It would be hard to find a genre where the mainstream and the underground are more divided than in modern R&B. Initially rugged in its style (even if it was due to the low level of technology available), post-Whitney Houston R&B has become the shiniest of styles, where cleanliness and power singing go hand in hand to the top of the charts. D’Angelo’s Voodoo and its “neo-soul” brethren, though a direct response to that style, failed to create a successful movement that crossed over into the mainstream, and with threats that Bilal’s latest will be shelved because it was leaked – a consideration that illustrates the major labels’ lack of confidence in soulful R&B’s commercial potential – it’s little surprise that Ne-Yo’s debut is set to make a big splash.
Though he’s only twenty-two, Ne-Yo has already made a career for himself as a songwriter for such artists as Mario, Mary J. Blige and Musiq. This first record of his own performances is an odd beast; although it’s firmly in the commercial-R&B camp, it’s got much more energy than those slickly produced records, and at times, the record’s production verges on dirty. “Sign Me Up” has a great clip in its beat, and although it shines like a new quarter, his enthusiasm is infectious, and every now and then he throws a wrench in the expected melody. It’s even more exciting that you don’t know if it’s the singer or the writer making such decisions, because it lends a level of authenticity to the album that is almost non-existent in, say, an Usher record.
It’s something that leaves In My Own Words in an interesting position, one that will be interesting to see how it plays out. The record will likely be huge, but its soulful aspects do not compare to Anthony Hamilton’s Ain’t Nobody Worryin’ (2005), a far less commercial record (at this point). Perhaps the only recent record that has had this kind of potential was John Legend’s debut, and although this is a far more slick – and mixed – affair, it’s set to at least join that record in intention: create great, sexy pop songs, which was basically the intention of the genre in the first place.
The problem with mentioning Legend and Hamilton is that they both made far better records. There are some great singles here, such as the already huge lo-fi “So Sick,” the soon to be hype track “Get Down Like That,” and “Sexy Love,” re: some great percussion. Then there’s “Mirror,” the hilariously awesome track where Ne-Yo tries to convince his lover to “make love in front of the mirror.” But many of the other tracks that work don’t stand up to close scrutiny. Ne-Yo has made a blockbuster, but it’s unlikely that it can save the mainstream. In fact, the only thing this record is bound to do is create a minor spike in the population level, which really should be the quiet ambition of every record in this commercially successful, inarguably timeless genre that’s struggling to find its artistic identity.
Def Jam Web site