more deserving of such props than Rucker, whose affecting debut, melds neo-soul impulses with the heart-felt everyman passions that made him a pop star in the first place.
Rucker began working on Back to Then two years ago, after Hootie decided to take a break from recording and touring after the release of their third disc. The project was of course earmarked for Hootie's label Atlantic, who in classic "missing the big picture" style, passed on the project for fear that it would alienate the hard-core Hootie crowd (which apparently in their mind didn't include any black folk.) At the time Rucker had been working with Vidal Davis, Andre Harris and some of the rest of the crew at Touch of Jazz (Jill Scott, Musiq, and MJ's "Butterflies"), eventually doing five of the disc's 13 tracks with them including a duet with Scott. With Atlantic bowing out of the mix, Rucker signed a deal with Scott's label Hidden Beach (led by industry maverick Steve McKeever) to release his solo disc.
The TOJ tracks are easily the most satisfying on Back to Then. The opening track and lead single "Wild One", co-written by City High's Ryan Toby, is backed by simulated horn lines that more recall classic Chicago and Steely Dan, than Earth, Wind and Fire. Rucker's voice, particularly in the chorus, simply simmers on top creating what could be called a "neo-Rhythm and Blues". The sound is more plaintive on "Exodus", which features cameo backing vocals by Musiq. More than anything the track suggest that the Touch of Jazz collective are not themselves rooted into some kind of potted "neo-soul" flow and their work (in this case Carvin Higgin, Keith Peltzer and Darren Henson), with Rucker will earn them more opportunities to work with so-called Pop acts. Jill Scott joins Rucker on the dreamy "Sometimes I Wonder" (according to Rucker he's found his Tammi Terrell). Urged on by Andre Harris's now signature fender, Rucker and Scott sound made for each other playfully singing about how they'll be there for each other "from the rooter to the tooter." The song also features string arrangements by Philly legend Larry Gold. But it's the title track penned by Rucker with Harris, that best celebrates the Rucker/TOJ collaboration. The song's lyrics hark back to the beginning of a relationship that has gone sour. Rucker's voice is insistent as he sings "there was a time/we were so in love / Can we go back to then?". The song's bridge is majestic as Rucker pushes his baritone to it's highest register, as his voice is literary cradled by the layered backing vocals of Vivian Green, Kipper Jones, and Eric Roberson (who was opposite Jilly on the luscious "One Time" from her live disc.)
The rest of the disc's 13 tracks feature a mix of producers including Eddie F (Eddie Ferrell). Rucker is in Hootie territory on the tracks "Butterfly" and "I'm Glad You're Mine" which both feature production by Travis House. The latter is a remake of the Al Green classic, which Rucker recorded as a tribute to his late mother who introduced him to the music of Green, Otis Redding and Gladys Knight (who you can hear in Rucker's vocal colors) as a child in Charleston, South Carolina. Jimmy Cozier, Jr., whose solid solo debut Cozier, should have garnered more attention, contributes the Cheers-theme like "Hold On" ("It won't be too long / You'll find out find out where you belong"). The track incidentally features Woody Harrelson on backing vocals.
Jazz Nixon (Tamia, Boyz II Men, and Montell Jordan) is behind the boards for the tracks "One More Night" and "Somewhere". The former recalls Dru Hill's breakthrough "Tell Me", a slow gospelly march which is accented by Byron Williams on the Hammond-B-3 and a rich horn section anchored by studio veteran Andy Snitzer. This is Rucker getting "churched". "Somewhere" is in fact a "real" gospel song that follows an acappela interlude of "Amazing Grace". Whereas "One More Night" is more gutbucket gospel (a secular prayer to the two-backed creature-holla back Bill), "Somewhere" is ethereal as Rucker passionately sings "there is a God somewhere".
Another clear highlight of Back to Then is the touching "Ten Years". The song is a celebration of love's survival ("Ten years down the line / I never meant to waste your time / So glad you never threw in the towel / On you and me"). Two versions of the song appear on Back to Then. The Eddie F produced version of the song features a pillow-like backbeat that Rucker's vocals flutter across. A likely follow-up single, the track feature vocals by the proverbial back-up vocalist Lil' Mo, who even manages to jettison her usual vocal histrionics. But it's the "hidden" version of the song (tacked on behind "Somewhere"), where Rucker's sings with simply piano accompaniment that is the real treat.
Hootie and the Blowfish are currently finishing work on their fourth disc. Hopefully Back to Then is not a one time deal. The disc will earn Rucker a whole new following among those black (and white) audiences who only thought of him as the black guy in that bar band. More importantly, Back to Then is a needed reminder that good, smart music that tramples on accepted notions of what pop and urban music is supposed to be. For this Darius Rucker should be commended for going back to his "roots" and Hidden Beach should be commended for allowing a place for those "roots" to be expressed.